Omar Zaafrani | Innovator 25 EMEA 2021

Omar Zaafrani

Communications, Brand & Corporate Transformation Consultant


Don’t use a technology, a tool or a practice for the sake of ‘innovation’. Make sure you are delivering value to your business through outputs and outcomes.

As head of group communications for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) for more than five years until he departed in October this year, Omar Zaafrani had a particularly complex brief, but managed to introduce a whole raft of innovations in the way the state-owned company approached communications, with huge impact. Zaafrani elevated the brand value of ADNOC and enhanced its reputation, turning it from just another oil company into a highly-admired global energy player. He built the company’s first communications, brand and CSR team to a 50-strong function, helped to unify the company and its 14 subsidiaries under a single brand and drove its culture transformation program. He also led communications around the public offering of ADNOC's fuel retail business, engaging with and securing buy-in from a diverse range of stakeholders. Under Zaafrani’s custodianship, the ADNOC brand was named the UAE’s most valuable for three consecutive years (2019-2021), secured a brand value of $10.8 billion for 2021, during an incredibly challenging year for the industry, making it the most resilient of all national oil Companies globally. During the pandemic, Omar also led employee engagement campaigns and deployed industry-leading organisational psychology and behavioural science models as part of ADNOC’s employee engagement outreach.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
About the same.

Do you think the global pandemic has made the industry more innovative?

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Content creation.

Who most influences how innovative a brand's engagement is?

How do you define innovation?
Innovation isn't simply about the adoption of technology, but rather the integration of cutting-edge practices and tools to more effectively reach and engage audiences, such as combining behavioural economic and nudge tactics with creative marketing to positively influence behaviour, or a fully virtual AGM coupled with the application of VR and AR in your annual report. At the same time, innovation can be the effective use of powerful storytelling in addressing, educating or raising awareness around delicate social issues. Issues such as diversity and inclusions, body image or cyber bullying – to name a few – that technology has propagated.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
There have been several great communications and marketing initiatives over the last twelve months, especially those related to the pandemic. However, I am a strong believer that the best initiatives, or the most innovative, are those that dare to address social issues. I have to take my hat off to Dove, once again, for their work to boost body positivity. Their initiative, “Reverse Selfie” where they address the impact of social media on self-esteem and how increased screen time, especially during the pandemic, is deepening the issue. In doing so, they’ve been successful in garnering trust from consumers while encouraging a dialogue on an growing issue being driven by today’s technology.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
There are so many great brands out there doing phenomenal work – it’s difficult to pick just one. Whether it is Dove’s body positivity campaigns, the tongue-in-cheek rivalry between McDonalds and Burger King, or Apple’s use of user-generated content for its #ShotOniPhone campaign, I believe brands are becoming better at being more innovative by keeping it simple.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider 'innovative.'
The pandemic the past two years really forced us to think out-of-the-box and to innovate. Whether it was building virtual ecosystems for townhalls and a virtual visitor centre to engage our community, or stitching together videos with user-generated social content during the lockdown, we had to innovate to effectively communicate during the ‘new normal’. Most importantly, however, is how we used behavioural economics in our internal communications to help employees feel safe and secure to encourage the gradual return to the office.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation? 
I have to say, from a marketing point of view, that Ryan Reynolds – yes, the actor – and his agency Maximum Effort have really mastered the art of authentic marketing and micro-marketing – or as he likes to call it, “fast-vertising”. Whether it was the immediate turnaround of ‘Peloton Wife’ for Aviation Gin or the pandemic associated Match ad, they did a great job at leveraging immediate cultural moments to make the message relevant and engaging.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Watch stand-up comedy. If that doesn’t work, I go for a run. And if all else fails, I meditate, disconnect and calm my mind. After I settle, I like to sketch out ideas, let them rest and evaluate them the next morning.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Don’t overdo it. Don’t use a technology, a tool or a practice for the sake of ‘innovation’. Make sure that whatever you are doing, you are delivering value to your business through outputs and outcomes.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
Making movies. From a young age, I’ve always had a passion for film. I wanted to be in the movie business, telling great stories, captivating audiences and evoking emotions.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through this year or provided inspiration?
The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. Although I grew up in several countries and experienced different cultures, this New York Times best seller completely changed my perspective on how to communicate and engage. It’s a must read and an invaluable reference for anyone leading multicultural teams or working across continents. Most importantly, for communications professionals, it offers an important perspective around how to craft messages and engage with audiences from different cultural backgrounds.

What's your favourite time of day and why?
Mornings. They are peaceful and quiet. I’m able to prioritize my day, list my key tasks, and review any ideas while my mind is fresh.