Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

"I want to impact 10,000 lives every single day directly and put Pakistan on the map as a country that produces some of the best global marketing talent"

Faizan S. Syed, Founder and CEO, East River, speaks to Aurora about what makes his agency different and where he wants to take it.
Updated 16 May, 2023 12:35pm

AURORA: How did East River come into being, and why the name?
FAIZAN S. SYED: After my A Levels I moved to the US and after college, I worked for General Motors. Then I went to grad school to study finance and joined Lehman Brothers – this was in 2008-2009. My dream had been to work for an investment bank. The apartment where I lived in New York had a view of the East River and the irony was that every morning when I woke up to go to the job I had dreamt about most of my life – I was miserable. I used to look at the East River while having my cup of chai, thinking that one day I will quit banking and start my own company. Four years later, I moved back to Pakistan and helped to launch and run a channel called Health TV. The agency happened by chance in 2016, and when I realised I was going to have my own company I called it East River in memory of those miserable mornings.

A: What do you mean “happened by chance”?
FSS: In 2012, when I came back to Pakistan, the US was so much more advanced in terms of connectivity. So I had a sense of how Pakistan would evolve in terms of digital. The first thing I did was build up the digital assets for the TV channel I was running and within two years our digital traffic was greater than our TV traffic – and it was all organic growth. In three years, our Facebook page had 3.2 million fans – and without paying a single penny. Friends then started asking me to help them build their own digital presence. Then a large confectionery company came into the picture and suggested I pitch for their digital business. I told them I was not an agency and didn’t know the first thing about pitching. Then, coincidentally, I heard from a friend about a digital agency that was about to let go of their team. I said “Hold it, I have an idea. Help me make a pitch to a potential client and if it works I will absorb the entire team.” We made the pitch and the client loved it. I went to the owner of the agency and said, “Give me the team, their laptops, desks – everything – and set them up in an office and let me know what the cost for the entire thing will be. I will work for you for free until I pay you back. He agreed and suddenly I had a team of 15 people, about five clients, an office and a debt of 12 to 13 million (I paid it back in three years). Today, East River has approximately 100 people and we are serving clients in Pakistan, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US.

A: What is East River’s business model predicated on?
FSS: Entrepreneurship is made up of a series of unsuccessful and successful pivots. You are constantly pivoting and course-correcting. In our case, we were building a digital agency and none of us was familiar with that space. But we had an assumption – that younger audiences were not going to consume print and TV; they would all be on digital, and we had to build a company that created content that was so amazing that no matter what, they would stop, pause and look at it. Initially, we took a creative first approach and, unlike other digital agencies, we hired from the big creative agencies to set the direction and narrative for our content. But then Facebook started to restrict the number of users who could come to a Facebook page – and suddenly, it wasn’t just about content; it was about content plus the right media spend and media became as important as creative. Today, digital is looked at for two things – driving awareness (that a brand exists), and then consideration and conversion – and more and more people want to focus on consideration and conversion (they can get awareness from TV), and that is where our focus has been.

A: When you set up East River in 2016, you saw the gap between the US and Pakistan in terms of digital adoption, and were able to capture that space in a sort of first-mover advantage. Now that Pakistan has caught up in digital terms, what are you offering your clients that is different?
FSS: I have never considered myself a man of the industry. I ended up doing things I had never been taught by jumping into them and learning on the fly, and because I have never considered myself an insider, I was willing to look at things from the perspective of what the Japanese call shoshin – a beginner’s mind. I had to learn from scratch and that is how it has been for the agency. We say yes and then figure it out. That is the first thing that makes us different. The second thing is that most digital agencies are extensions of bigger creative houses; they are a smaller part of a bigger business. For me, this is the entire business and therefore it has to be big; there is no other option. The third thing is that I don’t believe the market is in Pakistan. The spending power of brands here is limited. The potential lies in serving the world. Once I set up the agency, I started to think about the long-term vision and I realised that what I want to do is to impact 10,000 lives every single day directly and put Pakistan on the map as a country that produces some of the best global marketing talent. Right now, there is no agency impacting 10,000 lives every day, nor is there any entity originating from Pakistan that one can call truly multinational. I would like to solve both of these issues.

A: How will you solve that?
FSS: We have started by identifying the talent gap in the market and figuring out what the global demand for talent is. We have great English-speaking talent, great design talent; talent that understands math and numbers. We just need to groom them on platforms that manage media. Eighteen months ago, we partnered with Ziauddin University and Brainchild Communications to create the first free training institute for media. We inducted about 100 students from different backgrounds from Ziauddin University and developed a 12-week media training programme on how to run social media platform ads, and how to work with publishers and influencers. The idea is to have a pool of talent at the end of 12 weeks that we can deploy to assignments globally. These resources will work on global accounts and earn dollars. We plan to do this programme at least four times a year, and if we can upscale 400 people a year, in five years that is 2,000 people and it eventually gets to my 10,000 lives a day goal. And if this talent pool is available to the other agencies in the market, great!

A: Isn’t this moving away from the business of advertising and into that of head-hunting?
FSS: We are not necessarily hunting for existing talent; we are creating resources that don’t exist in the market today. When I wanted to hire five media resources, the market didn’t have more than 20 people worth hiring at the level we needed, and they were spread across 10 agencies. So we need a talent creation component. I don’t think we are moving away from advertising because not all clients will want to run that talent themselves. They will ask us to run the talent and create the campaigns, because it is cheaper to do so from Pakistan, at let’s say $15 an hour, compared to hiring someone for $50 an hour to do the same thing abroad.

A: Is your vision for East River global rather than Pakistan focused?
FSS: I don’t think that the potential that can be tapped in Pakistan is close to the potential that can be tapped globally. The challenge, if you have access to global networks, is to pull them into Pakistan and say, give us a try. If you don’t have access to global networks, but you have strong local ties, then become the best in the local market, because it still has a lot of potential; it’s not in dollars, it’s a lot more price sensitive but there is still a lot of opportunity. In my case, I have a lot of global connections, which is why I feel that I am in a better position to reach a global audience; whether this will pay off only time will tell. What can one give the world that Pakistan has a lot of? People. Many companies are exporting people, like drivers and labour and so on. That is easy; you walk into a village, select 100 people and you have 100 drivers to send. No one wants to go through the pain of value creation and upscaling talent – yet this is exactly what Pakistan should be doing. But it needs to be talent that can create value and which will bring money into the country. If we can scale up and export quality talent, we are not looking at bringing in five dollars per hour, but 20 or 25 dollars per hour – and you are still helping the global market save money because they are charged 100 or 150 dollars per hour for the same resource in their market.

A: What are the local opportunities that can be explored?
FSS: This is a market of 200 million plus people; 100 million have 4G connections, 50 million have YouTube accounts, of which 40 million are daily active users. And if you have access to social media, you have some level of purchasing power and we have not even scratched the surface in terms of reaching out to these audiences through digital. The market is wide open and part of the reason why we do not see big, bold digital campaigns is because there is a gap in the mindset of the business owner and the brand manager. Owners still don’t see the value of digital in the same way they see the value of TV. They think TV is the bigger medium and they are not willing to spend as much on digital as they do on TV. And they have not figured out how to use local publishers. Why are we running ads on Facebook or Google and sending the money outside Pakistan, when we can engage Pakistani consumers in a hundred other ways? I don’t think advertisers have figured out how to use local publishers and influencers effectively. Another area where I see opportunity is politics. We have not figured out political advertising. We have an election coming up and it is safe to say that over the next six months, there is going to be a lot of opportunity for advertising by the major political parties. The problem is that most of them are not organised; agencies can play a role in helping them deploy capital to reach the right target audience.

A: Digital advertising in Pakistan seems both repetitive and boring, yet some TV commercials have managed to be really engaging. Why is this so?
FSS: It’s not the talent; we have tremendous creative talent, both at the agency and the brand level. But we have to consider a couple of things. We are an extremely price-sensitive market. The minute we see something cheaper, we flock to it. We don’t get the concept of value or paying for services or for knowledge capital. Have you ever thought about why successful local brand consulting companies doing millions of rupees worth of business a month don’t exist in Pakistan? Because we think we already know the answers, so hiring specialists is a waste of money. And then we are risk averse. As a country, we do not reward risk-takers. Imagine how much money Elon Musk has burnt trying to launch a rocket into space or Jeff Bezos burned in making Amazon what it is today. But then the US offers an environment that applauds risk-takers and forgives mistakes. In this market, you make a mistake and it’s “Oh my God, you made me lose a million rupees, what kind of person are you? Don’t you know your job? Are you crazy?” Brand managers live in fear of their bosses, so they play it safe. Of course, we are going to make mistakes; we are still figuring out digital and we will lose money. But guess what? If we get it right, the value we create in getting that one thing right will outweigh the cost incurred in getting to that point. To answer your question, the problem is the mindset. We do not reward risk-takers and this applies across all aspects of business in Pakistan. Why would advertising be any different?

A: Do you think your generation is better equipped in dealing with these mindset issues?
FSS: When you say my generation, I am talking about people born between 1975 and 1985. And what is unique about people born in those years is that we are the only ones who speak the language of both past and future generations. We were in our teens when the internet appeared, so connectivity wasn’t a part of our daily life and this is why we speak the language of both generations. I can communicate with my kids, I get what they are doing, and I can communicate with my parents and understand their concerns about what my kids are doing. This is a good position to leverage a new generation of talent. We understand them and we can also convince the people older than them – those with the money and the power – to give these kids a chance. We are the bridge. The question is not whether we have the capability to be that bridge, but whether we have the desire to be. Everyone in my age group is aware that we have another 20 good working years before us, and in the current economic situation, the question is whether now is the time to pack up and move elsewhere, because it will take us five years to settle down, which gives us another 15 earning years to make a life for ourselves and our children. Sure, this is a country of 200 million people, someone will fill our spot. The question is, will they be on the same bandwidth? I don’t know. We are at a very precarious stage in our history and if this generation is not given some hope, we might lose the bridge between the old and the young.

Faizan S. Syed was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: