MENA marketing leaders share their 2016 digital marketing priorities

November 2015

The audience for digital in the Middle East and North Africa is growing at a tremendous speed, and the region’s top companies are responding by developing, dissecting, and continually evolving their digital marketing strategies. The three priorities identified by MENA CMOs for 2016 at the CMO Academy hosted by Google and INSEAD in Abu Dhabi were to improve on audience targeting, prioritize mobile, and double down on video.

The audience for digital in the Middle East and North Africa is growing at a formidable pace, and the region’s top companies are responding by continually iterating their digital strategies through evaluating, modifying, and testing new variants. At the CMO Academy, held in October 2015 at INSEAD’s Abu Dhabi campus, top marketing executives from the Middle East, North Africa, and other regional markets gathered to share experiences and discuss digital strategy. The course took participants through a structured framework of articulating the objectives behind digital strategy, auditing the company’s position, looking into digital models for profit, and developing strategic options.

Marketing leaders invited to the event from MENA, as well as South Africa, Turkey, Greece, and Russia, agreed that digital marketing is crucially important in appealing to today’s plugged-in audiences. Everyone we spoke to, marketing executives from Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Toyota, Mercedes,, Vodafone, Palmolive, L’Oreal, and others, agreed that digital capabilities are “extremely important” to their organizations, especially as they increasingly explore non-traditional advertising formats that more closely correspond to their audiences’ media consumption habits in MENA. For example, according to Ross McAuley, Jumeirah Group’s VP of Brands, Digital, & Loyalty, Jumeirah has already “taken all our investment out of traditional media-- where our competitors still play-- and put it into digital, rich media, video, and mobile.”

Further, marketing executives predict this exponential growth in the reach of digital marketing campaigns to continue unabated into next year-- and they express concern that their current marketing strategies weren’t doing enough to fully take advantage of the digital opportunity. A decisive majority of executives we spoke to agreed that they will invest significantly more resources in developing digital capabilities in 2016.

But those are the basics. The real question that emerges is: what specific priorities will top MENA marketing departments emphasize in 2016 to make an impact on their increasingly digitally literate audiences?

Improve on audience targeting

MENA consumers rely more on brands’ digital messages than ever before to guide them through a purchase journey. Ninety-one percent of online consumers in the UAE and 88% in KSA1 have taken action after seeing a message (an online ad, video, or website content) from a brand that is relevant to them (whether that’s continuing to research a product or service online, visiting the store in question, telling others about the brand, or making a purchase).

Given the exponential increase of people in MENA using the internet to find, do, buy, and watch what they want, marketers have a better opportunity than ever to reach the right person, at the right time, with the right message-- in what we call the moments that matter.2 MENA’s top CMOs have recognized this opportunity, and many have reported their intention to use digital marketing techniques to launch much more targeted campaigns in 2016.

Several MENA companies have run extremely successful digital campaigns with highly targeted audience segmentation. These include Etihad Airways, whose use of remarketing lists for search ads was a major factor in its dropping its cost per acquisition by 60%.Google’s remarketing service, one of its most popular features, allows brands to target consumers who have previously visited their sites, with ads or offers to continue where they left off in the purchase process. Ooredoo, the Kuwaiti telecom company, was also able to drastically reduce its cost per acquisition (by a whopping 88%)4 through a segmented audience campaign.

MENA marketing executives we spoke to at the CMO Academy seem to have taken these examples to heart. The majority believe that digital tools afford them the opportunity to take their existing customer marketing strategies to the next level. Patrick Fourniol, Toyota’s marketing head for UAE distributor Al-Futtaim, says that the chance to “improve the way we target customers” is the most exciting aspect of the meteoric growth of digital in MENA. The opportunities are endless, he asserts, to a) improve the efficiency in reaching customers, and b) improve the relevance of messages.

Vodafone Egypt’s Brand and Com Director Nihal Zaki is similarly enthusiastic about the opportunity to better target her vast potential audience. “Our plans for the media will definitely change [in 2016],” she says. “We’ll look at digital in a different way; it’s a fantastic tool [for reaching customers].”

Prioritize mobile

"For a brand to be relevant, you have to be relevant on the mobile channel."

- Ross McAuley, Vice President of Brands, Digital, & Loyalty, Jumeirah Group

Data shows that effectively targeting customers’ moments that matter leads to action, especially on mobile devices. Eighty percent of smartphone users in the UAE will take action right away when their interests or passions are sparked. Also in the UAE, 75% of consumers conducting research on their smartphones have considered purchasing brands they would not normally consider because of relevant information available on their smartphone in the moment.5 Mobile also plays an important role in consumers’ research before a purchase: 84% of people under the age of 25 in Saudi Arabia researched a recent purchase using a smartphone.6

Smartphone adoption was a key talking point at the CMO Academy, and e-commerce players were the first to highlight the impact on their business. Sonia Kalfon Lekhal, regional marketing director for, describes smartphone adoption among her audience as “ubiquitous,” as it is for many of the organizations represented at the CMO Academy. For her, the most exciting aspect of the growth of digital is the fact that many new smartphone customers are “leapfrogging directly to the smartphone without even going through the desktop first. This is completely changing the way people consume online services.”

In 2016, Souq will put its mobile customers “first and foremost,” she says. “We see our mobile apps marketing as a way to acquire new buyers,” which she says differentiates Souq from e-commerce companies in the West.

McAuley describes the emergence of mobile as a “real paradigm shift,” something that “doesn’t happen very often. There are some amazing stats coming from the regional mobile ecosystem, [for instance that] generally people look at their mobile phone 150 times per day…. Therefore for a brand to be relevant, you have to be relevant on that channel.”

Double down on video

"Our plan for 2016 is to further massively increase our investment in video."

- Patrick Fourniol, Head of Marketing, Toyota

The explosion of smartphones in the region has also contributed to another massive increase: the popularity of online video. In the UAE, 75% of internet users watch online videos once a week or more on a smartphone7; in KSA the figure is slightly higher, at 77%.8 Further, 83% of under 35s in the UAE agree that they can find a YouTube video on anything they want to learn.9

A huge 88% year-on-year increase in MENA’s watch time on YouTube bears testament to how increasingly engaged viewers have become with this channel. Jumeirah Group’s McAuley proudly reports his organization as having foreseen the trend: “two years ago we invested heavily in producing high quality rich media content” after seeing a Google statistic stating that 63% of premium travelers reference video in their purchase decision making process. “We shifted our budgets to rich media content and distribution on YouTube, and we became the most viewed hotel brand on YouTube.”

Patrick Fourniol of Toyota says that his company’s plan for 2016 is to double down on 2015’s video spend, “further massively increasing [our] investment in video.” Toyota have already shown significant investment in online video, with close to 100 videos currently on the brand’s UAE channel, with more than a quarter being uploaded in 2015 alone.10

MENA CMOs in attendance at the CMO Academy strongly believe in the importance of digital for 2016. However, a clear majority felt that their company’s capabilities in terms of digital expertise were not at the ideal level. In addition to focusing on the above three priorities, nearly every CMO we spoke to will also place significant emphasis on building digital capabilities within their teams in the coming year.

But zooming out, perhaps a mentality shift is in order as well. Evolving a company’s attention to new advertising formats doesn’t have to imply danger; rather, it can be seen as an opportunity to move ahead of the pack. “I don’t regard [the reduction of traditional media] as a risk,” says McAuley. “I look at it as us trying to be a little faster, a little bit sharper, a little more focused” than our competitors.

An Inside Look at Google's Marketing and Media Strategy