Waqas Qureshi talks to the founders of Alliance Advertising & Marketing about their successful journey from broadcast media staff to owners of the premium Pakistani media buying agency
Almost a decade ago there was no such thing as media buying agencies for Pakistani TV channels – advertising was an ado affair conducted with little strategy or vision. That all changed when Sajjad Shawl and Faheem Farooqui saw that niche in the market and banked on South Asian free-to-air channels eventually becoming the norm in the UK. In 2008 Pakistani TV channels operating in the UK were reluctant to spend too much money on marketing and advertising campaigns – thus never really unlocked the potential of the huge diaspora community in the country.
With little more available channels than GEO and ARY News and very few clients to serve at the time, advertising was handled directly by ageing or ineffective internal sales teams. Indian-focused advertising and buying agencies had established relationships with Indian TV channels broadcasting in the UK, so were steps ahead of their Pakistani counterparts; Sajjad Shawl and Faheem Farooqui were well aware of this slot in the UK’s South Asian broadcasting landscape.
A stocky advertising executive who had done the rounds in various positions at both GEO Network and ARY, Shawl is of Kashmiri descent and an energetic sales man that understood the Pakistani broadcasting executive mind-set. Farooqui on the other hand, was a born and bred Karachi-ite who had arrived in the UK in his mid-20’s and had put in years of shifts in design and production at GEO and The Jang Group, understanding how Pakistani media worked day to day.
Alliance saw a niche for more businesses to advertise and market their products on Pakistani TV channels. “Both me and Fahim had the idea of setting up a media buying agency to manage accounts for Pakistani channels in the UK. We saw the opportunity – there were initially only three Pakistani channels operating in the UK,” said Shawl. “We went to new businesses and
“Alliance saw a niche for more businesses to advertise and market their products on Pakistani TV channels”
convinced them to advertise to grow their business. It was almost totally new clients.” Syed Shaukat Ali, from the NGO UK Islamic mission, encouraged them to start the buying agency and was their first client. That was Ramadhan 2007, and featured just a £3,000 budget.
With very little capital, no offices, and no laptops, Farooqui and Shawl were worlds away from where they are now. “Our first office was a car park! We had no office, just a notebook,
pen and calculator. We would always invite clients for meals instead of meeting at the office!” quipped Farooqui. SME’s did not have big budgets, so the pair had to work with
very tight margins. Farooqui, with his production background, offered to help produce
adverts – which he did mostly from his living room. “With Pakistani SME’s we changed habits – instead of the owners’ face plastered over adverts, we focussed on the message of the advert and the business.”
Every channel was a hurdle initially – Alliance had to arrange payment for everything in advance even if the client did not pay in advance. “We even had to borrow money from friends – that was the biggest hurdle. People used to think we were some kind of wheeler dealers and did not take us too seriously,” says Farooqui.
After two years of struggle Alliance began to sign up more NGOs and had better budgets to work with. Shawl explains: “Our strongest base is the SME market – we have introduced more than 100 clients that were never advertising on TV before.” ARY’s late Afaq Abbasi supported Alliance as he appreciated the value of a media buying agency focusing its energies on marketing channels to a wealth of potential clients with the UK’s Pakistani
He convinced management to offer Alliance reasonable rates – for which the two founders say they are always grateful for.They slowly began to build their client base – companies varied; NGOs, accident claim specialists, restaurants, food companies,
money transfers, travel agencies etc. Shawl fondly appreciates the help from GEO Network UK, which also supported them when others would not give Alliance any credit.
“We convinced so many other NGOs to create campaigns”, says Farooqui. “They used to come to us during Ramadan and we convinced them to come all year to brand their campaigns.” In 2011 Alliance picked up the entire inventory for Ramadan of GEO Network UK– generating more than £300,000 sales that year. The Alliance game changer came in 2012 – when Shawl and Farooqui convinced SAMAA TV to launch in the UK and Europe –
Alliance saw the free-to-air potential in the market in the UK. Shawl insisted they initially did not see the potential in the market. He packed his bags and left immediately for Dubai to visit SAMAA TV HQ, and signed an MOU on the same day.
“SAMAA TV was launched in the UK two months later – that’s when the market started taking us seriously,” says Farooqui. They signed exclusive media buying rights with the channel. After 2012 – exclusive contracts were signed with Islamic relief (which is still the case today), as well as signing up as the sole ethnic media buying house for the UK Islamic Mission and Muslim Aid – the 3 biggest Islamic NGOs.
“Having the channel SAMAA with us helped us in the market,” said Shawl.
Farooqui explains: “We saw the gap in the market; with news channels ARY was the only free-to-air channel – there was not a single other free-to-air channel. We went to Dunya and HUM to launch the free-to-air model but could not convince them. Tahir Khan, the owner of Family Channel who agreed to launch SAMAA TV on his platform.”
It was still early for Indian channels to take Alliance too seriously in 2012. In 2014 Colors went free-to-air, which, together with Star, and Sony Network, started to support Alliance and helped them work with Indian channels and introduce clients. “Naveen Kunal from Star TV helped us a lot to break into Indian channels. That was the beginning of a new chapter with new hurdles and potential,” said Farooqui. The initial problem working with Indian channels was that Pakistani clients thought it was very expensive to advertise on Indian channels.
“Pakistani companies were always looking for cheap deals, and it was hard to convince them since not many channels were BARB measured,” said Shawl. In March 2014 Alliance picked up the communications giant Lebara contract. “They approached us and released their first Pakistani focused campaign – that’s when Indian channels took us seriously as it was big news that Alliance won the contract,” said Farooqui.
“The Alliance game changer came in 2012 – when Shawl and Farooqi
convinced SAMAA TV to launch in the UK and Europe”
In 2013 Alliance launched its Pakistan office in Karachi, and started recruiting more staff. The company registered a remarkable growth rate of 400% in 2014. A key contract that year was Western Union; Alliance was signed up for the total ethnic marketing for TV, radio and outdoor for all Asian channels – Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi. In late 2014 the team started talking to Dunya TV again. “We restarted talks – the market in the UK had changed and we were still trying to convince them to launch – the channel was wellestablished in Pakistan,” explains Farooqui. “As with many things, it took time. But finally in April 2015 they launched in the UK and Europe. From the very beginning it was very successful and Dunya started competing with other Pakistani news channels.”
By mid-2014 Alliance was full on in business capacity – handling NGO events such as The Oval charity event which attracted 500 people. In late 2015 Alliance signed up with the inaugural Pakistan Super League (PSL) T20 cricket tournament.
Farooqui said: “We would like to thank Ahsan Idrees and Mr Asif from Blitz advertising agency who had the rights for PSL – they appointed us for international marketing and promotion.”
In 2016 Alliance organized the Pakistan Property Expo at the Excel, with almost 7,000 visitors. The firm also won another major contract last year – the Pakistan Airforce Housing Society – a big contract for overseas Pakistanis.
By now Alliance was the preferred agency for all Pakistani channels- and was doing well with Indian channels. “And we are the only agency spending maximum on Bengali TV – six figures,” said Farooqui. In 2015 Alliance USA was launched in New York to handle the US
market. Asad took charge and was selling Dunya TV there. In 2016 they signed HUM Europe – another coup for the growing agency.
“Today we have a stronger relation with HUM than their previous agency ever had, and we have many more plans with them,” said Shawl. In Pakistan the staff numbers rose from 4 to 22 in just 4 years and overall the company has 50 people in 3 offices around the world.
“Our vision has always been that we work for the industry – we know
if we expand the industry we will grow ourselves”
Shawl said that currently the SME market has grown but there are so many channels fighting for the same small clients, which results in numerous channels slashing their rates to survive in the market – which he says is not good for the industry. “I believe this is the time to consolidate the market. The market can still be expanded – there are lots of clients that are still not tapped – an untapped pie – especially in the north of the UK.”
As far as channel ratings go, Farooqui said the Top 10 Barb-rated channels are balanced between Indian and Pakistani broadcasters.
“Leaving Star aside which is far ahead, the race between second and tenth is wide open.”
“The only difference between Indian and Pakistani channels is Indian broadcasters spend lots of money on content-promotion and marketing. They believe in branding their channels and reaching audiences.”
“Our strongest base is the SME market – we have introduced more
than 100 clients that were never advertising on TV before”
Without doubt Alliance is now an elite media buying house, one of the biggest ethnic media sales house for the south Asian market in the UK, especially for SMEs. Currently the concentration is Ramadan campaigns. “We are one of the biggest buyers for Ramadan. We also have plans to expand Alliance and bring in two more channels by the end of year.
Additionally, we are expanding our event management services. “Our vision has always been that we work for the industry – we know if we expand the industry we will grow ourselves. And that’s also why we launched this magazine too.” Shawl said next year he expects to consolidate the Pakistani
“If I sign the paper it does not mean I take credit – my staff worked day
and night for that contract”
market looks forward to working more closely with the Indian market. With regards to the demise of the Asia Pack, Alliance is waiting and watching. “There will be a lot of content available free to air now, so viewerswill have more choice,” says Shawl. “Whichever channel makes the best content and markets it cleverly will win the ratings war. It’s
good for the viewers!” Alliance will be looking at the US market in the next year, which
it believes is another untapped market. They both said that as an agency, Alliance is growing and has big plans for the coming years. “We are growing, we are planning to help launch new channels. And the next step for us is to work in the mainstream,” says Shawl.
“The next year will be a new era for us – we will spend money on infrastructure and we are also looking at mergers and acquisitions. It’s exciting times here!” As they say, watch this (big) space.
Many Thank You’s!
Faheem Farooqui and Sajjad Shawl expressed thanks to many people in the industry and their team.
“We would like to thank Baseem Baig, Hasan Imtiazi, Fayaz Gafoor, Sumant Bahl, Anthony
Greenidge – who have all supported us throught the years.”
They both showered praise on their team in London.
“We give credit to our team – they do the leg work – if I sign the paper it does not mean I take credit –
my staff worked day and night for that contract. And we try to give our all and be fair – we work for the
client and the channel. We believe client has to be benefited,” said Shawl.
Farooqui added: “I would like to thank my whole team – without them it would have been impossible
– every team member has brought a change in our office and bringing more revenue and business. And
we look after our staff. In the last eight years only one employee has left Alliance. We value our work
force. We are truly like a family and everyone has grown with the company and helped it grow.”