Insights with Mr. Raihan Ali Merchant – CEO MHL

There are only a few names in the professional world who have the ability to shape the direction of the industry they work in. They have the vision to see the future, the dynamism and charisma to lead the industry and the perseverance and drive to get the entire industry to move on the path they have created. They have the courage to carve a stone into a diamond and hand it over to others without thinking of their own self.

People think advertising is all about glitz and glamour. It is also known to be the mother of all industries, as it is the only field that has knowledge of all other industries, which itself is a great responsibility to handle.

Today, we are talking about a man who has spent more than 25 years of his life, dedicated to the advertising and media industry.He can easily be named amongst those few who can be referred to as trail blazers. He has always strived to do new and innovative work and continued to push boundaries further. His desire to do more and revolutionize the industry have resulted in making his efforts more prominent.  He has always taken up challenges and worked diligently to achieve them. This differentiates him from others in the industry. He commands tremendous respect within the TV industry for supporting them, training them and introducing research, data and analytical benchmarks which the TV industry follows today to compete.

Mr. Merchant has empowered his people in a way that they have successfully managed his entire organization while he focused on creating new data backed products for the last 7 years. He picked up from exposure of the global activities, brought them into Pakistan thus bridging the gap and introducing latest developments in the media industry. Today, not only the advertising industry but the media industry at large has also benefitted from his vision & leadership.

Always striving for innovation, today’s new era of technology became a life changing prospect for Raihan, as digital always has something new to present on the table which has now become his major objective.

Leading one of the largest media buying houses of Pakistan is definitely a great achievement for anyone, but this was not the end of his journey. To discuss about his future ventures and ideas regarding the digital era we contacted him for an interview, which was a great struggle for us as Raihan stays away from such promotional interviews.

What have been the primary reasons for your success?

The primary reason for our success has been team building and focus on data. I take pride in creating and empowering a team of professionals who run the agency.This grows and develops the team and allows me the time to build capability and capacity within the team, explore new markets, discover more data, bring analytical tools, identify new trends, set up a follow through path – basically, stay 3 steps ahead.

I am honored that we have been able to make such a big contribution to the industry. For the last 20 years, we have been known to mentor and train many individuals. Today, our alumni are in major decision-making positions and are running successful organizations. Companies like Group M, Unilever, PepsiCo, Coca Cola Corporation, Chevron, gsk, Mondelez, Google, FB should thank us for providing these companies with properly trained and groomed resource base.

“Our primary policy is to hire at the entry level. We would train and groom this talent over time and then provide responsibilities according to their strongest talent or capability. As a general rule, we avoid hiring mid-career. Mid-career talent needs to unlearn the incorrect capabilities, non -conforming attitudes and inconsistent values they have learnt elsewhere. So, it takes us longer to retrain these resources. We always prefer to hire fresh talent because the return on time invested with them is much higher. Surely, our employees have switched to other fields, other organizations, some of them are now in technology, FMCG, banking etc. Whatever career path they choose, they will always carry the ‘go-fail’, ‘build courage’, ‘innovate’ models that they have learnt here. We have hired and trained people and will continue to do so because when they go out, they will carry our training, put it to good use and thus improve the standard of the industry. In 2018 alone, we are planning to hire 40 Management Trainees across 8 offices in Pakistan. This is in addition to the total strength of more than 300 people we already work with.

MHL has the only management trainee program in the advertising and media sector and we have successfully run it for the last 15 years. This has allowed us to pick up raw talent and carve them into thorough professionals. People have hence moved on, but the training and development has never stopped. We have always focused on training and empowering people.



Can you tell us something about data?

We take pride in saying that all our media selection is based on data. In a country like Pakistan, where getting data is a problem, it was always going to be a struggle. We kept telling the industry since 1999 that People Meters should be installed to measure Television. We finally got People Meters in 2007. Now, TV owners base their program acquisition on this data. Brand teams evaluate their agencies on how well this data is used to deliver GRPs and Reach.

Today, our agency is moving to digital. Digital is the future, hence our hashtag #AOTF. We now have to build our capability of collecting, analyzing and harnessing ‘BIG DATA’ to suggest the correct communication platforms to our clients.

What does #AOTF mean?

#AOTF, is Agency of the Future. And digital is becoming the future of business. All of us exist in 2 forms today, our physical form and our virtual form. Businesses, brands follow similar patterns of existence. Today, every brand has to have its presence virtually. Where the brand can live, communicate, participate, engage and interact. Every time this happens, there is a lot of data and learning generated. How people reacted to a message from the brand, how the brand responded to a message by consumers. All of this data can be used to improve sales for any brand. This data can also be used to target the potential customers better. It is current, is more behavioral and provides interesting insights. Most of the industry in Pakistan still defines their product audiences in demographics. We require training to understand psychographic analytics. Our industry is not used to working with such data. It is our job, as industry leaders, to impart this new knowledge to our teams and encouraging them to test different ways to communicate with consumers. We are still learning digital and polishing our abilities with rigorous training.

Most of the innovations we are doing on digital is for our local clients. They are open to new ideas, are quick to realize that digital is the route into the future and are actually shifting their investments online.

To understand how it works in Pakistan, you have to look at yourself. Your access to the internet happens on your phone, being online throughout the day. You are present at various forums online at a time, for example if a person surfs through, I shall not know who he/she is but once the consumer surfs onto another website, e.g. then we shall know that the person has interest in both fashion and cricket. Now, when I will have to advertise particularly for a target audience interested in fashion or sports, then this is the kind of people I will select as the target audience. If you ask me where I am receiving this data from, then it’s either from Google or FB, depending upon the app you are using. This is the journey for one consumer. There are 45 million such consumers that surf the internet, and if each individual visits even 10 websites a day then that goes up to a total of 450 million sites and cookies, so who will process the entire data? The easiest way to analyze these data points is to plug them into a ‘Data Management Platform’. We realized the need and licensed the DMP from Oracle. At this point, we are the only agency to have this in Pakistan.


Identifying, selecting and then communicating with consumers through their interests is the 2nd level of consumer targeting. 80% of advertisers spending money on digital are unaware of it. And hence, they are also unaware of the cost saving through this process. We have clients who were previously running their digital advertising from another agency, we proposed a digital campaign for them to run it through their respective digital agency. However, they returned back to us within 3 days stating that their digital agency was unable to execute the digital campaign and requested us to book it for them. The campaign was planned using 2nd level of consumer targeting. This is only visible to buyers using DBM (Double Click Bid Manager). It is a Google tool and only 3 agencies in Pakistan have access to it. We are one of them. The audienceswe can define and select through DBM (using 2nd level of consumer targeting) is not possible with AdWords. Hence other agencies cannot view or plan on this data to target ‘behavior based’ audiences. We have been the pioneers of introducing DBM in Pakistan. Even Google was a bit surprised at our request to license DBM. Now, our flip side job is to encourage publishers to sign up for DBM and offer their inventory on this platform. We have already done over 100 websites, but our target is 10,000 websites. The future of digital that you are talking about, people still don’t know what it is and we’re building this future in Pakistan. So, three years from now, people sitting in the agency will work on DBM with a lot of inventory available on thousands of websites and take it for granted. No one will realize where this inventory came from. This will not benefit just us, but many in the future, and I’m totally fine with it. Once you start getting so much data, you will have to go and find tools which will help make some sense. Big-data? Already exists, to evaluate audiences in our country. It is just a matter of time before digital buyers understand the power of this data and get tools to harness it.

Concluding about the revolution in information technology he stated a summary of the past 40 years and explained, from 1980 to 2000 in almost 20 years there have been major changes related to technology; for example, the inception of mobile phones and fast processing airplanes that have shrunk the time of travel. Whereas, the era between 2000 to 2017, was focused towards adapting the fast-growing technology and will continue to do so till 2020. However, after 2020 all this work will be done by machines.

People like us, who work in agencies, will have to re calibrate our capability. If we understand the basic concepts and give the analytics job to machines to crunch data, we will remain relevant. The AOTF is about being able to tell machines what data to crunch, what results to produce. Our jobs as agency people is to be able to design and write those algorithms. That is the true AOTF.

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