Tarek El Kady is Senior Marketing Director for McDonald’s in the Middle East and Africa and the Jury Chair for this year’s WARC Prize for MENA Strategy. Here he talks to Lucy Aitken about life during and after lockdown and why brands need to stay consumer-centric.

Explain your role and what it involves

In my current role I lead a cross-functional team that is collectively responsible for providing strategic marketing consultancy to the local marketing teams in 17 markets with more than 1,500 restaurants.

What particular challenges are facing you as a marketer now in addition to your normal remit?

Our lives have changed considerably in this current climate of self-isolation and lockdowns. Everyone is struggling to adjust to the “new norm”. The world is entering a new phase where we are only certain of one thing: the post-COVID world will not be the same and there will be long-lasting implications.

As marketers, we are trying to crack what the “next normal” will bring, what trends will shape the business environment going forward and how the new realities and anxieties of life under COVID will affect the businesses and communities in which we operate.

Over the past few weeks, articles and reports have been published around this topic, with many scholars, scientists and consultancies trying to analyse the crisis using existing mindsets and frameworks. Yet making sense of the future is difficult because no one has ever experienced anything like this before.

To come out of this at our absolute best, we need to have open conversations, learn from each other and plan for the long term, while also considering how we might need to adapt to a new reality in the short-term. Brands might need to readjust their strategies, their business models and build different scenarios to address the future. Agility, flexibility and adaptability are going to be critical to success.

Much of the Middle East and North Africa is currently under lockdown, like the rest of the world. Tell us about the mood that you’ve noticed in different countries across the region. How are people responding to a new way of life?

Two things stand out: collective efforts and contribution.

During this crisis people have rallied to support everyone and anyone. People are sincerely offering themselves up to help their local communities, embracing change and adapting quickly. It shows the power of humanity and how collectively we can contribute in a meaningful way when we all work together.

What changes do you think we will notice in the region after lockdown?

Once companies truly come to terms with the “next norm”, they might need to redefine their brand roles and refine their products and service. Companies will need to harness the power of technology and digital, and innovate how they use these tools to not only drive business but also to remain relevant and fully deliver on consumers’ new habits and behaviour for them to succeed in the future.

COVID has just accelerated the change that had started before. At this moment, it is hard to predict the future, but we live in real-time marketing. Tomorrow is another reality, which we will uncover as we move. Marketeers need to understand that this is the “new norm”.

How is strategy changing in the region? Is there a growing understanding of how strategy can transform businesses?

Every organisation is dealing with enormous change. Entire industries are being overhauled as we continue to grapple with this situation.

In a time of sudden change or disruption, the certainty of a clear purpose and guiding strategic framework will help keep organisations focus on what matters most and help them to outline a clear path to realising their business goals.

The growing digital transformation is fast redrawing the boundaries of markets and reshaping the sources of customer value. This demands taking blended approaches, not just to technology, but also to organisational structures and processes where flexibility and agility are key for success.

A lot of our companies and brands have started the journey adapting to the “new norm”, rebalancing their priorities and strategic thinking. This evolution is a never-ending process, and now it is happening at a faster pace.

What are you hoping to see from this year’s papers?

I’m looking forward to seeing work that encapsulates and embraces the change the industry is witnessing.

Marketers need to start harnessing their skills and elevating the level of effectiveness and efficiency in the work they are developing, to deliver against their business goals – this is what we need to be seeing in the papers this year.

What advice would you give anyone considering entering the MENA Strategy Prize this year?

In a fast-paced landscape, where change is the “new norm”, creativity alone doesn’t cut it! We live in the age of data consciousness whereby effective marketing strategies and brand-building are powered by data. Today, brands must harness the power of data without losing sight of consumer-centricity, because ultimately authenticity and humanity is what will enable brands to connect with consumers in a more meaningful way to achieve business goals. 

Click here to enter this year’s WARC Prize for MENA Strategy. Entry is free and there’s a prize fund for winning work.