Belong Interactive's Pierre Azzam explains how to help brick-and-mortar retailers drive their digital transformation in a post-pandemic world.
In July, Dubai-based specialist immersive digital agency announced its appointment as The Galleria Al Maryah Island digital account agency. The agency is responsible for driving the mall’s digital transformation program across its strategic digital touchpoints, with its mandate covering the mall’s website, mobile user experience, SEO, and content creation.
Communicate took the discussion a step further with Founder & CEO Pierre Azzam.
How has the pandemic changed the way you prepare and present pitches?
The pandemic took its toll on virtually every aspect of personal and business life; business development, and pitches in particular, were no exception. In fact, for this vital aspect of our operation, new realities demanded that we adapt very quickly - no easy endeavor when, over the nine years of the agency's existence, we had formulated proprietary ways of approaching things. Suddenly, we had to totally transform our methods, adapt to the new reality and adopt completely new ways of conducting our business.
For one, it was no easy task to drive and coordinate the pitch planning remotely, let alone delivering the submission in the same way, and to a “virtual audience.” Adapting to the emerging online meeting tools and adopting them as the exclusive presentation format was challenging at first, especially with planned sequential team interventions during the various segments of the presentation. But you end up catching up relatively quickly!
In retrospect, this new way of working had a dual yet disproportionate impact on the pitch process: increased effectiveness on one hand and restrictive relationship-building on the other.
On the one hand, remote working limitations were quickly compensated by increased levels of self-discipline, rigor, and accountability as inter-dependency among team members increased. This resulted in sharper outputs delivered in a more tight-knit fashion.
On the other, nothing replaces a face-to-face engagement when needing to establish new [connections]. While initial virtual introductions are conducted, no matter how courteous and open they can be, the nature of such encounters, coupled with the fact that, by and large, audio is strangely favored over the video when the latter is the core feature of these meeting tools, engaging over a screen remains a limiting affair!
How have you managed in 2020 and how has everything that happened transformed both the market and the way you operate as a digital agency?
Relatively well, everything considered.
While in a reactive mode at first, trying to grasp and absorb all that was happening around us from lockdowns to curfews and business interruptions, we rapidly progressed to a proactive mode, taking quick measures to reset our business operations, processes, and systems to a new way of working, energizing team collaboration, albeit remotely; and, importantly, staying very close to our clients and extending all the necessary support they required from us.
Being a specialist digital agency that designs, develops, and delivers online customer experiences across integrated digital ecosystems, from websites to mobiles site to mobile apps to e-commerce platforms, with content for such assets, our offering increased further in relevance and actuality, securing service continuity from existing clients and opening multiple new business opportunities.
One vital component of the market transformation, and our service remit as a result, has been the need for speed. Clients needed to find alternative ways to conduct their business, compensating for the “distancing” that was quickly settling in between their brand offering and their core users. And we, as an agency, needed to meet this demand with responsibility, efficacy, and creativity. As a result, agility, effectiveness, and innovation were the core drivers of our operation.
Malls and brick-and-mortar retail have been particularly impacted by the pandemic. In this context, how important is stepping up digital transformation for them?
This is critical. However, as we have been managing large shopping malls and destination operators in the UAE and across the MENA region for nine years, we have engaged with our clients very early, with digital transformation as the strategic play for the medium and long terms. The pandemic further accelerated the journey rather than initiate it.
Such operators strived to enhance their shopping experience offering beyond their physical environments and embarked on a strategic path to build their digital footprint in a manner that empowers shoppers throughout their transformed shopping journeys.
Highly sophisticated digital touchpoints were developed with insight-based user experience strategies, seamlessly integrated to address emerging customer needs and leverage new engagement opportunities. Be it websites, mobile apps, electronic directories, digital kiosks, online and in-app purchase offerings, in-mall store locators and wayfinding solutions, online marketing activations on these platforms, coupled with in-mall digital engagement technologies that empower near-field communication, data capture, and other user-centric activities, the whole purpose was (and still is) to merge “bricks with clicks.”
With this in place, and as the pandemic rendered physical spaces inaccessible [temporarily], all the while shaping new consumer behaviors centered around online shopping, we progressed further with this transformation journey into advanced e-commerce solutions and enrichment of user experience offerings within existing assets.
Today more than ever, the line between online and offline is blurred as digital seeps into everything. What does this mean for you as a digital agency in terms of strategy and how you approach your own business?
Our business philosophy and digital strategies have always been founded on an “outside-in” concept, starting with consumers and reverting back to them with appropriate digital solutions.
One mantra we strongly cherish at Belong Interactive is that “unless it is driven by the business and it is configured to serve that business, digital remains a tech exercise with little value.” And that business starts and ends with the consumer - hence this obsessive focus on customer-centricity.
Not only are demarcation lines blurred between online and offline, but they are further blurred within online platforms themselves. The age of convergence we live in today has people consume information anytime, anywhere, on any device, and in a non-linear perpetual paradigm. They have little patience for interface complexity and content offerings that do not directly fall into their repository of interests. They are therefore easy dropouts of any irrelevant digital engagement with their loyalties to brands at all-time lows.
These new realities demand that businesses be digitally robust, with assets that enable effective customer engagement, built with platforms and content that entice and excite.
For these reasons, Belong Interactive’s strategic solutions always focus on three fundamentals principles:
1) amplify customer-centricity within the business
2) deepen customer engagement with increased precision and measurement
3) generate economies of scale and cost-effectiveness in the employment of the digital assets developed.
Another important reality that needs serious consideration is that today, marketers have to sell in a way customers want to buy. And to be able to satisfy this trend, approaching customers necessitates a new perspective, centered around personalization and customer experience management programs that are digitally configured and delivered. This is a trend the agency is deeply engaged in, next to its e-commerce offering that becomes intertwined with any digital platform being developed.
In the final analysis, personalization is about creating pertinent connections, delivering highly relevant consumer experiences out of these connections, and deriving tangible and sustainable benefits out of these experiences.