Digital industry needs to ‘press the restart button’ and go back to basics, says Mondelez’s Ahmed Emad

While attending the Digital Media Forum in Cairo, one of the Middle East’s signature digital conferences with an audience of a few hundred, Amy Kean, Mindshare’s strategy and insights lead, APAC, spoke to fellow speaker, Ahmed Emad, Mondelez’s regional manager of digital in the Middle East.

Ahmed Emad

The digital industry is at risk of becoming over-hyped, over-complicated and too dependent on awards, according to Mondelez’s regional manager of media, consumer engagement and agency relations in the Middle East, Ahmed Emad.

Emad, who works across all Mondelez brands including Oreo, Ritz and Trident gum, believes that instead of chasing technology, brands need to concentrate on what consumers love without over-complicating the experience, even if that experience is just a catchy jingle. In fact, according to Emad, the age-old musical advertising technique has “worked wonders” in the region while flash-in-the-pan digital novelties may come and go.

“As a digital person and an advertising manager I’d be happy developing all the technologies in the world from a CV perspective, or to win awards,” he said. “But then again you’re not going to win any awards if only three people saw it because the technology is too damn complicated.”

Emad has worked all sides: creative agency, media agency and now as a client, and has seen fads such as QR codes pass him by with little fuss. In just four years at Mondelez his department has taken digital spend from 0.5% to 25%. When we sat down to chat about his take on today’s digital industry his passion was obvious, but so too was his belief that marketers can get carried away with themselves. He argues that technology in marketing has been over-stylised and is often “too flashy’ for the audience on the receiving end. And the area of the industry that’s seen this the most is, of course, mobile.

“In a country [like Egypt] where smartphone penetration is 20% it’s not wise to build a mobile app that only 5000 people will use. Tailor your mobile communications to a feature phone. There can be a million and one technologies used in the back-end, but on the front end you might just need to deliver a phone call with an interactive menu.” Indeed, this is also true of many other markets outside America and Europe who may boast up to 150% penetration of mobile connections, but most are SIM cards on digitally enabled – but not smart – phones.

While attending the event, I talked on stage about how brands can do ‘agility’ properly (hint: stop thinking about ‘agility’ in such broad terms) and Emad hit the audience with a reality stick, urging his contemporaries to overcome the analysis paralysis involved in collecting too much data without a purpose: “There’s a trillion and one pieces of data you can collect from different sources but if you don’t know what you want to do it can cripple you.” Emad instead promotes a more pragmatic and realistic approach to data, collecting only what they need “rather than sitting there in a room with 15 screens showing different sets of data and you don’t even know what to do with it.”

What is the answer to an overhyped industry? Simple entertainment. In APAC this year, Oreo collaborated with three popular bands across Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia to produce their own single ‘Sing with Oreo’ that now has over 6.5 million views on YouTube and was available to download – at a cost. An optimist might hope that this a return to the glory days of advertising when brands like Pepsi would create a full-length track with an international superstar and air the music video on prime-time TV. Advertising as an event; a quality memorable piece of content that tens of millions of people want to see and share.

“The industry needs to press the restart button and go back to the basics of what the audience feels… The whole next generation is nurtured on seeing only what they want to see. Anything else is considered pollution.” According to Mondelez, the audience asked for a catchy tune, and that’s what they’ll get.

Is this kind of content monetisation the future for the FMCG giant, and will they be replicating its success in the MENA region?

“Definitely” says Ahmed. “Content monetisation is on the table for all our regions. We’re a well-knit media community. Whatever discussions are happening are happening across all the markets at the same time.” In fact, Emad sees the trend firmly in the company’s very near future. “I’m shooting a song next Saturday for one of our brands,” he adds. “Which we know [through data] is what the people want to hear."

So what would move the industry forward, and rather than obsess over iBeacons and apps, what conversations should we be having instead? For Ahmed, it’s a slightly less sexy subject: “Audience measurement. With TV for example the researchers call up people every morning and ask them what they watched last night – it’s still very 90s, and we haven’t grown out of it yet. Once we crack this there’ll be so many things we can achieve.”

And innovation in insights shouldn’t stop there. A curious marketer, there’s still a lot more he’d like to know, outside of the advertising bubble we live in. “Do consumers think of our brands as much as we think they do?” he laughs. “We spend too much time assuming we’re the first thing people think of when they wake up in the morning. So where do I rank in terms of the million things they think about every day?” Yet despite the growing sophistication of neuroscience he concedes that we may not be there just yet, and such personal knowledge would probably “make the industry even more aggressive.”

In an industry that often takes it too seriously, Emad’s take on the role of brands and the responsilities of agencies is refreshing, and comes at the right time. If FMCG marketers like this represent the future of advertising, then we’re in very safe hands – and it’s likely to have a pretty catchy soundtrack, too.

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