Peter DeBenedictis, CMO, Middle East and Africa at Microsoft, will be chairing the panel of the 2021 WARC Prize for MENA Strategy. Here, he talks to WARC about his learnings from the past year, the need for companies to rapidly digitise, and the role of strategy in enabling businesses to thrive.
Describe your role and what it involves.
I look after all of Microsoft’s field marketing and marketing communications covering 79 countries in the Middle East and Africa region, up through to emerging markets such as Turkey and Pakistan.
How has your role been impacted by COVID and lockdowns this past year?
2020 has been a challenging year for the industry as a whole, but it hit B2B marketing particularly hard, as up to 70% of its investment lands in some form of in-person event. Fortunately, we had a good set-up in our organisation, which allowed for the proliferation of digital events. It’s worth bearing in mind that organising these requires a different set of skills than putting on in-person events, though. I believe marketers need to think a lot more like television producers rather than event managers to keep consumers engaged and avoid fatigue around digital events.
How has strategy across the region evolved to respond to the changes brought about by the pandemic?
In terms of consumer engagement, you saw many businesses which had traditionally been brick and mortar switch to online in order to respond and survive. The growth of online retailing enabled online payments to skyrocket across the region, in turn requiring banks to adopt new processes. Within this ripple effect, the companies and industries that rapidly digitised were the ones that were able to not only recover, but also prosper.
As a technology company, we have been right in the middle of that change, acting as a true enabler for companies to respond, recover and reimagine. Take Teams in the UAE: in the first half of the year, we turned on over a million students onto the platform within three weeks. By the same token, we saw companies who were previously resistant to smart working, suddenly asking for up to 50,000 users to be switched on in Teams. Being able to empower students and employees has been really rewarding.
Do you think that, whenever possible, brands will strive towards more of an integration between physical and digital?
The last year has shown that digital engagement works: you can get more scale and reach more customers than with in-person events. I believe the in-person experience will come back to a certain extent, but we will see far more hybrid types of marketing, where you have in-person and digital coexisting in the same space. Similarly, I don’t think most companies, where they are able to, will ever go back to 100% in-office working.
Products such as Teams have been at the forefront in 2020, essential in enabling people to work and study from home. What lessons can you share on how to better serve consumers in this space?
The first lesson we learnt was around training customers fast and at scale, creating the right content that would make them comfortable using Teams to replace their work environment. We had to do a lot of education – digital events, user guides – which needed to be tailored to the pandemic and the situation. It took a tremendous amount of hard work and effort, but we were able to do it in a nimble and agile way, and marketing played a huge role in it.
The second thing that we learned is how to add capacity to our data centres. The massive surge in users required a superhuman effort by our engineers to add the capacity needed and, in a sense, keep the world moving on Teams. Last month, we saw 2.7bn meeting minutes in a single day on Teams – that’s just mind-blowing.
The third thing we took away is to not underestimate the power of technology to bring and keep people and communities together. During this pandemic, technology has truly been a force for good, a massive enabler for society as a whole.
If you could name one priority for businesses at this time, what would it be?
First, businesses need to figure out which stage they are at in dealing with the pandemic – responding, recovering or reimagining. Then, the key priority for any company is to digitise: the need to digitally transform to survive now is the new normal.
Whether you are a small, medium or large business, it is imperative to figure out the digital transformation journey that the company needs to go on. Start small, but start now, or you risk becoming obsolete – because if you’re not doing it, your competitors definitely are. Accelerate as fast as you can, so that when the economy and the world hopefully start to recover in 2021, you will be as well positioned to take advantage of it as your competitors.
What is your one takeaway from this unprecedented year?
No matter how much we digitise, we still need human contact. As much as technology is an enabler, a way to accelerate business transformation and improve productivity, there is nothing like meeting people face-to-face. When thinking about strategy and how their business is going to evolve moving forward, marketers shouldn’t lose sight of the human element.
What are you hoping to see from this year’s papers?
As companies have been faced with an unprecedented challenge, I am hopeful we will see interesting innovations and applications of strategy that combine data and insight to help their customers navigate uncertainty. We have already experienced some such work as consumers, watching companies transform very quickly thanks to strong strategic thinking.
Marketers’ decisions can determine a company’s fortunes, so I am excited to see outstanding work showing how marketing helped inform strategies that have enabled businesses to not only respond and recover, but also thrive and grow.
What advice would you give anyone considering entering the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy?
Over the years, the best types of submissions I’ve seen are the ones that combine strong customer data and insight to get to their strategy. It’s also essential to demonstrate the effectiveness of the strategy: too often that last mile is left out. The best entries are not just great ideas and clever campaigns, but ones that thread the needle between all these different elements.