Working on his laptop in his quiet, warmly-lit office is how I find Imran Ahmad. Seeing me approach, he gets up and greets me with a smile, although a reserved one. As he sits across me, wearing a blue striped shirt and black-framed spectacles, the 63-years old Ahmad seems to be a quiet, reticent and private person; I wonder if I will be able to get anything out of him.
However, once I explain to him the purpose of our conversation, he smiles and his first sentence is, “I live two lives,” (like a great book that grabs readers from the first page, that sentence intrigued me). The suspense, however, was quickly dissipated when he continued after a brief pause, “in terms of my business life; my personal life is just one,” he smiles – this time candidly. Nevertheless, Ahmad’s life in his own words has been “quite an eventful one.”
His two business lives are the ones he runs simultaneously. One is Pakistan-based and is called Pace Media (a media representative company), set up by his father in the early seventies, and Ad Space, set up in the late nineties and which is Dubai based. Pace Media has been representing international publications such as Arab News, The Economist, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal and several other well-known international titles. When Time magazine bought CNN in the mid-nineties, the company got the representation for CNN in Pakistan as well. Although he runs his businesses out of Pakistan and Dubai, home is actually Canada. He has two daughters and a son. His eldest daughter works for an NGO in Canada and the younger one is working on setting up her own business in Pakistan. His son, the youngest of the lot, is studying at a university in Canada.
The third of eight siblings, Ahmad is the only one who joined his father’s business in its early stages. He began helping him while studying. He says he did not aspire to do anything else at the time, as he was not particularly good at studies. “I did my degree privately on the insistence of my wife; she wanted a graduate husband,” he laughs. His elder two siblings had by then moved to the US to study.
Initially, his work involved delivering letters door-to-door to various advertising agencies (there were no courier companies at that time) and this gave him the opportunity to meet all the media managers at different advertising agencies. He joined Pace Media full-time in the mid-eighties and began looking after foreign publications. At about the same time, he joined the Pakistan Advertising Association and remained a member for several years.
In the late eighties, he decided to move to the US to explore opportunities in business expansion. He was married by then.
In 1989, he moved to Atlanta. He chose Atlanta because the city would be hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics and he thought being there might help him get into sports marketing. He became a member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, where as part of the investment committee, he was given a chance to attract investment to Atlanta and this allowed him to interact with different US companies, some of which he was successful in bringing to Atlanta.
He also became part of Atlanta’s Olympic Organising Committee as a volunteer. However, after 18 months his options were stark; either return to Pakistan or find something that generated enough money to keep things afloat. That is when he started pitching a friend’s products (denim, t-shirts for children, toddlers and infants) that were exported from Pakistan to the US, and he recalls securing the first order worth $317,000. “But my love affair with the textile industry was short. The money was coming in, but I was not enjoying it. It was too clerical.” He decided to move back to Pakistan.
As it happened, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early nineties and the emergence of the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS), presented him with another opportunity. “They were new countries and they wanted to build an image for themselves, promote tourism and that was where I saw the opportunity – to offer international advertising.” In 1997, he flew Aeroflot to Russia.
Those were pre-internet times and he had to read up a lot about these countries, often relying on outdated directories to find the right people. Once in Russia, he took a charter flight to Kazakhstan where he met their minister for economic affairs and finance. Through him he learned the country was in the midst of privatising several industries and he offered to help promote the process. “I put together a special report on privatisation for The Times of London. This was my first break in the region.” He replicated his initiative in Uzbekistan in the nineties and then in Azerbaijan in 2011. Ahmad has been working in the region for almost 25 years and he admits to challenges because initially the CIS countries had a very ‘Soviet’ mindset and gaining their trust was not easy. Added to which, in order to promote these countries as destinations, the infrastructure had to be upgraded, something that did not happen overnight.
His next focus was Africa and the first country he did business with was Congo, followed by Angola, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya. “The problem is that people do not know much about the world. The media is quite bad; all they promote is gloom and doom. I get so much business from Ethiopia, but whenever I tell people I have been there they ask me whether they have food or not. They don’t know that Ethiopia is the fastest growing economy in the world and their airline (my client) has the biggest network in Africa.” As of now, Ahmad’s focus remains CIS and Africa. “It fulfils my passion for travel and generates some revenue.”
Despite the frequency of his travels and the fact that he is usually in Pakistan only for a week in a month, he continues to manage Pace Media. He was elected President of the Marketing Association of Pakistan (MAP) last July and was MAP’s VP for five years prior to this. The reason he remains involved with the Association is to maintain his connections with Pakistan. His ambition as President of MAP is to revamp the organisation. In this regard, he aims to widen the membership and include students as well as liaise with the business schools in Pakistan.
Going forward, in terms of his own business, Ahmad says with the change in the media-scape and the growth of digital, advertisers no longer require middlemen like him anymore. As for any thoughts about retiring, he is not sure when, but he is certain that whenever he does, he will continue with his philanthropic work, especially the school he has been running for underprivileged children in Karachi for 20 years, as well as the relief kitchen he has run since 2005 in KPK.
Before leaving, I discovered another one of his passions – photography. Pointing to the wall above his desk, he directed me to four framed photographs he had taken of Karachi and other places in the early morning light (he says he is a very early riser.)He also showed me another set of his photographs of Karachi while escorting me downstairs. Oh and not to forget, I also got to see the ‘brag wall’ – his term for the many photographs taken of him with some of the well-known personalities he has met during the course of his eventful career.