Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Walking the talk

Published in Jul-Aug 2016

Marketing supremo Tariq Ikram in profile.

If you were to meet Tariq Ikram at a party, you may conclude that he is a congenial, unassuming retiree. That is because Ikram is down to earth, easy to talk to and has a tendency to enact, in vivid detail, past encounters when telling a story. However, over the course of our two-and-a-half hour conversation, Ikram revealed several facets of his personality, making me realise that despite the affable disposition he is an extremely shrewd, intelligent, perceptive, bold and honest gentleman.

Perhaps that is not surprising. After all, not many people can claim to have achieved the level of success that Ikram has without having most of those qualities. It would be impossible to list all his achievements; however, to highlight a few: he joined Reckitt and Benckiser (R&B) – then called Reckitt and Coleman (R&C) – as a management trainee in 1970 and ended up 13 years later as the CEO – and the first Pakistani one at that. In 1991 he became their Regional Head, MENAP (Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan) overseeing 31 countries. In 2000, he started working for the Government of Pakistan in several capacities, including as Federal Minister of State, Chairman of the Export Promotion Bureau, and CE, Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP). Along the way he set up the Pakistan Research Society and Pakistan Advertisers’ Society (PAS).

Not surprisingly, Ikram has received numerous accolades in recognition of his work, including the Marketing Excellence Award (from the Marketing Association of Pakistan), the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (SI) and earlier this year, the PAS Lifetime Achievement Award.

In a way, Ikram owes his success to a baker.

“I went to a baker on the Mall in Lahore. He asked me what I was doing; I told him that I had given my CSS exam and was looking for a job while I waited for my results.” The baker told him to work for R&C, commenting airily, “it seems like a good company.”

“I said, ‘I have never heard of it – what do they do?’ He replied that they made boot polish and I thought to myself ‘daffa karo yaar’. But the baker insisted I apply there and tore out the company’s address from a Cherry Blossom label, which read P.O. Box 625, Karachi, Pakistan.”

Ikram eventually wrote to R&C and received an interview call within a week. He persuaded his father to pay for his ticket to Karachi and by the fifth interview he was offered a job as a management trainee.

“I thought this was such a khatara company,” he says with a booming laugh.

“They make boot polish, no one has heard of them, they conduct five interviews and hire me!”

This perception changed once he heard his starting salary would be Rs 1,500 (for context, he points out that at the time civil servants made Rs 475, medical reps 800, and chartered accountants Rs 1,200-1,300). He “jumped at it”.

His first assignment was to go to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and source barley for Robinsons Barley. There, he visited 23 cities in 30 days, travelling by road, boat, steamer, and even wading through rivers with his briefcase on his head.

In those days R&C did not have a marketing department and it was Ikram who eventually established the department. His brand portfolio grew substantially and he has some very vivid ‘brand memories’.

One of those is of Disprin, and its competitor Aspro, which demonstrates his hands-on approach to work.

“I always wanted to do things myself first. One day, I was standing on a van in D.I. Khan, talking to people through a mic about Disprin. I was supposed to say ‘Vaara vaara Disprin’ which means ‘take more Disprin’ in Pashto. Instead, I said, ‘Do do goli Aspro!’”

Despite this faux pas Disprin overtook the competition and by the time he left R&C, sales had soared to nearly two million tablets a year.

Not surprisingly, Ikram has received numerous accolades in recognition of his work, including the Marketing Excellence Award (from the Marketing Association of Pakistan), the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (SI) and earlier this year, the PAS Lifetime Achievement Award.

Another success came in the form of the launch of Dettol soap, although Ikram dismisses it as an “amazing coincidence” (a sign of his humility and ability to think outside the box). At the time, a law came into effect stating that brand names could not be mentioned when pharmaceutical products were advertised. The generic name for Dettol was Chlorozylenol Solution, “an absolute mouthful... my challenge was how to keep the name Dettol alive.”

The answer eventually came in the form of the launch of Dettol soap.

“Although Dettol soap had been conceptualised in another country, it was not launched there and Pakistan became the first country where it was available. The intention was not to make money or sell soap, but to use Dettol Solution’s budget to advertise the soap and thereby keep the Dettol brand alive. In the first year, we sold 2.5 tons of the soap – today it is the largest selling brand of R&B. During that time the sales of Dettol Solution were not affected.”

Ikram also initiated the concept of conducting raids at shops. The need emerged when the sales of Robin Neel became static due to the fact that nearly 63% of the packets sold were counterfeit. Then Ikram met a certain former colonel.

“I could judge people reasonably well, and realised he had several characteristics I could make use of. He was humble, intelligent and bold; had an intelligence background and contacts in the underworld...”

Ikram and the former colonel formulated a ‘raiding process’ after overcoming numerous challenges to ensure that the evidence could “stick in a court of law.” This was of utmost importance because in the past, when shopkeepers were arrested for selling counterfeit products, by the next day, thanks to their contacts, the counterfeit products were replaced with genuine ones. Within two years, 102 raids were conducted and the sale of counterfeit products was reduced to 12%.

Ikram is clearly fearless in more ways than one and not afraid to stand up for what he believes in, as another incident illustrates. This was at a company lunch.

He noticed that there was a separate marquee away from the main crowd. He asked a colleague why this was so and it turned out that the “lower staff and non-Muslims” had been asked to sit there because “some people” did not want to eat with them. This made the otherwise congenial Ikram furious.

“The question was – what should I do? I realised this was a sensitive matter. I remembered my father’s words that ‘when in doubt, do what is right.’” With these words in mind, he sat down at the separate marquee to eat, and eventually the remaining executives followed suit.

Ikram left R&C in 2000 to assume the position of Federal Minister of State and eventually Chairman of the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), at the insistence of General Pervez Musharraf, whose leadership skills he admired greatly.

During his time there, Ikram developed Pakistan’s first export strategy, which contributed to a growth that went from eight billion rupees (1999) to over 18 billion (2008). He also established the TDAP which replaced the EPB, despite opposition from the Ministry of Commerce.

Not surprisingly, Ikram says that his life has been a “constant treadmill... as soon as I reached a certain position, I was moved up, so I was always learning.”

Despite this, he has always been able to maintain a work-life balance, and attributes his success to his wife, who managed the household and their three children.

“Behind every successful man there is an exhausted woman,” he says, adding that despite his hectic work schedule, he would spend time with his family on a daily basis, no matter how tired he was, and at least three weeks a year on holiday with them.

“You can’t say that your family is your priority if you don’t demonstrate it,” he explains; “you have to walk the talk.”

These are the words he clearly lives by.

Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development and Research, DAWN.