Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

“We are in a period of transition, and the question is, how do we prepare for this to ensure we provide the best solutions for our clients?”

Ateeq-ur-Rehman, CEO, GroupM, speaks to Aurora about how his company is preparing for the transition towards more digitally engaged audiences.
Updated 23 Jan, 2024 12:50pm

AURORA: You were recently appointed CEO of GroupM and Amna Khatib Paracha was appointed MD of Mindshare. Does it suggest a change in strategic direction within the Group?

ATEEQ-UR-REHMAN: The CEO position was triggered by our former CEO Naveed Asghar leaving for Canada. Globally and locally, GroupM is a strong believer in nurturing talent from within, and after a process of evaluation by our regional counterparts, it was decided to give the leadership role locally. Amna was formerly the Chief Digital & Strategy Officer at GroupM, and given that media investments are increasingly moving into the digital space, it made sense to bring her leadership skills to Mindshare, which is the leading brand within GroupM.

A: To what extent have media consumption habits changed in Pakistan, and how does this translate to the media planning function?

AR: The core objective is to reach and engage audiences, which means understanding their 24-hour cycle; what they do; what interests them, what they engage with. In the past, in terms of media consumption, audiences spent most of their time on print and TV. Then TV went from just one to a few and then to over 100 channels currently, and people were spending a lot more time on that medium which translated into a lot of advertising dollars going there as well. Now we are seeing another transition – this time to digital – and this one is faster, especially among Gen Z and the emerging Gen Alpha. Added to this, even the media consumption patterns among older generations, including Boomers, have changed. We are in a period of transition, and the question is, how do we prepare for this to ensure we provide the best solutions for our clients? No doubt, TV still leads in terms of penetration, but digital is gaining. Earlier, the mix was such that two to three percent of the spend went to digital, but in the last four to five years this spend has been as high as over 30%, with some advertisers going all digital and we see that trend continuing as mobile penetration and internet consumption grows. However, within the digital space itself, there are also a lot of changes. At the moment, a lot of spend is going into display or video platforms, but things could change with the emergence of e-commerce and social commerce.

A: Why is TV still so important in Pakistan?

AR: Recent market research by IPSOS Pakistan has shown that traditional TV still captures about 60% of the total media consumption. Global benchmarks are changing and over 50% of the investment is now digital, and as high as 80 to 90% in some markets. In Pakistan, people still watch TV, especially when it comes to sports. Compared to any other content, people want to watch sports on a big screen. This said, the trend is declining, and although the transition will take time, it will happen sooner rather than later and both clients and agencies must prepare themselves for that.

A: Do Gen Z still watch TV?

AR: According to the data, they do, but this is declining at a much faster pace and going forward, if we want to cater to this generation, who will be making the majority of the purchasing decisions, we need to learn and invest in understanding their media and buying behaviours.

A: What are the digital platforms that are emerging?

AR: I would not say platforms, because platforms fall into specific spaces. In this respect, I would say ‘commerce’; e-commerce, social commerce, influencer marketing and gaming. Social commerce is already very prevalent in Southeast Asian markets. For example, the TikTok Shop has changed the way people use commerce. It enables merchants and creators to showcase and sell products directly through a complete in-app experience. OTT is another potential space that has yet to come to its true potential. Another area are gaming ads, given the growing importance of gaming among younger audiences. In fact, what dramas are to a mature female audience, gaming is to a younger audience, and gaming ads play a crucial role in engaging tech-savvy audiences. With an expected revenue of over $200 million within the gaming ecosystem and a substantial user base of 63.54 million, gaming ads are positioned for a 10% plus growth in 2024.

A: Are there enough influencer marketers in Pakistan in terms of numbers and quality? One has a sense that there is some fatigue there.

AR: Influencer marketing is an exciting growth area and one in which clients are looking for global scale and outcomes driven capabilities. This is where the data part comes in. GroupM has a solution called Goat that provides amazing insights and data at a very granular level. Goat specialises in data-led, end-to-end influencer marketing campaigns, grounded in performance and measurement and drives authentic brand engagement while integrating targeted paid media to reach the right audience and achieve industry-leading results.

A: Isn’t this counterintuitive? The power of influencers was based on the fact that they were ‘real’ in terms of what they promoted, but today they are mostly paid to promote, which at some level compromises their credibility.

AR: It depends. People will follow an influencer because they like the beauty tips they give. If they say they have used a product themselves and it works, this creates a much stronger connection with audiences compared to seeing an ad in a passive environment. Influencer marketing is a great tool, so long as it is backed by the right data, so that you use the right influencers for the right brand with the right communication.

A: Today, audiences are engaged across multiple platforms and touchpoints and clearly, evaluating reach is no longer as simple as when there was just TV, print and radio. How is GroupM optimising reach?

AR: When you break down audiences into age groups, you see a lot of differences in terms of their media consumption habits, and to drive better results you have to have the best expertise within a particular space and the ability to develop different tools that will give you the advantage. GroupM has that advantage by virtue of being a global agency operating in over 80 countries. We invest a lot in Research & Data (R&D); in fact, last year GroupM spent over $100 million on (R&D). Xaxis, our digital programmatic solution has a proprietary tool called Copilot, which is an AI technology that optimises digital media investments for real business outcomes. GroupM has another solution called ‘mScreen’ that looks at linear and connected TV data to garner incremental reach for a particular budget, market, project or media plan. We have also developed tailor-made local solutions for our clients within this space.

A: One of the big challenges in terms of data is the decision to ban third-party cookies by next year. How will this impact the media planning and strategy function?

AR: It is a learning curve, and given that it is going to become a reality, we have to be ready for this change – and we have already done so. At the global level, GroupM has a joint initiative with Google Chrome and we have launched a first-to-market programme called The Privacy Sandbox. The idea is to accelerate the process of preparing for the third-party cookie deprecation which is due in the second half of 2024. At GroupM, we believe that advertising can, and should, respect people’s privacy while still delivering exceptional value to consumers and advertisers. They go hand in hand; it is not one or the other, and this programme (which is specific to GroupM clients) will guide clients in terms of targeting, optimising and measuring their digital investments across their display and video. A lot more science is coming into the picture. The Privacy Sandbox is just one of the many examples where GroupM is helping clients adapt their marketing strategies to maintain their relevance and be effective in the post-cookie world.

A: Will AI play an important part in this?

AR: Data is the fuel that drives AI, and the good part is that today there is a lot of data and AI will provide solutions aimed at efficiently developing targeted marketing and media strategies. AI will also expand to other areas and this is something we are really excited about. We have already started working with a few clients on developing models within the AI space. We are also working on this with our global teams to give us a head-start locally.

A: Science implies both knowledge and rigour in implementation. How and where do you find the resources to accomplish the tasks required in a data-driven world?

AR: As a company, we don’t necessarily pick people who already have an established skill set. We believe in developing them, and this is why we have always considered ourselves to be a learning institute where people undergo very rigorous programmes – and in this respect, we have locally as well as regionally driven programmes, where we develop people with the kind of skill sets and expertise that do not come close to anything found elsewhere else. It is these skill sets that really differentiate us as a media company. Earlier, skill sets were much simpler and this is not a transition where everything can be transformed 100% in one go; it is a process. We have already established a team of experts in data, tech, influencer marketing and content and we have people who understand and can create different AI models. An important aspect is understanding how data can be used and there is a lot available. Clients have first, second and third-party data, but not many of them know what to do with it. Our role is to help them formulate and organise their data strategies. Earlier, we worked with clients on media strategies, now we are working with them to develop data strategies – and we are able to do this because we have invested in the right skill sets.

A: Are our higher educational institutes offering the kind of course degrees required for people who want to get into data?

AR: I joined GroupM with an MBA in marketing. In those days, there were no specialised Media Sciences Bachelor or Master degrees; at the most, there would be one course on media within the framework of the degree course. Today, most universities offer specialisations within Media Sciences. Globally, there are specialisations in data sciences, including AI, and I think we will be moving into that space as well. A lot of educational institutes will have to look at how they design their curriculums and put more focus on AI and data.

A: How much collaboration is there between academia and companies such as yours?

AR: As we speak, there is an IBA lecturer on the premises interacting with our people. In fact, we consistently engage with the universities and intend to do a lot more. I have already defined new areas that we will be looking at, and they will include collaborating with educational institutes as well as young people looking for careers, in terms of letting them know what is needed and how we can help them. Within our region, Pakistan is one of the leading markets when it comes to talent export and we have always promoted this. Go and work in other markets and shine, and if they come back, transfer that skill set to the country. In the digital space, the competition is not just local, it has become global, and we have to strengthen our skill sets at a much faster pace, and for this, a lot more collaboration is needed; between companies, between institutes and even with the government. For our part, we are devising interesting course modules that will start with our own employees and then we intend to open them to the industry. GroupM has always believed in developing the ecosystem so that everyone within it grows. The ecosystem should not just be about profitability; it is also about developing people and giving back to communities. Our vision has always been to make sure that advertising works better for our clients and people.

A: Other than the more future-facing national companies, how many local clients are ready to take the steps required for in-depth data-driven media and marketing strategies?

AR: When any change happens, the first step is realisation and acceptance, and from the people I have been talking to, including people who are not our clients, the realisation about the importance of data is there; however, the priority might not – and the reason is that in our market, clients are still at an infancy stage when it comes to utilising data to its full potential. In this respect, GroupM has developed multiple in-house data solutions that focus on conversion rate optimisation based on purchase patterns; accumulating data insights for forecasting and planning; data-backed AI solutions that can be turned into campaigns and automating listening data using AI bots to reduce human intervention. So the journey will be different for different clients, and some will be more proactive than others and come to it sooner.

A: Is it a problem that many organisations have trust issues when it comes to sharing their data?

AR: You cannot provide solutions, if you don’t understand the client’s business and have access to the information that will help us to understand them. To your question, I think the majority are open in terms of sharing. A lot has changed in the past few years in terms of collaboration between clients and their agency partners.

A: Given the increasing media complexity, do you think Pakistani communication specialists should collaborate more?

AR: I find it positive that everyone is heading in the right direction; we may be taking slow steps but we are taking steps and we will get there. But yes, everyone has to come together in bringing change about and the weakness is that we don’t always do, especially on common themes that would help the ecosystem. We tend to stay in our silos, which is okay too, although the impact will not be the same. But overall, I believe we are moving in the right direction.

Ateeq-ur-Rehman was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: