Blog Interviews LifeStory World

It’s All About The Brand

Firdouz Hameed

Ali Zafar is the Managing Director of four successful companies, that can’t be referred to as startups anymore. Through the years, his company has worked with some of the most powerful brands in the world. To date, their group of diversified companies has touched more than ten million consumers around the globe, making them the trusted partner for growth for MNCs.

Tell us a bit about your upbringing, family, and education. What led you to the initiation of several startups?

I have had a very eventful childhood and teenage. My father worked for the government. He was a very honest and hardworking man. Naturally, he was transferred a lot. I have lived for short periods in almost every big city in Pakistan, some villages, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. From Grade 1 to 10, I changed nine schools in different cities and villages. For a year or so I even got homeschooling.

Both my parents are people of extremely high integrity and principles. I saw that instead of being concerned, they would face all this with dignity. I would see my father fight against the system from within, by choice, every day, when he always had the choice to take the easy road.

I was always good at studies. Despite all the different schools, I was always first in class. I remember once my mom got angry because I came in second. I was fortunate to be the first in my family to go to Government College Lahore and then IBA Karachi, the most prestigious college and university in Pakistan where Allama Iqbal (poet) and other great people had studied.

This family culture my parents instilled was the reason that at 19 years old, when my family went through a major crisis I ended up working three jobs and studying in the nights. That went on for years, but we came out on the other side eventually.

Once I got a proper job, I was very fortunate to have worked for some remarkable people. My first proper job was in a startup agency, called Contact Plus, which became Pakistan’s largest agency under five years. My second job was to start an agency for the world’s largest agency network DDB, also a startup of sorts, but in a completely different way. All these companies were full of remarkable people who I learned a lot from. It gave me the confidence that I can make it on my own if I have the right kind of people around me.

When I think about my childhood and teenage, I think my parents’ values of high integrity, no excuses and facing challenges with a smile, have been the biggest factors in making me a natural ‘trouble maker’ if I may use that phrase.

As you create brand experiences, some of your most successful campaigns have been the ones you provided personalized experiences. Is that something you focused on because that’s how the Saudi market is, or it is generally the most effective way of marketing? 

Historically, the most effective way of marketing, hands down, is one-to-one human interaction. Life Insurance, makeup, milk, newspaper, and even Coca Cola used to be sold that way.

Nothing can replace human interaction. Even today, the most premium & luxurious products are sold the same way whether they are luxury cars, watches or perfumes.

However, a few major changes have steered the course of marketing history. First is Branding- the last half-century has seen consumer brands occupying similar space in consumer minds and hearts. This, by the way, is the most precious real estate in the world. Who would have thought 50 years ago that hair, floor, and hand cleaning products will drive the kind of imagery that they do today? But this brand equity is not easy to create or maintain. When consumers hold you in high esteem, even apparently small violations to their trust bear the huge cost. Second is the experience- a universal evolution that can be observed in pretty much all consumer-facing businesses is the realization that THE EXPERIENCE around the product is equally important as the product itself. Buying clothes, watching a movie, eating out, having coffee, hardly anything is about over the counter ‘take-this-pay-that’ transactions anymore.

You expect a pleasant experience; in fact, consumers feel it be an unwritten contract that if they show a willingness to buy from you, you are bound to take care of ‘how they FEEL.’

Even with ordinary daily usage products, consumers expect more and more experiential elements to be included in the product usage journey. Who would have thought that ‘unboxing’ would be a genre of YouTube videos? The third is technology – on one hand – technology has enabled consumers to be more aware and vocal. On the other hand, it has enabled the business to be more widely available, better informed and deliver individual experiences virtually and on the ground. Put all of this together and the ultimate truth that comes out is that hardly any brand can expect to drive loyalty without having a strong, sensory experience associated with it.

One of your latest ventures is Intellisight, a company that provides AI solutions for business growth. I think this pandemic has shown that there is a need for any industry to protect its critical infrastructure. It seems robotics and AI security is the way to go forward. Even globally, the reliance on such technologies is expected to increase immensely. Have the industries in Saudi realized this? How aware are these companies on the importance of using AI for business growth? 

In my experience, almost all big organizations are aware that digital is the future, especially AI. Small and medium organizations or those with orthodox thinking are probably not realizing how close the AI revolution is. Fortunately, the Saudi government seems to be on top of this trend and is focusing on encouraging AI. In the context of COVID-19, though it seems to have paused the global economy, I think it will speed up digital and AI adoption.

I say that because the tech is ready, in fact, it has been ready for a while to help businesses do better. It is us, the people running the businesses who have not been ready. Now that we all feel cornered, we will jump to new opportunities.

I don’t know how many companies can claim nine world records. Your company has achieved it handsomely. Can you explain what those were and what was the thought process behind each? 

This is actually a simple question to answer. In the communication business, you have to create what we call, STOPPING POWER. Consumers and shoppers will give you a few seconds and if you cannot interest them within that, they will move on.

I think it was David Ogilvy who said, “Unless your campaign is built on a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the dark.” So we always try to do something out of the box. That leads us, more often than not, in uncharted territories pitching crazy ideas.

We have been fortunate enough to be blessed with clients who feel confident that we can actually pull it off. Another key factor is creating a team that has courage. The companies I was professionally brought up in inculcated a strong sense of fearlessness. So when it came to building my own team, I did the same. I have been very lucky to have some brave youngsters. I just need to inspire them. They go ahead pitch these unexpected ideas and then work hard to deliver them.

The last five years have been incredible for Saudi Arabia. The country hosted several global events that changed people’s perspective of the country globally. I’m sure this new approach is something an entrepreneur like you must be excited about. How all can this newly gained global attention help your business to grow, and also other entrepreneurs in the Kingdom? 

Entrepreneurship has always been in Saudi DNA. It is an economy built on local businesses for decades. This openness in society and the economy is amazing for those looking for new opportunities. Saudi Arabia is a very young population who is also affluent. Additionally,the new generation is much more exposed to international education, media, and trends. Soon the Gen Z will be standing next to millennials. This generation is even faster and more global than any generation before them. Personally, I am excited about new opportunities in the technology sector. But I expect a lot of startups to appear and make it big in hospitality, food, fashion, entertainment, and non-religious tourism.

The smartphone penetration in the country is almost 66.6 %. The internet penetration amongst them is also very high. The country boasts of a median age of 29, which is also the wealthiest in the region. Moreover, the government is also pushing for a cashless economy. So this means that Saudi Arabia will soon be the biggest online retail market in the GCC. Market predictions also confirm the same. As someone who is closely observing the market, are the current trends looking like the predictions will turn true? Is there anything different that needs to be done from the present scenario to ensure that Saudi reaches the expected nine billion USD by 2025 in this sector? 

Absolutely. When I see that on one hand, people rapidly adapting to mobile payments, ride-sharing, shared work-spaces and other new trends, and on the other hand I see an amazing tech infrastructure being built in banking, insurance, and commerce governance, I think we will not just see e-commerce continue to grow fast but a lot of innovation coming out of Saudi Arabia in this area.

I believe the majority of your clients are from the FMCG sector. The Kingdom is looking to invest 59 billion USD in the food industry. The youngsters here also have a mature eating habit, showing more likeness to western food products. Has this demand captured the imagination of western FMCG importers and other fast food companies? How open is the market for other foreign brands from this sector? 

In my opinion, it’s very open. Many global brands have enjoyed market leadership for a long time but I see this position becoming harder and harder to maintain.

Modern trade spread has a big hand in this. The barrier to entry is becoming low so it is easier for new brands with good products to enter the market and sit next to market leaders on the shelf.

The key to sustainable market share growth for new brands will be to take a long-term approach and focus on building their brand. I see numerous me-too or opportunistic products appearing and then fizzling out in a few months.

How does someone from abroad, who wants to establish as an entrepreneur working in the tourism sector establish themselves in the country? What should they do to build a concrete business relationship in the country? 

International businesses that wish to come to Saudi Arabia must understand the country well. This is a country with a very rich heritage that is going through rapid modernization. Going through some research studies or speaking with some consultants will not be enough.

This will only get you a surface level understanding.

The best way to move forward is to find a local team that knows what they are doing and have a proven track record of doing it well. I cannot even count how many brands and businesses I have seen who were struggling to grow in Saudi for years, but overnight, switching to a new distributor or agency put them on a path to exponential growth. We have done it ourselves for many businesses over the last half-decade. Simply put, if you want to start and grow your business in Saudi, start looking for some solid people!

I would like to mention a recent amazing personal experience here. When we hire new team members, we have a simple philosophy: “It is ok if we hire someone who is not as good at the job as we expect, but we will only hire people who are extraordinary human beings”.

Due to the COVID-19 scenario, most of my communications business projects were put on hold. Billing went down drastically. I was working with my partners on ways to make sure we can keep most of our team but it seemed impossible to retain everyone.

Before I announced anything, my team came to me with a proposal. They voluntarily offered to forego their entire salary till the end of the year and instead take a profit-sharing partnership in the company. They said, ‘we believe in you and the team. We can make it big if we stick together’. So today, I don’t have employees anymore, I have voluntary partners. It was a truly humbling experience and has further strengthened my faith in people.

No country has prepared for such a virus outbreak. As a man with great vision and insight, how long do you think will it take the world to recover financially? How much has it affected the GCC? 

This is the million-dollar question these days. Some of the smartest minds in the world are trying to answer this very question right now. I can hope that things will open up with social-distancing in place after Ramadan.

Considering the impact, it will be different for different categories.

Food and other necessities are already booming big time. Most of my clients are having difficulty fulfilling supply right now. Health and pharma are also going to be fine I think. However, travel and other similar industries will take a long time, probably till the end of the year to see something resembling normalcy.

One big challenge for SME is going to be cash flow management until the end of the year. By then I expect the payment flow to be somewhere close to normal.

As someone who has been able to take 4 startups to success, what can we expect from you next? 

Right now, I am aiming for technology solutions, AI to be precise. As far as I have been able to understand, there is a huge gap between what tech can do today and how businesses are using it to run better or create value. There are so many amazing possibilities with AI that it blows my mind. But I am always on the lookout for something new and exciting, so don’t be surprised to see something completely different!

One of the latest initiatives I am part of is the Super Hero Project (https://www.superheroesproject.com/). We can see how much the small businesses and entrepreneurs are being hit by the current COVID-19 pandemic. With this project, our community of superheroes will help them rebuild both personally and professionally.

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