Aurora Magazine

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The storyteller within the CEO

Published in Nov-Dec 2014
Jerjees Seja, CEO, ARY Digital Network, in profile.

Only 37 years old, and Jerjees Seja is the CEO of one of Pakistan’s largest television networks – the ARY Digital Network. The position, however, is no novelty to him; he has been the COO of a number of channels for the Network before he was 30. Yet, despite his stature, Seja is anything but self-important. Not for him the pretensions of “I am just so busy... I don’t know when we can meet...” Instead, he is more likely to say, “Not this week, let’s meet next Friday at 5:00 p.m.” He is soft-spoken, down to earth, and has almost always been available whenever I have needed to interview him for Aurora. And even better, he is always on time and gives the conversation his undivided attention, ignoring the countless times his phone rings or beeps.

It is perhaps this focus that streams into his personality – and his résumé. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Seja has only worked at four organisations. He began as an intern at Interflow Communications before he graduated with a degree in marketing; he eventually became a media and research consultant there and after a few years, a short stint at Orient Advertising, as Manager Media Buying followed. He then joined the Evernew Group as Manager Media and left seven years later after becoming the COO for the Group’s three companies, after which he joined the ARY Digital Network where he has been for the last 11 years.

The reason for this approach, perhaps, is because Seja has moved from one place to another after mastering a specific aspect of the media, using the skills he learnt to excel at his next job. More than once during our conversation, he mentions that he has a “media and research background”, thanks partially to his time at Interflow, which has enabled him to stay aware of the changing market dynamics and be ready to face the challenges that they pose.

Case in point: he mentions that the recent shift of eyeballs from news to entertainment channels was meant to happen, which is why he has tirelessly focused on getting the best programming (be it dramas, morning shows or reality shows) aired on ARY Digital, making it the top rated entertainment channel for several years now, and then launching ARY Zindagi – a second channel, which would, in his words, serve as a competition for the “aspiring number twos”.

“A point had to come when audiences would say that they have had enough of news, and when this happened, we were ready... Being a planner, it is my job to gauge the market and strategise about what we should do next.”

There is no arrogance in this statement; but it does, however, unveil a side to Seja that can easily be overlooked given his soft-spoken tone and unassuming persona – and that is that the man thrives on being ‘number one’. And he readily admits to this; when I ask him whether his passion lies in being number one, or storytelling – given that he is a self-confessed television show and film fanatic and has played a pivotal role in producing dramas that are remembered to this day, as well as those that make headlines – he answers candidly: “My passion is storytelling, and that takes me to the number one position.”

What eventually emerges from our conversation is that while Seja is a ‘corporate’ on the outside, he is a storyteller and a creative on the inside. Yet, he is almost hesitant to take credit for his accomplishments and gives the credit to Salman Iqbal, President of the ARY Network for allowing him to take risks, and his team for executing his ideas.

Another man that Seja holds in high esteem is Sajjad Gul, a man he calls his ‘mentor’ and for whom he worked at the Evernew Group.

“When I joined Evernew it was a marketing company for television and I converted it into a production and media buying house. At the time, there was Evernew Concepts, an advertising agency, Evernew Media (a media buying house) and Evernew Entertainment which was a marketing and production house; I eventually became COO for the all three entities, and worked in multiple capacities.”

It was at Evernew that Seja’s love for production emerged.

“My first drama was Mehendi which was a huge hit. Sajjad Gul wanted something based on Pride and Prejudice. I still remember that moment. I was driving my car and it struck me that in our society it is difficult enough to marry off one daughter, so let’s make a play in which four daughters have to be married off. That is the moment my career as a producer began.”

While he may have a love for storytelling, Seja is also a realist, and realises that the bottom-line lies with ratings. When I comment that many of the dramas that are being aired today are more than a little misogynistic and regressive, he responds by talking about a drama that was aired on ARY Digital recently.

“There are two types of women that are portrayed on television: the achi aurat who is the housewife, the bechari one, while the strong one is the buri aurat. That is the mindset that dominates 99% of our population. In a drama that we aired, the woman was initially docile but the day she left her husband, our ratings dropped, because by doing so she became a ‘buri aurat’. Five episodes later, when she returned to her husband, our ratings improved. Unfortunately, issues like the ones that working women face do not resonate with our audiences; what clicks are dramas that centre on women who are treated badly; they want to watch plays that portray their fears; fears that they cannot talk about.”

Seja’s reasoning behind the ‘buri-auratachi-aurat’ theory is not based on gut instinct, but on solid research, which includes organising and attending focus groups, conducting surveys and listening to client and customer feedback intently.

Dramas, however, for Seja are just a part of what ARY Digital is all about. “We have multiple drivers, be it our morning shows, game shows, reality shows or dramas.” To this end, Seja produced Jeeto Pakistan – one of the highest rated game shows of all time. He claims that his involvement with it was so deep that he would watch it live while on holiday abroad, and give directions to his crew and the host (Fahad Mustafa) over the phone.

Seja is not one to rest on his laurels and his new passion is film. To this end, ARY Films was launched a few years ago and today has several big projects in the pipeline. The company has, in collaboration with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, also established Waadi Animations, which recently produced Teen Bahadur – Pakistan’s first animated film, which is awaiting release.

Despite the risks he has taken, he is, in his own words, “a realistic person”.

“I want to be different and experiment with content, but I also want my work to be accepted, because there is no place for a flop in the business I am in.”

And given his knack for knowing what audiences want, it is likely that there will be plenty more hits along the way.

Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development & Research, DAWN.
mamun.adil@gmail.com