Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The straight-talking pro

Published in Jul-Aug 2017

Syed Amir Haleem, CEO, Kueball Digital, in profile.

If you have been in advertising for any length of time, chances are that you have either met or heard of Syed Amir Haleem. It is not only his career in advertising that has made him well-known, his role as admin of the Facebook group Khalid Alvi Marketing Next (KAMN) has also played a part; especially when he is assuaging tempers and trying to instil common sense into pointless arguments. In fact, this is a good role for this straight-talking, no nonsense guy, and in all the time I have known him (about 10 years now), I have always admired the fact that with Haleem, what you see is what you get.

It seems incredible but after having spent over a decade in ATL advertising, Haleem has organically evolved into a digital marketer and as CEO of Kueball, he is leading the charge to reinvent digital as an idea, instead of a technology platform.

Like most people who ended up in advertising, Haleem got there by chance. As the son of an architect, he travelled extensively across the Middle East living in whichever country his father’s job took the family. The family tradition, he explains, is that the eldest son always became an architect, and as the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son (going back four generations), this is what was expected of him. Haleem, however, was poised to rewrite the playbook. After a year in Scotland studying English, he (and much to his disappointment) seamlessly gained admission into the School of Architecture at the University of Dundee.

“I figured it would be easier to tell my father I didn’t want to be an architect if I was rejected by the university, but that was not to be.”

His refusal to go to Dundee led to an ultimatum from his father and following a series of events, he ended up in Karachi studying marketing at Greenwich University while doing odd jobs. His first big break came when as a student he managed to secure an internship in client services at Interflow Communications. Before the internship was over, he was offered a job, which he took assuming the experience would be useful when he returned to Saudi Arabia to rejoin his family. A few months turned into a year and before he knew it, he had spent six years at Interflow – years that were perhaps the most formative in his life.

Interflow exposed him to Taher Anwar Khan and a range of experiences. He was asked to set up the IT department, sent to Ogilvy India to be trained in media planning and then made chief media planner at Interflow. He also worked on major accounts, such as British American Tobacco, Pepsi and Unilever in a client service capacity and more importantly, he met his future wife, Nazia, there.

“Nazia and I were archenemies. I was in client service and she was in creative and we were always butting heads. We hated each other. But when I moved to IT, the friction stopped and I thought ‘hey, she is not a bad gal!’”

Five years later, this realisation ended up in marriage. In his sixth year at Interflow, Haleem decided to move to a software company set up by the Group, but the timing was wrong. Over 90% of the company’s portfolio was US-based and just as he was getting ready to take over the reins, 9/11 happened and everything went bust.

He changed gears and went to Dubai to do a stint with his family’s construction business, while Nazia continued working at Interflow. However, he realised that he could not make a go of this and returned to Karachi to help Neil Christy set up Headlion. After two stints at Headlion (four years in total) he moved to Starcom to head the media planning of the K-Electric account.

As Haleem tells it, in those days Starcom was headed by Fauzia Shamshad and although he didn’t have any major problems with the agency, the client proved to be a challenge.

“K-Electric was going through a difficult phase; they were new and everyone was against them. The marketing team was receiving death threats; there were umpteen protests and demonstrations and it was all a bit crazy.”

Coincidentally, Nazia, now working at Ogilvy, was the lead creative on K-Electric. She was also expecting their third child.

If Interflow was Haleem’s primer in work ethics and advertising, Ogilvy is where he learnt the art of communication.

“Nazia would receive a phone call in the middle of the night from K-Electric asking her to do an artwork. As soon as she finished it, I, as the media planning lead on the account, would take it to all the major newspapers before their printing deadlines. It was a really stressful time and Nazia almost lost the baby because of the stress.”

After this major scare, Nazia quit her job at Ogilvy and safely delivered the couple’s third daughter. Meanwhile, Haleem was offered a position as business director for the Mondelez account at Ogilvy for the Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa region. He turned down the offer twice because he felt he had not been at Starcom long enough, but the third time around, after a family vote, he accepted it.

If Interflow was Haleem’s primer in work ethics and advertising, Ogilvy is where he learnt the art of communication.

“There was so much knowledge available from the region and it was there freely and systematically. The regional exposure was excellent. I was working on Tang and in each country the challenges were different. In Pakistan, it was about affordability, in North Africa, it was about the competition and in Saudi Arabia the issue was that young people thought Tang was old-fashioned and uncool.”

After four years at Ogilvy, he joined Synergy Advertising. Although he didn’t intend to leave the agency before the year was out, he received an offer from BY Ventures to set up a digital agency with an equity stake in the business. After another family vote (“we do things very democratically in my family”) he took it on and set up Kueball Digital.

Kueball, says Haleem, is not just another digital agency. “I did a little research and discovered that what digital lacks most is ATL expertise. Digital was treated as a tech product which amounts to saying let’s hire TV technicians to market on TV. The trouble is that the content on digital is random and meaningless. Kueball is about designing good communications that engage the audience, which is what ATL has always been about as well.”

Kueball gave Haleem a chance to work with Nazia again; she brings years of creative experience to a role that combines tech with ideation. What’s it like to work with his wife, I ask?

“Well, she is an employee – and yes, you can put that on the record! But we manage it quite well because we have worked together for a long time. Nazia and I developed this professionalism at Interflow and it really works for us.”

Along with Nazia, their daughters, Areej, Azwa and Aleena are also involved in what their parents do. They like coming to the office, asking lots of questions and offering advice on what teenagers like and dislike on social media.

"Kueball is about designing good communications that engage the audience, which is what ATL has always been about as well.”

Although he is in a good place now, Haleem has experienced failure in many forms over the course of his career and his advice for other professionals and entrepreneurs is simple. “Don’t be afraid of failure and don’t let it define you. It will happen to you but you need to get past it. I am certain that my failures have taught me far more than my successes.”

Marylou Andrew is a freelance writer and a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.