Reality Check: Are Gulf marketers ready for Digital Darwinism?

By David Parkinson, ex-head of Digital for Africa, Middle East and India for Nissan, and co-founder of Brave & Heart

Some of us remember the old days. The days before email and PowerPoint. You spent the first hour of the day reading memos and physical, in-the-post type mail, then it was meetings, with a notepad and pen, sometimes an OHP (overhead projector) and getting on with the core work of getting things done.

When was this heady time? Approximately 1995. Just a little more than 20 years ago.

At home, you would see an advert on TV, the ones with catchy tunes you would sing at school, and the next time you were at the shops, you would beg your parents to buy the product because it had a free plastic toy inside. That’s about complex as marketing got. TV. Posters. Print.

Showrooming was a word that wasn’t invented, “the web” something resigned to cyberpunk novellas and the IT department moved code around in wooden boxes full of punch cards.

The good old days, the days before digital Darwinism. Let’s back up slightly – digital Darwinism? What is it? Does it matter? Should I care?

The official definition is: “Digital Darwinism is the phenomenon when technology AND society evolve faster than an organisation can adapt.”

How long would it have taken me to find that out in the past? I would have likely had to phone a very knowledgeable friend, or go to a library. It could have taken me quite some time. Maybe half a day, possibly a full day. Today? Just 30 seconds on Wikipedia.

Brave new world

The speed of information retrieval has changed exponentially. As has the way we retrieve it.

Let’s move that ethos and phenomenon to the business world – to the simplest of tasks, such as completing expenses. And what happens? First, you get a form from HR to approve travel. Fill in form.

Get form approved and signed. Go to cash of ce. Get money out. Another form. Travel. Collect paper receipts. Use online system to manually enter all receipts. Maybe. Wait for approval.

It’s a nightmare and a mixture of online, offline and legacy.

Ok – what about shopping? The second most expensive purchase for most people is a car. For the online and social-savvy people (and let’s be honest, that’s a LOT of the GCC region) the car buying work starts online.

Nearly 90 per cent of these people start online and, for this category, showroom visits to browse have reduced six-fold before purchase – from 12 visits to below two. When they arrive in a showroom, they knew more about the car than the salesman.

Adverts leading to videos, leading to web- sites, leading to spec sheets, leading to review sites, leading to forums, leading to a short list that leads you, eventually, to… A PHYSICAL SHOWROOM. Do they know who you are and the work you have done to get there? No. Do they know your favourite colour and specification of the car you want? No.

Have they personalised your experience to ensure the process from online to of ine is streamlined and uses all of this always on instantaneous technology available to them? No. Do they have a fancy screen in their showroom? Yes. Do you care? No.

Repeat this in retail, electronics, fashion, etc. – and it’s no wonder Amazon is doing so well and that experience is coming to GCC soon with the purchase of How will retail fare when this happens? Will the Mall of the Emirates become a ghost town?

The starting point for business

So, what’s going wrong? What can we do to help the GCC do better and how does this link to digital transformation? Is this even a new issue, or an old one renamed?

As more and more business transactions move online and more and more customers become hyper connected, the race to digitally transform is real – if you’re not catering to all your channels, online and offline in the right way, that is the difference between profit and going out of business, sometimes very quickly.

As with any digital ‘problem’, there are three categories to explore – people, process and technology – and while some consultants will tell you it’s mainly one of the three – technology – and sell you A LOT of services to fix this, many that you don’t need, the reality, as always, is in the middle and a combination of all three.

Let’s go through them one by one quickly – starting with the most important – people. You can put as much new tech in place as you like, but if your people have not bought into the change, things will go downhill quickly.

Not only do you need the right people in your organisation, people who are flexible and embrace change, but they also have to be part of your journey. They know the business and your customers as well as you do – sometimes better if they are closer to them.

They have to be fully involved not only in the decision-making process, but also the ongoing ownership of the solution – a solution they help scope and build with you.

There is a saying in the fitness world – you can’t out-train a bad diet. It’s the same for your business process.

Replacing a bad process with a system that enforces a ‘good’ process is as likely to fail as having the wrong people. A system should follow your business process – it needs to be tuned to your needs and your customers.

This doesn’t mean you buy a system and highly customise it – you will end up locked into a series of inflexible business processes when the world changes again. Choose your software carefully and ensure it is as flexible and as agile as your business needs to be.

Finally, always last but never least is technology. Do you think Careem and Uber are taking the local taxi business because they have an app that technologically advanced? No.

They are winning because they have customer-focused solutions that help solve people’s problems – a taxi that comes direct to you anywhere, anytime, that doesn’t need cash. It’s that simple. Have you ever tried getting a taxi from the queue at the mall that takes credit cards? I gave up.

Technology is the enabler – but it’s not the driver. The driver was the customer need.

In order to create a flexible business, you must have technology that helps you solve customer problems when they arise, solutions that help you win business, but are then able to quickly change shape and help solve new problems.

They need to do this without you needing to overturn your whole back-end systems at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Or more. It’s a tricky balance and why your partners in digital transformation must both understand your business but how to build future-proof solutions for you.

5 steps on the road to Digital Darwinism

Ok. While it all sounds very complicated, with the right people, drive and ability to grab the bull by the horns to tackle your problems head on, rather than head-in-the-sand, here are my top 5 tips to avoid “digital Darwinism”.

Stay in the cloud

Where possible, use cloud-based services and systems – loosely coupled systems respond better to change than tightly coupled ones. Use services and systems that, as a strategy, allow themselves to talk to and from ANY other services. I’m not a fan of big, tightly coupled ERP systems – they are the root cause of many digital Darwinism issues today, due to decades-old expensive legacy investments that are hard to untangle. Avoid them where you can.

Stay agile

That’s not a buzzword for your coding team – that’s your whole business. Hire, retain and train people to embrace change where it’s needed and be part of the solution, not the problem. Have a flexible outlook and organisation.

Stay realistic

Don’t expect a new ‘IT system’ to solve your problems. It won’t. Especially if those problems are people and process. Be realistic about what you expect to achieve and in what time.

Stay focused

The old saying is you can’t eat an elephant in one bite. If you have legacy systems and processes, find out which need updating first and focus on them first. Prioritise the 20 per cent that will change your business and help streamlining your customers’ experience. Always remember: the more elephants you have in the room that you try and eat at once, the harder it will be to get anything done.

Stay customer-focused

Put yourselves in the shoes of your customer and adopt a customer-first mindset. Even go out and – gasp – talk to them (yes, focus groups still work). What do they need, what do they expect, how can you achieve it? Then do it. Move heaven and earth to make it happen.

Good luck.


The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Gulf Marketing Review.


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