A Conversation with Blitz Advertising COO Umair Saeed


We recently had a conversation with Umair Saeed, Chief Operating Officer at Blitz Advertising, a Karachi-based firm that counts amongst its client list some of the world’s most popular brands including Johnson & Johnson, American Express and Samsung.

A strategic marketing and brand communications specialist, Saeed, who formerly worked at DDB and Leo Burnett, oversees multiple channels in the Blitz client journey, from creative to content to media, giving him broad perspective and influence on the marketing and brand communication mix.

Of most recent note, Saeed was one of the driving forces behind the innovative, mega-successful Pakistan Super League campaign with HBL that set the country abuzz.


 

He spoke with Branding in Asia publisher and editor in chief, Bobby McGill.


How did you end up going into the advertising industry?

Back in 1999, I was freelancing as a web designer and learning Macromedia Flash through online tutorials… yes, the internet was horrible in Pakistan and one tutorial per week was a great success. I met a few like-minded folks there and started a small company called ArteMedia.

Our first project as a team was an ad agency’s website and from the very first meeting I started falling in love with the ad world; the process of ideation, creating brands, obsessing about human behavior and how it shapes the future. I chose advertising to work with gifted, interesting people on exciting projects, on ideas that can change the world. I had already enrolled in a Bs. (Hons) Business Informatics degree program which is a discipline combining information technology and management concepts. I interned with ad agencies while studying and was eventually hired at Insync (a Hip Media company) as a brand planner.

With the benefit of hindsight what would you have done differently when you first got into the ad world?

Nothing. I love being fooled by randomness. The person I am today is a product of past experiences; each and every one of them.


 

Umair Saeed Blitz - Branding in Asia

Looking back at your innovative approach to the Pakistan Super League campaign with HBL, had any agency initiated such an event? Can you tell us a little about the process?

We were working with HBL as their content and digital media agency since early 2015. When HBL signed up for PSL it gave us an opportunity to showcase our strength in medium neutral ideation and original content creation. We got a very small window for planning though, so clarity of purpose was imperative in getting it right. While the entire search and social ecosystem always floods with second hand content from sporting events. Other brands that were associating with various PSL teams or buying commercial airtime around the live telecast were going to create a lot of clutter online an on ground.

We learned a great deal to be honest. First and foremost, ideation without execution is just an illusion. And a flawless execution requires an experienced team.

Creating original, real-time and exclusive content for HBL was the key to making a high impact campaign; online and on the ground. We took advantage of HBL’s contract with PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board) and its brand ambassadors for PSL; coming up with the idea of “On the Crease with Ramiz”; a series of short videos pre and post every match. Ramiz Raja is a veteran cricketer, ex national team captain and a beloved commentator of the game. He was also featuring in HBL’s PSL consumer promotion campaign giving HBL customers a chance to win all expense paid trip to PSL finals in Dubai, so it made perfect sense.

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This dedicated segment exclusively offered constructive criticism, analysis and answers to questions constantly coming in via Facebook and Twitter from cricket lovers in Pakistan and elsewhere. This segment went viral as various clips from these videos made it to 9pm news on leading national TV channels.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auRgNJD4a1Q

For HBL, the single minded objective of this entire campaign was to own PSL. HBL prides itself as an enabler of dreams and has been investing in cricket Pakistan for a long time now. A series of other activities were weaved around our original content as the center. Some of these ideas delivered beyond expectations, some did not. But as a whole, our campaign for HBL PSL was one of the most successful digital campaign from Pakistan ever.

The leading industry journal Dawn Aurora wrote: “#HBLPSL arguably one of Pakistan’s most successful branded hashtags, creating trends on multiple digital platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. A smart content drive planned around Ramiz Raja gave a day-by-day account from the crease and became an increasingly successful engagement property for the overall digital community of cricket lovers in Pakistan – which is in itself no small feat.”

Is it fair to say that the purchasing of content rights from Pakistan Cricket Board in advance was a bold move as well as a huge financial gamble?

Bold move yes, financial gamble? No!

Cricket is the most popular sport in the country. Blitz was already investing in different content through our specialized unit called The Content Company. We also had experience of managing the national T20 championship for two of our other clients for over 5 years. It is the same national championship that was upgraded by PCB  to become PSL. We knew the potential, calculated the risks involved and decided to give it our best.

Challenge the fundamental assumptions in the “what is” space. Creativity is the driving force in this business, conforming to existing norms will never let you do anything extraordinary.

Majority of the potential buyers of this content couldn’t see the value in this investment; there were two things that bothered everyone. One was that PSL was scheduled very close to major international cricketing events including World T20 Cup. They assumed most brands will put their money behind the international events instead of PSL

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The second was that PCB had been trying to launch PSL for the last 4 years but could only make it happen by taking the matches outside Pakistan. That meant less excitement, lower involvement and mediocre attendance; affecting the selling price.

We knew these risks, but we were confident we could sell this as a long term investment. The rest is history.

What made HBL the right fit as a brand partner? Why not your other clients like Mobilink?

PCB sold the nomenclature + title sponsorship to HBL (Habib Bank) directly. They followed a proper bidding process where many banks and telecom companies pitched. To be honest, HBL made the best match too. With a mission to “enable dreams”, it has always played an instrumental role in promoting sports and sportsmen, especially cricket, producing some of the biggest stars for Pakistan cricket. Mobilink was more interested in running its own team franchise within the PSL.

What has been the reaction in the industry, client and agency side, to your out of the box approach towards sports marketing?

There is a saying. Cricket is a sport that is passionately loved and enjoyed by the entire nation. Sadly, we didn’t have any international cricket played in Pakistan for many years amid the law and order conditions. HBL PSL has been phenomenal in bringing cricket closer to home.

Umair Saeed (center) with members of the Blitz team.

Umair Saeed (center) with members of the Blitz team.

What did you learn from the experience that wasn’t apparent before that you would apply in future ventures?

We learned a great deal to be honest. First and foremost, ideation without execution is just an illusion. And a flawless execution requires an experienced team. Since Pakistan is still catching up to latest trends in sports marketing, and that this was a “first of its kind” event, it was virtually impossible to have local experts on our payroll.

We’ve learned to reach out to global experts now and are employing the use of Sports at SMG; a specialized unit within the Publicis Media team that has extensive experience in sports marketing. Such a specialized unit can add a lot of value to our work. And this holds true for every project.

While young talent will always break boundaries, disrupt the curves and innovate…albeit frugally, an experienced consultant can help improve your effectiveness and efficiencies.

Aside of the HBL Pakistan Super League, what do you consider your biggest professional accomplishment thus far?

While working at Leo Burnett back in 2006, I got a chance to work on a global, social movement against terrorism. YehHumNaheen.org was founded by an ex-BBC producer Waseem Mahmood (OBE, author of Good Morning Afghanistan) and the movement aimed at rallying the masses against terrorism using media and communication. Together with LB’s creative and media teams, I helped design a multi-phased, multi-channel, behavior change campaign. In the “Awake” phase, we started the narrative by producing and releasing an anti-terrorism anthem featuring Pakistan’s biggest stars from the music industry. With a very small marketing budget that could in no way cover the cost of employing such stars or buy media airtime, we actively lobbied with senior management of media channel using the agency’s clout to get maximum exposure for the campaign in the minimum cost.

To “Engage” the masses, we designed a petition denouncing terrorism to be signed by Pakistanis from all over the country, as the second phase of the campaign. Still, with limited funds and lack of internet technology penetration in the country, it was very challenging to gain considerable amount of signatures through a web based petition alone. I came up with the idea to mobilise school and college students across the country as volunteers who would print copies of the petition and go door to door for signatures/ thumbprints. I also facilitated setting up a shortcode with all the telcom service providers that could receive sms based signatures to the petition. As a result, we were able to gain a record 62.8 million signatures, becoming one of the largest petition campaigns in the world. It wasn’t the number of signatures but the change in public sentiment (backed by research) that excited me. The third phase was titled “Inspire” where we shared real life stories of terror victims as well as everyday heroes who prevented terror attacks from happening or reducing their impact radius. The campaign fetched multiple local and international awards helping the agency showcase its creativity while addressing a very important social issue.

Any advice you’d give to someone just getting into the industry who is looking to make their mark?

Two things:

  • Be honest to yourself and define your operating principles. Remember… a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money!
  • Give yourself the freedom to fail… that’s the road to greatness. Dare to dream, to try, to fail and fall. Challenge the fundamental assumptions in the “what is” space. Creativity is the driving force in this business, conforming to existing norms will never let you do anything extraordinary.

Photos courtesy of Blitz.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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