In December 2015, Adil Sheikh returned to Dubai after a two-year stint as International Marketing Manager at Henkel AG in Germany. He is now working as Regional Marketing Manager and is (as his LinkedIn profile points out) “responsible for the business steering of the dish wash category in MEA.” Coincidentally, 2016 also marks Sheikh’s decade long tenure with Henkel where he made his way up from Senior Brand Manager to his current position and worked on practically all of the company’s brands – including Persil, Pril, DAC and Vernel – along the way.
Sheikh is probably the only marketing professional that I have come across who actually wants to return to Pakistan in the future because not only does he want to “give back” but because working on FMCGs in Pakistan was “more exciting, more vibrant, more fun, and more experimental.”
An IBA graduate, Sheikh began his professional journey at Citibank as an intern; this was followed by another internship at P&G which eventually turned into a full time job. As he worked first on Pampers and then on Vicks Vaporub, Sheikh formed the same opinion of P&G that most of its young employees do – that it was a “practical university for all the concepts and basics I had learned. They really drill in the fact that as a marketer you have to focus single-mindedly on brand building.”
Three years of drilling later, Sheikh realised that the combined effect of IBA and P&G had taken its toll so he accepted an opportunity to work for Henkel in Dubai. Going to Dubai, he says, was “like a homecoming, as I was born and brought up here.”
As luck would have it, Henkel turned out to be no less of a drilling than P&G. Sheikh remembers that when he joined as Senior Brand Manager, his first day at work was a weekend and “the GM asked me to come in to get a feel of the place; it turned out to be a grueling five hour annual strategy session.”
At that point (2006) Henkel, a German FMCG firm, was setting up shop in Dubai in order to introduce its brands to the lower Gulf countries. The company was already well established in KSA which also served as its manufacturing base for the GCC. Sheikh’s job, therefore, was to establish Henkel’s laundry and home care brands in the lower Gulf countries (UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain), while there was a separate team for KSA. A year and a half later, Sheikh’s hard work resulted in the unification of all GCC operations under one office and he took over the management of laundry care for the GCC region.
“This was the real game changer because we went with a strategy that was really blue ocean. We launched liquid detergents and more specifically Persil Black (a liquid detergent formulated for the washing of abayas).”
The launch of Persil Black for the KSA market (which, with over 30 million people, has the largest population of all GCC countries) was an important development for Henkel, because it gave the company a uniquely local feel which was essential to compete with P&G, which dominates the GCC’s laundry care market with powerhouse brands such as Tide, Ariel and Bonus and with Unilever’s brand OMO. The brand now enjoys 75% of the market share in the abaya wash segment and although P&G launched a black version of Tide, it has only been able to capture a two percent share.
"If I can be blunt, we treated our agencies very poorly in Pakistan and they accepted it by facilitating all our demands. I did it too and it was really a very intrusive relationship of boss and slave."
By 2012, Sheikh had made it to Marketing Director for Henkel Arabia and was handling both the laundry and home care categories. In late 2015 the ‘German opportunity’ happened. This was basically a chance to move to the company’s headquarters in Germany as International Category Manager for hard surface cleaning so “the scope was global.”
After spending a little less than two years in Dusseldorf, where he felt that the work style was a bit “formal and hierarchical”, Sheikh was offered the position of regional marketing manager for the dish wash category and returned to Dubai. The landscape for dish wash is somewhat complicated, he explains, as the category is dominated by P&G’s Fairy and Unilever’s Lux, both of which have a 30 to 35% market share. Henkel’s Pril is a challenger in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE; however it is the market leader in Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. The idea for the dish wash category, he explains is to establish Pril in markets where Fairy and Lux are either weak or have no presence, but it is also to “think from a leader mindset rather than a challenger one.”
The dish wash category offers Sheikh a vast scope and one of the things he really enjoys about his current position is the time that it affords him to “have a life” unlike P&G where “one manager once said to me, ‘if I wake you up and shake you at 3:00 a.m., you should be able to recite your brand’s USP by heart with no mistakes.’” He also misses the thrill of brand and equity building in a less developed market, adding that by virtue of the GCC having a “transient population which moves around every two or three years, you cannot create brand loyalty.”
He however feels that one of the major differences between working in a marketing role in Pakistan versus the Middle East is in the treatment of agency partners.
“If I can be blunt, we treated our agencies very poorly in Pakistan and they accepted it by facilitating all our demands. I did it too and it was really a very intrusive relationship of boss and slave. When I came here and tried to do the same thing, it didn’t work. People expect respect; if you want something done on a weekend, the answer is a clear ‘no’. After coming here I understood what ‘traffic’ means in an agency environment. It means we are just another client and we have to wait for our turn.”
Yet even as Sheikh keeps his 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. office routine, uses his free time to read, watch cricket and play on his Xbox, he follows the Pakistani FMCG environment with avid interest. It also helps that he has a sister working as a creative director at a large local agency. And he dreams of coming back although he admits that there are practical considerations to think about.
“I really enjoyed my stint in Pakistan and now that I have international experience, both here and in Germany I believe I can add back quite a lot.”