An Exclusive Interview Session with Mr. Uzair Ahmed, COO – Symmetry Group

From conventional advertising to digital media, tell us about your professional journey and why did you opt to take such a major career shift?

UA: I started my career early and joined Media Max (Pvt.) Ltd in 2006, selling commercial airtime for ARY Digital. Advertising came instinctively to me and with the kind of appetite I had, I quickly realized that just selling TV airtime is never going to be enough for me. I also wanted to experience the agency side of life and back then conventional media and advertising agencies were booming so I asked myself whether I want to do what everybody else is doing and join a conventional media or advertising agency or I want to take up something more challenging; something that I believed would shape the future and would push my boundaries every day of the week. It was an industry dominated by conventional media; TV used to be the go-to medium (it still pretty much is) followed by Print, OOH & Radio whereas; Digital being a new medium was merely an afterthought for advertisers where only a few decided to experiment with the medium.

At the time, Pakistan was rapidly undergoing a telecom revolution. Consumers were shifting from dial-up internet connections to broadband and digital was fast becoming an integral part of their lifestyle. Simultaneously, new avenues and platforms in digital were coming up globally and I could envision them changing the dynamic of media consumption and advertising. Hence, I decided to direct my focus to Digital and joined Pakistan’s 1st full service digital media agency at the time called “The Symmetry” as Management Trainee. This digital pioneer company has now grown into a group of full service digital agencies known as “Symmetry Group.”

Our goal as an agency was to expand the Digital footprint in the country and it has been my pleasure to play a pivotal role in establishing a strong foothold for Digital in Pakistan, making it the leading medium for advertisers in Pakistan. From introducing new and engaging forms of display and search advertising, mobile marketing, social media marketing, content marketing, performance marketing, influencer marketing, sports marketing, Digital OOH, new tech, innovation and transformation, to the roll-out of Google and Facebook and many such platforms in the industry, I have been at the forefront of taking several initiatives that have eventually become a norm in the industry.

With more than 14 years of digital media experience I have worked on several small, medium and large scale advertisers across FMCG, Telecommunication, Banking, Food & Beverage, Aviation, Hospitality, Entertainment, Retail and Tech industry in the Pakistan, GCC, Gulf and Bangladesh markets. Some of the clients that I have worked on are Unilever, P&G, Colgate Palmolive, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Telenor, Grameenphone, China Mobile, Ufone, HBL, UBL, Emirates Airlines, Careem and several others.  The journey has been challenging but very exciting, especially while working for an organization like Symmetry Group that has not only provided me opportunities for growth but also enabled me to push the bar higher with every campaign and initiative that I have been involved in throughout my career.

You entered digital media when it was not as vast as it is today. With respect to the roles you have performed in this medium, how have you seen the digital growth in Pakistan and where do you think we still lack compared to international standards?

The Digital industry in Pakistan has come a long way. Internet penetration has grown rapidly, consumers are far more equipped than what they used to be 10 years ago, with several platforms and avenues to explore and enjoy.

Advertisers have also shifted from just doing banner advertising to 360 degree Digital campaign rollouts. With the introduction of 3G/4G and broadband services we have also seen a tremendous growth in content consumption in Pakistan which has also presented advertisers the opportunity to try out new ways of storytelling. Similarly, e-commerce is another area which has also shown an upward trend and is continuing to grow whereby brands are also trying to build a robust e-commerce ecosystem for consumers. Digital Banking and Financial services are not only transforming decades-old modes of financial inclusion and access but also providing brands opportunities for integrations to enhance e-commerce experiences. The rise of platforms like Facebook has enabled several smaller and home grown businesses to grow at a steady pace. The likes of Youtube and Tiktok have given birth to local content creators. Instagram has played a similar role for local celebrities and influencers.

Over time, advertisers have become more demanding in terms of driving bang for their buck by not only providing consumers with memorable brand experiences but also bringing in more measurement and accountability.

While I believe we are headed in the right direction, we still need to improve as an industry with respect to local content production, advertising transparency, use of data and analytics, over-reliance on selected advertising platforms, and innovation and creativity in our Digital communications. Digital is a space that is constantly evolving, and we have to continuously improve our capabilities to stay on top.

Working for over a decade at Symmetry Group, what makes your organisation stand apart from other digital media agencies?

Our DNA is innovation and agility. Achieving and maintaining a leadership position in the market has only been possible by constantly striving to achieve excellence by virtue of our vision, creativity, innovation, technology, and speed to market. We embrace and live by our motto of “Integrating Digital with Possibilities.”

What really sets us apart from our competitors is our thought process and skillset. We don’t think mediums. We don’t think channels or platforms. We think integration and how technology can bring it all together to deliver seamless experiences. As more and more advertisers start talking Integrated Marketing, we have been living this approach for the more than a decade. If you are looking for creativity, innovation, speed and making the most complex of challenges easy to deliver, you come to us. Several local and international awards won in the last few years – making us one of the most awarded group of agencies in the country – is a testament to that.

From clients to consumers, web portals to social media, how has the pitch of digital media changed from before?

The digital ecosystem of today is definitely not what we faced when I originally stepped into this domain. Back then, we were planning and executing display advertising on websites. We would place banners in different shapes and forms. Eventually, this became animated rich media and then videos. Social media was young and still figuring out its own potential. Early content platforms didn’t yet know how to scale and monetize for advertisers. We were still understanding how technology could support brand building. With the advent of widespread global connectivity and mobility, the entire ecosystem has evolved. We now have multiple social media platforms vying for consumer attention and advertiser money. Brands are focused on engagement, conversion and retention rather than just awareness. Technology – artificial, automated, virtual, augmented – is powering everything from shopping to travel to music festivals.

Pakistan is no longer at the back end of the spectrum either. While we still have some catching up to do, we are definitely testing our appetites on content consumption, consumer engagement, e-commerce and financial services. Brands are finally moving towards more analytics and problem-solving through data. A deep understanding of the digital landscape has never been more essential. So, in some ways, our job has become easier. Where once we had to convince people of the need for digital, we now have to help them embrace more of it.

Digital Media played as a major platform for advertising during COVID-19. Where do you see the future of the medium shift now after the pandemic?

COVID-19 changed the world and with it people changed too. With more time on our hands during lockdowns and staying mostly at home, we saw consumers spending more time on Digital platforms and advertisers were quick to adapt to the changing dynamics. What changed during the pandemic is here to stay! People started following their passions and they will continue to do so. Focus on health increased and, for most, it will remain a top priority. People got into a habit of ordering things online, a habit that brands and e-commerce companies have been trying to build for years. We also saw people spending a major part of their time on OTT platforms. And with physical contact becoming a scary prospect, people opted for automation. The pandemic isn’t over yet. While some countries across the world have begun vaccination programs, Pakistan is still a long way from a return to normalcy. So, 2021 will continue to be more of the same social distancing, remote work and mask-wearing. Digital spaces will remain critical in helping people connect with each other and experience the world – video calls, e-commerce, delivery services and endless content consumption. When the pandemic is truly over in Pakistan – hopefully sometime next year – we will see people clamouring for physical contact and being packed into small spaces with each other. This will give rise to newer ways of digitally connecting physical experiences. More devices will connect in more unique ways with each other to enable this new world. Every contact, every transaction, every plan and every event will truly be digitally integrated. That’s a world we look forward to!

How had the pandemic effected your organisation and clientele? What strategies did you and your team plan to overcome the financial and economical issues faced by many amidst the pandemic?

Honestly, we were not ready for it…nobody was!

Focused on delivering exceptional service to our partners, we have always spent long hours passionately creating work. Suddenly switching to Work-from-Home and being able to maintain the quality of our services was certainly not an easy task. There were times where the teams worked tirelessly for weeks without time off in order to meet deadlines and manage the quantum of work. Simultaneously, the workload had increased twofold during the lockdown period.  We enabled our people with the right tools to be able to work from home and offered them as much care as possible. We remained constantly connected, with the leadership teams always available to help resolve challenges and manage schedules. With their commitment and passion, even in the most challenging circumstances, our exceptionally dedicated team continued to ensure outstanding quality and excellence in execution. Our commitment to our people and clients has proven that our principles are sound. We build lasting relationships and pride ourselves on nurturing them through the most difficult times. This is reflected in No lay-offs, No salary cuts and No accounts lost during the last year.

If not digital media, where would we see Uzair Ahmed today?

I am a big Cricket and Food enthusiast. So, if not Digital, then I most likely would have taken Cricket as a profession or would be flipping burgers and grilling steaks somewhere. I still find time to live these passions, if only on weekends. I feel it is very important to enjoy passions away from work to switch your mind off.

Where do you see digital media in the next 10 years?

With our large, young population, Pakistan could well become a digital giant in the next 10 years. Connectivity for this young population is also increasing. More connectivity means more access. More access means more consumption – of content, platforms and products. Digital media will power all of this consumption.

Newer platforms will keep gaining ground on more established players and advertisers will invest more in the medium in a bid to capture attention across the fragmented spaces. With consumers getting more empowered and tech-savvy, technology getting more advanced, the surge in online content consumption (especially with the rise of OTT platforms), and influencers and content creators growing into powerful celebrities, it will be imperative for agencies and advertisers to maintain a fast pace to cope with the rapidly evolving Digital landscape. Digital technology will continue to reshape consumers’ lifestyles. Industries will rethink the way they do Digital today. Digital Transformation will not just be a buzz word. We will see its true implementation across the industries. Considerable innovation and investment has started to float into locally developed tech start-ups. The lockdown has pushed established manufacturers and retail players into e-commerce. Data will be at the heart of all these Digital initiatives. These ventures will mature in that time and create a more robust, equitable digital ecosystem for Pakistan.

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