FARHAN QURESHI, CEO – STARCOM MEDIAVEST

Farhan Qureshi is the name behind Pakistan’s most successful media agency group, STARCOM MEDIAVEST. Having completed his MBA from IBA in 1998, Farhan started his career in Karachi but left for USA after three years to do his Masters in Communication Research from Boston University. After completing his Masters he started a career in the US at a communication research agency, “MaPS USA” (A Millward Brown Company) working with Fortune 500 clients. His return to Pakistan three years later saw him resume his career in the media industry in Pakistan. An excellent communicator, with exceptional inter-personal skills, having energy to cope with any type of situation with the right attitude, possessing mature approach, undaunted, confident, smartly dressed – Farhan Qureshi.

BM: Tell us about professional journey and how did you become a part of Starcom Pakistan?

FQ: I started my professional career with Citibank in 1994 but left banking after two years to continue my studies and complete my MBA. After the MBA, I had actually considered going back into banking but the political and economic climate of Pakistan was negatively affected by the nuclear tests in 1998. At the time, I even considered moving to Canada where my family resided.

Between all that planning, I received a call from Raihan Merchant for a meeting. In my discussion with Raihan, I admired his vision for the future and that is how I became a part of the media agency called MediaCom. Even though I received a call from Citibank a few months later, I did not consider their proposal as I had grown to love my work in media. In 2001, I moved to USA to further my education but returned in 2005 to Pakistan and Mediacom. In 2010, our agency group took a big step and resigned our franchise with MediaCom and sign up with Starcom and Mediavest in Pakistan, a network more closely aligned with our own vision of the future.

BM: What in your opinion is the significance of having a foreign affiliation? Do you think these affiliations bring value to the local talent? How?

FQ: Having an affiliation partner does help and finding the right affiliation partner is critical. In any business, credibility and trust is a fundamental currency for doing business. For a new outfit, an affiliation lends that credibility. The right affiliation partner opens doors for new business, capability development and knowledge sharing.

The connected world necessitates that we move beyond planning media in isolation and think integration across platforms, devices and screens.

BM: Can you tell us a bit about the concept of media buying in Pakistan; have we been able to meet the international standards and criterions?

FQ: Media buying is what the word means: Buying airtime/space on media. However, as an agency we go much further beyond media buying and consider ourselves to be a communication management agency, focusing on the art (insight-based idea generation) and science (complex statistical model development to statistics-based optimization) of communication management. I think Pakistan is still quite far from reaching the international standards. At a fundamental level on TV which is the biggest medium, we still buy airtime while the developed world buys the number of people viewing.

BM: Your company strongly believes in team work and an open door policy, is that the basic reason behind its enormous success?

FQ: That is definitely a big contributor.  We as an agency group have grown almost three times in the last 4 years. This is significant by any measure. I know that there will be some ups and downs in the process of growth but the most important thing is that we have a passionate team and a fantastic culture in our agency. I still love what I do so much that I wait for the weekend to end so that I can come back to work, a sentiment shared by everyone in our team. In fact, there are times that I have to push people to go home.

We as an agency group have grown almost three times in the last 4 years. This is significant by any measure and is due to the quality of people at Starcom and MediaVest.

Our office environment is very open, sometimes we have office meetings at the cafeteria over a smoke and arrive at some really significant decisions. Given the openness, we welcome and deliberate all ideas which really encourages a lot of innovative thinking. At the same time we are very scientific in our analyses (given my own background) and also very structured when it comes to implementing work plans, trainings and managing and exceeding client expectations

BM: What are the elements that set Starcom Pakistan apart from others?
FQ: In the service industry, differentiation is a function of resources. I am proud to say that we have the smartest team I have ever seen in my local and international experience. Our lead team comprises of people from top universities who have worked locally as well as internationally. We have had this for the last 8 years and over time we have improved it and adapted to meet our evolving needs. I know that people who have worked here are some of the most sought after in this industry. A testament to this fact is that we as an agency have exported the highest amount of talent to multi-national companies in Pakistan and all over the world because of this focus on people.

We also invest significantly in research and tools. We were the first agency to initiate a readership study and we still conduct a research on media consumption every two years. We have access to international tools and we are the only agency that employs software developers to create customized tools that fit our market’s unique needs. Our growth is testament to not only this technical proficiency where clients recognize our capabilities as well.

BM: Coke Studio has been one of your most successful ventures. How does it feel to be an integral part of it and what would you say are the major reasons behind this massive success?

FQ: This is a great example of what I was just talking about. Music is one of the strongest passion points in our country and Coke Studio is an output of a fundamental insight to develop an idea which stands apart in the area of music. Coke Studio is the biggest brand-led content in Pakistan and is a great example of the art and science that goes in to developing and amplifying a communication idea.  I am extremely proud to have been a part of this project and the team since the time of its conception. Everybody on the team challenges themselves every season to deliver more than the preceding season – each Coke Studio season marks the largest content execution and promotion in the country. The ingredients of success in my mind are the simplicity, focus, passion and consistency of this project. Another major factor for Coke Studio’s longevity and success is the leadership at Coca Cola who are unafraid to challenge norms, push boundaries and continuously strive for improvement.

We as an agency have exported the highest amount of talent to multi-national companies in Pakistan and all over the world because of our investment in people.

BM: What major regional developments do you foresee bound to impact the advertising scenario in general?

FQ: The growth and development of digital will change the way we advertise. From one-way media, which all of us have had decades of experience with, to a world where audiences decide what they want to do. If we are unable to engage them, we have lost the game. It is an arena where everyone’s view counts and is heard by other consumers.

BM: Digital has brought about a massive change in Pakistan. How do you think it will affect the future advertisements in Pakistan?

FQ: The digital evolution is already changing the world around us. The cellphone is an extremely powerful convergence tool.  Internet penetration is increasing at an extremely high pace with more than 60 percent of internet traffic coming from mobile devices. Ecommerce is one of the biggest phenomena worldwide and it will change the way we buy everything. The only constraint it will face in Pakistan will be of credibility and security of transactions for customers – that is also being addressed through safe channels like EasyPaisa.  There are rumors about Youtube being launched in Pakistan after being blocked for over three years. Once this happens it will quite dramatically change the way we consume media, especially video content off television.

Moreover, digital growth fundamentally changes how we plan for so-called traditional media. The connected world necessitates that we move beyond planning media in isolation and think integration across platforms, devices and screens – how we engage with people watching dramas on TV or their smartphone, for example. Other markets in the region are 3-5 years ahead of Pakistan on this same path so we have much to learn from them. Again, affiliation with a network which believes strongly in knowledge sharing gives us an advantage.

We are the only agency in Pakistan to have a Management Trainee program which includes a series of classroom styled training sessions to help speed  up the process of learning for our new recruits as well as our clients.

BM: We hear that you have invested a lot in your digital department. Is it growing the way you are expecting it to grow?

FQ: Absolutely! Even before we offered our digital services to our clients we invested behind training our talent by exposing them to different markets given there was nothing available in Pakistan back then. Once ready, we started approaching our clients for their digital business and this has been the fastest growing unit in the organization over the last 3 years.

We continue to build capability and are the leading agency in Pakistan with the highest number of Google Certified people – out of all the people in Pakistan who are Google Certified, 60% work in Starcom Mediavest. This capability development isn’t limited to digital specialists alone. Our Planning and Buying personnel are Future Ready and geared for the up-coming digital integration challenges.

We also leverage international tools alongside a number of locally developed ones to simplify the day-to-day work so that our resources have more time to think, plan and analyze. We have regular sessions with other countries to have a peek into what is happening in other parts of the world.