Published in Mar-Apr 2022
As I wait in one of Digitz-Digitas’ meeting rooms, brushing the dust off my feet (this is Karachi, after all), a tall, slim figure enters in welcoming and upbeat mode. After a smattering of small talk, a glass of water and a cup of tea, Azam Jalal Khan – wearing dark trousers and a neatly tucked in white button-down – is eager to dive into my questions about the current hot topic surrounding his company – the partnership with the Publicis Groupe’s “crown jewel” Digitas.
The partnership was announced earlier this year, and today Digitz is called Digitz-Digitas – a development that will strategically place the company on the global map, thanks to Digitas’ extended global network. According to Khan, Publicis Groupe’s ‘Power of One’ strategy will give Digitz-Digitas access to new resources and tools, bringing an exponential learning curve within the company. Interestingly, the name Digitz was inspired by Digitas as far back as 10 years ago. Khan elaborates that “when we started out, our thought process was ‘humein baray ho kar Digitas banna hai’… and we have been chasing Digitas in some way or form since 2013.” Apart from the obvious benefits of partnering with a foreign entity, I ask what his plans are following the the partnership. He responds that he would like to meet the CEOs of the high-performing Digitas companies and apply those learnings in Pakistan. From what I gather, his relationship with Digitz can be traced to an email ‘from fate’ as it were. Shortly after he moved back to Pakistan from Canada, he emailed Imtisal Abbasi (now Partner, Digitz-Digitas) telling him he was looking for opportunities. Abbasi’s response was: “Your email is a divine intervention. Can I please see you?” Abbasi knew Zeeshan Sharfi (now co-Founder & Managing Partner, Digitz-Digitas) and wanted to introduce the two men, as Sharfi wanted to rebrand the digital agency he owned. As a result of the meeting, Khan joined the newly rebranded agency, now called Digitz, as Chief Operating Officer.
At this point, Digitz only had a handful of employees, but their ambition was limitless. Khan now has a “I can’t wait to tell this story” look on his face, and without further prompting goes on to tell me about when, in 2012, eager to pitch to a big client, they needed to showcase themselves as a larger and far more established agency than they actually were. They opted for an unconventional route by opting for temporary hires (read: young people pretending to be Digitz employees) and trained them to present and respond to questions during the pitch. Surprisingly (or not), they won the account – which by the way is still with them (the client was later told about the ploy). Since then, Digitz has grown to become one of Pakistan’s largest digital full-service agencies, winning along the way the Coca-Cola and Mondelēz accounts – according to Khan within the span of one week and while he was in the midst of his wedding preparations.
This brings to mind yet another story. “Coca-Cola were taking pitches for a project and we were shortlisted. For the final round, Digitz had to present at Coke’s Lahore head office on December 26, which was also the day of my wedding. To make matters worse, on December 24, we received an invitation to make a pitch for Mondelēz in three days. In the midst of all the wedding preparations, I sneaked into the office, pretending I was getting my sherwani and informed the team that I was useless at the moment and asked ‘What should we do?’ They insisted they would handle both pitches, and they did this by working day and night (and attended my wedding). The following week, Zeeshan called saying, ‘Mubarak ho! Humein dono accounts mil gaye’, to which I said that this was the best news of the year. To this day, Nida [Haider], my wife, who was present during the call, still says, ‘Shame on you. You were seated next to your new bride and that was the best news of the year!?’”
When he talks about his wife (she is Managing Partner, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi), one cannot help but notice his admiration for her. I use this as a cue to ask about how they met. It was at a mutual friend’s gathering where they bonded over the fact that both had recently moved back to Pakistan to help out at home. Haider to help with the family business after her father, the iconic Naseer Haider, passed away, and Khan because his father had suffered a stroke – “it was the most impulsive decision of my life; I decided to move back within a matter of hours.”
Coming back to his wife, he immediately knew he wanted to marry her – he now starts listing her professional accomplishments and talks about how funny she is. He adds that while he is happy to sing in the morning and eager to discuss profound matters, such as genetic modification at 6.30 a.m., Haider balances it out with, “Can you please shut up until we have had coffee at least?”
He is clearly a family man. He is close to his entire family and maintains separate and meaningful relationships with his siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles – in fact , with his entire family. He attributes this to his strong sense of empathy. In his opinion, his sense of empathy is key to both his professional and personal life. When the team at Digitz was smaller, he had a deep relationship with every one of them.
Since we are on the topic of family, I ask him what family life was like as a child. He takes a few seconds to gather his thoughts and says his childhood was “wholesome.” The “quiet, obedient and submissive” middle child, he and his two siblings were brought up mostly by their mother, as their father was in the Merchant Navy and away for months at a time. “Although we spent quite some time away from him, whenever he was with us, he was fully with us. He taught us all the fun stuff from cycling to nishana baazi,” although he admits that one of his biggest fears was studying with father. He jokes that the reason behind his poor interest in studies was his sensorineural hearing loss. Although it was diagnosed in 2015, it could have been there at birth. “So I was brilliant, but I just couldn’t hear my teachers!” he laughs.
Another reason could have been that the subjects he was taught at school did not pique his interest. When he moved to Canada to attend the University of Windsor for his Bachelor’s in Computer Science and Internet Marketing, the subjects became his forte, eventually leading to his passion for all things digital. His first ‘proper’ job was as a web developer that turned into a full-time position after he graduated. Prior to joining Digitz, he worked in software engineering and product development in companies such as the MaRS Discovery District, Canada’s largest research complex – “We developed a web-based system that allowed principal investigators to submit their documents within one system and got rid of all the paper involved,” – as well as for Aon Canada and Rogers. He still enjoys product development as it entails developing an idea during the initial stages of problem solving.
When not occupied with Digitz-Digitas, he spends time with his family, especially his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter. He likes to read and travel and is four dives away from becoming a certified skydiver. Clearly, he is a driven, passionate individual who is not afraid of pursuing meteor-sized goals, be they expanding Digitz-Digitas or pursuing his interest in neuroscience. In case one day you come across an article in a scientific journal on genetic modification written by Azam Jalal Khan, don’t be surprised.