Published in Sep-Oct 2021
MAMUN M. ADIL: You recently won PR Week’s 40 Under 40 award; how did this come about?
MUHAMMAD BILAL LAKHANI: People are usually nominated by their peers within the industry. I was the only person to be nominated this year from P&G. I believe they made a case as to why I deserved to win, based on several metrics, including my contribution to the company and the industry in addition to culture, diversity, inclusivity and innovations. The jury at PR Weekly make their own decisions after reviewing these metrics.
MMA: What does winning this award mean to you?
MBL: It is one of the highest honours in the communications industry globally, and I am grateful to be the first Pakistani to have won it. It shows that Pakistani talent can compete with the best and thrive globally.
MMA: How did your career at P&G begin?
MBL: I interned there in the summer of 2007 and was offered a job in 2008 after I graduated from LUMS, and joined them as a communication specialist. Two years later, I left to pursue journalism at Columbia University. I then returned to Pakistan and continued with P&G as a communications manager for nearly three years.
MMA: What major projects did you work on in Pakistan?
MBL: I launched all of P&G Pakistan’s brands on social media for the first time. I had a small but strong team, including Raheel Nabi from Xenith PR and we eventually managed to create a global model for P&G in terms of how our brands should be positioned on social media.
MMA: What did the model entail?
MBL: It was a combination of three pillars: creating authentic, short videos which either educated or entertained audiences; inviting popular influencers to directly create content; and the smart deployment of paid advertising to boost high performing social posts. They seem obvious today, but at the time we were one of the first teams to go to market with them. After that, I moved to Geneva with P&G to apply this model across our 42 European markets. Finally, I moved to our headquarters in Cincinnati, USA in 2016.
MMA: What did you do there?
MBL: I led communications for two billion-dollar P&G brands – Head & Shoulders and Pantene; as head of P&G’s Global Influencer Center I worked on a project – ‘PR 2020’ – to understand what we could learn from the 2016 elections and how it changed the external communications landscape. Based on this, I made recommendations on how our brands could leap forward.
MMA: How did the landscape change?
MBL: The election didn’t necessarily change the landscape, but it made all the invisible changes that had taken place over the last 10 years visible. Historically, mainstream media shaped public opinion and most of them endorsed Hillary Clinton and opposed Donald Trump as did influential conservative voices. Yet, people voted for Trump. This was very profound in terms of how people are influenced and what it means.
MMA: Profound in what way?
MBL: We realised that people listened to people like themselves and their peers. What happened in Trump’s case was that you had somebody who believed in certain things and spoke about them in very black and white terms and created a frenzy through word of mouth and peer-based communication.
MMA: What did that mean for brands?
MBL: That the way we did things before no longer worked. For example, at one point in time, a beauty brand could contact the top five fashion magazines, organise a fashion week, and call it a day. Trump’s election threw such PR models into the dustbin and led us to create interesting new ones.
MMA: How so?
MBL: For example, if we wanted to promote a diaper brand, we would have gone to a credible institution, such as the paediatric society. Now, we have moved from macro to peer-based micro-influencing, whereby a customer says, “Hey, I tried this product and it works great.” We also use employees as influencers – so instead of putting a big company out there to speak about their brand in the news, you have someone working in the factory, who is making the product, to respond on social media and say, “I make these diapers. I can tell you that they’re high quality because this is what I do.” This is a lot more human rather than a brand speaking.
MMA: In Pakistan, when brands are asked to name 10 credible influencers in the country, they have difficulty doing so. Why do you think this is the case?
MBL: There are very few influencers in Pakistan who have absolute authority and credibility and I blame the brands and not the influencers for this. There are several influencers who reject money when they don’t agree with a particular activation or if they don’t believe in something. Even internationally, influencers form commercial partnerships with brands as it is their bread and butter as long as they believe in what they are selling. However, despite this, you will be surprised at how effective influencers are in Pakistan.
MMA: What is wrong with the way influencers are deployed in Pakistan?
MBL: They are used for conversion (the ‘sales part’) as far as the purchase funnel is concerned. The funnel has three layers: at the top is awareness, followed by consideration and then conversion. TVCs and DVCs are probably the best way to create mass awareness at a low cost. Influencers should be used for consideration, because even if people are aware of a product, they may not believe in it because TVCs don’t have the kind of authenticity and credibility influencers might. You should not use influencers to sell something instantly which is what is being done in Pakistan. That’s like asking somebody to marry you on a first date; it is setting up the influencer and the brand for failure.
MMA: Who should be used for conversion?
MBL: Broadly speaking, in-store touch points (such as good product packaging or product placement within the store) or by engaging with the consumer as close to the store as possible. For example, when a consumer is browsing through Facebook at Dolmen Mall, they should see your brand’s ads popping up through geo-targeting after having watched your TVC and consuming your influencer content.
MMA: You are also a journalist and influencer. How did these two roles come about and what do they entail?
MBL: My journalism and influencer roles came about primarily because I wanted to serve Pakistan through better quality storytelling. We are a very negative and cynical society by nature and I wanted to showcase everything that is right in the country by creating a series of articles and documentaries called Extraordinary Pakistanis. This was an independent project, and it turned into a mini-movement where Extraordinary Pakistani videos were watched by over 10 million people and we managed to raise enough money to build the first school in the village where a child featured in the series lived. I didn’t want journalism to be my source of income so I could write and speak independently, which is why I continued my corporate communications career in parallel.
MMA: What would you cite as your three major accomplishments?
MBL: Although I won PR Week’s 40 Under 40, I still think the most exciting work I have done has been in Pakistan. I believe cracking a global model for brands to win on social media in Pakistan is one of my biggest achievements. From a journalism point of view, having a minister resign after I interviewed him was an interesting experience. But my biggest sense of accomplishment comes from changing the lives of the young children I have featured in the Extraordinary Pakistani documentary series. That is what moves my heart and brings me joy.
MMA: What’s next for you?
MBL: I am actually in the process of leaving P&G to do something more mission-driven full-time. I cannot discuss the details publicly yet, but the position will allow me to use all my skills as a communications professional to protect the lives of children around the world.
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