Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2013

The man behind the brands

Aly Mustansir., Chief Marketing Officer, Bank Alfalah, in profile.
Photograph by Hussain Afzal/White Star.
Photograph by Hussain Afzal/White Star.

An IBA graduate, Aly Mustansir’s first internship was at Philips Pakistan.

On the last day of the internship, the chairman of Philips asked all the interns whether they would consider working for the company. The others said yes but Mustansir nonchalantly declared he would prefer to work in brand marketing instead. Astonished and amused at the young man’s confidence, the chairman asked, “So I guess we shouldn’t expect to receive your CV then?”

Mustansir replied, “I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.”

Roughly two decades on, Mustansir, recently appointed as Chief Marketing Officer of Bank Alfalah (BAL), still cringes when he recalls the conversation.

“I was so cocky back then,” he laughs, “but gone are those days.”

In his 22 years as a brand marketer, Mustansir has worked with four companies (five if you count the internship at Philips) and he is pleased to report that there have been “very few dull or BAU [business as usual] moments; there has always been a launch, re-launch or revival going on.”

He isn’t exaggerating. Since he began his career in 1993, Mustansir has been involved in the launch of Wall’s ice-cream in Pakistan, the revival of Unilever’s ice-cream business in Sri Lanka, the re-launch of Close Up and Lifebuoy, the launch of the Hero Pakistani card and the re-branding of HBL. And he is far from done with breathing new life into brands; in fact that is precisely what he’s hoping to do as CMO of BAL.

His is also one of the most well known names and faces in Pakistani MarCom circles; famed as an eloquent public speaker, Mustansir has delivered many keynote presentations in local and international marketing forums.

He has also served as Chairman of the Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS), initiating the PAS Awards during his term, and is currently serving his third term as a PAS Council Member.

Despite his prolific career, very public profile and obvious flair for showmanship (apparent when he speaks publicly), I have always thought of Mustansir as somewhat aloof and a bit of an enigma.

I have interviewed him before but it wasn’t until I interviewed him for this profile that I was able to get a sense of the professional behind the persona.

Although he doesn’t express it outright, Mustansir loves being challenged almost as much as he enjoys challenging others. Traces of these characteristics can be found in almost every important brand and career decision he has made to-date. Such as the time when he challenged Unilever’s management to get rid of Pepsodent from the Pakistani market and focus on Close Up (“I’m the man who killed Pepso,” he declares with a toothy grin), or the time that he insisted that Lifebuoy be changed in terms of the product before being re-launched for the second time.

“I took over Lifebuoy just before its second re-launch,” he explains.

“The positioning was changed in the first re-launch but the product was still a smelly, low quality, low fat, carbolic soap. The campaign said, ‘Lifebuoy badal gaya’ [Lifebuoy has changed] but there was no credibility to it. When I came in, we realised that we had to do something very serious or we were going to lose the brand completely. This resulted in the second re-launch where we changed the product to a higher fat content, nicer smelling, non-carbolic soap.”

In spite of the successful re-launch, Mustansir decided to quit Unilever soon afterwards. After working there for 12 years, he had reached a point where “the whole self actualisation bug bit me and I felt I was not contributing to this world by selling soap.”

Mustansir displays a great deal of forthrightness when he explains that his next career move – joining a European Consortium that launched the 6-49 lotto in Pakistan to fund sports development, as marketing director – wasn’t exactly the smartest one he’s ever made.

“I wanted to make myself believe that I had paid my dues by doing something to benefit the country; unfortunately that experiment failed miserably. That experience taught me not to blindly trust start-ups just because the sponsors are European.”

But he wasn’t done looking for challenges and his next job as head of marketing and brand management at the then newly privatised HBL was “extremely difficult but massively exciting.”

First, there were the cultural differences; coming from an FMCG environment, Mustansir admits that banking was a totally different world and not the “nice and cushy Unilever world.”

It took time and consistent effort but after a few years, even hardcore bankers within HBL began to speak his language; “one day the head of retail and consumer banking, Sima Kamil, said to me in a meeting, ‘do you have a discriminator and if you do is there a reason to believe’ and I thought, whoa, right on!”

Not only did Mustansir transform HBL into an extremely vibrant brand he also managed to produce an iconic campaign that turned financial services advertising on its head – the famous Mr Bean, which he is clearly very proud of.

In a sense, the Mr Bean campaign encapsulates Mustansir’s approach to advertising, which is this: “When the product story is embedded in the brand story, then you know it works. If you have a brand story and then you have to cut to the product story, it doesn’t work.”

This statement leads to a discussion about the dearth of creativity in Pakistan and whether ad agencies ought to be fighting a bit more in this area. Mustansir’s views are refreshingly different.

“Agencies push but the reality is that clients don’t like being pushed. It takes a big client to say to the agency, ‘you were right, I was wrong’; that doesn’t happen.”

And in case you were wondering, yes, Mr Bean is his favourite campaign out of all the ones he has done so far. However, Mustansir says his greatest achievement at HBL was convincing the bank’s chief risk officer that there was a direct correlation between marketing and an increase in deposits.

“I managed to do it in my sixth year – and it only took six years,” he says, looking pretty pleased with himself.

Boredom coincided with this development and by the end of his seventh year at HBL, it became obvious that he had to do something else. As luck would have it, Atif Bajwa, the CEO of Bank Alfalah decided to pursue him at about the same time and Mustansir accepted the job, keenly aware that BAL faces a similar challenge to HBL in that the brand needs a definite lift.

“BAL has a good mid-premium feel to it; as a strong number six contender it will take away share from the big five once it gets its act together. It’s a young brand and the good thing about young brands is that they don’t have a lot of baggage. It’s not too big to be cumbersome but it is not too small either.”

That is all very well and good but when I ask Mustansir about his five-year plan, he responds in a way that makes me believe that his years in banking haven’t transformed him into your average number-crunching-golf-playing boring banker type (please excuse the generalisation but it happens to be true).

“I want to make a movie,” says this CMO who has dabbled in theatre and stage plays. Do you have any experience, I ask? “None,” he responds, “but I will produce and I have stories to tell.”

Considering that his life’s work has revolved around 30-second films, perhaps Mustansir’s aspiration is not so far off the mark. However, for the time being, he’s focusing on BAL and based on what he has been able to achieve in the past, I think I can safely say we can expect great things in the future.