MEET MEDIA MOGUL WITH THE AMBITION OF CONSTANT INNOVATION AND GROWTH
Luminary: Please share something regarding your professional journey so far how you started your professional career?
Sarmad Ali: My journey so far has been a bit long but very interesting. I have been associated with some of the biggest advertising agencies of Pakistan. I worked for IAL/Saatchi from 1987 to 1993 and joined Jang Media Group that year as Executive Director of The News, group’s English daily. In 1997, I took over as the Group’s Executive Director Marketing & Advertising Sales and was promoted to Group Managing Director in 2006. I am responsible for the group’s revenue function across its print and digital platforms.
Along with this, I am also the President of All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and this is the third time I have been elected to this honorary position. Currently, I am also the Treasurer of Management Association of Pakistan. Also serving as the President of IAA’s Pakistan Chapter. I am also actively involved in pursuing my responsibilities as the Chairman of the Organizing Committee of AdAsia 2019 as Pakistan has won the bid last year at Taipei to host AdAsia 2019 in Lahore.
Luminary: What differentiates your company from others in the industry?
Sarmad Ali: Our motivation, willingness to innovate and our engagement with our audiences/readers differentiate us from the rest. As print media, we do not restrain ourselves to providing news and information; we form a connection with the people and constantly work hard to add more value to their newspaper readership experience.
For instance, we have started QR codes in Classifieds and Augmented Reality in our newspaper’s content. This is the first time any newspaper has reinvented itself on such a scale and now other newspapers are following suit.
Furthermore, we have also taken our brand beyond newspaper to events, conferences, and exhibitions. Annually, we have six education expos in major cities of Pakistan like Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan, Peshawar and Gujranwala. Moreover, we also organize real estate expos in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, and have taken it a step further to UAE and London for Pakistanis living in these countries.
Luminary: How important is sustainability in the company’s strategy?
Sarmad Ali: It’s very important. The concept of sustainability combines the environmental, social, financial, ethical, legal and political issues that can be both internal and external to the company. It pushes companies to set goals and milestones to address specific issues. Besides, thinking about sustainability encourages creativity in the employees too who strive to think out of the box to come up with cost-effective solutions to problems.
In some cases, it also improves productivity. For instance, you may devise a plan a delivery route for your newspapers to reduce the cost of fuel but in the long run, realise that this streamlined route also reduces labor and maintenance costs.
Luminary: How do you manage conflicts in the workplace and to model solutions for complex multidimensional problems?
Sarmad Ali: I believe every conflict teaches you something; the key is to communicate clearly and make the other person realise you understand where he stands. Being empathetic resolves much of your problem and often makes one or the other party step down and see the bigger picture.
Conflicts are inevitable at work so address them as soon as they appear rather than dwelling upon them. Besides talking it out, your observation can help you make your decisions too. Just don’t play the blame game and let all your employees know they are important. It’s just that one has to accept the right solution for the greater good of the company without making anyone feel insignificant.
Luminary: How far do you succeed in managing a good work-life balance?
Sarmad Ali: Oh! That’s a difficult question. I get very less time to relax but when I am overworked, I try to switch off my phone for a few hours so that I can unwind. This time off helps me rejuvenate to start work again in full swing.
Luminary: What do you do for fun?
Sarmad Ali: My idea of fun is good music, interesting TV shows, and books. In music, I listen to classical and semi-classical. I don’t like contemporary music.
As for TV shows, some of my favourite seasons from the past are Perry Mason. Colombo, The Saint, Jeeves and Wooster etc while from the current times I like to watch Downtown Abbey, House of Cards, Madam Secretary, Roots, Newsroom, Westwing, Mr. Selfridge.
I also read books and my favourite authors are Agatha Christie, P.G. Woodhouse, Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham, etc. I love reading Urdu poetry too and my favourites are Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib, Ahmed Faraz, Kishwar Naheed etc.
Luminary: How do you ensure your organisation and its activities are aligned with your “core values”?
Sarmad Ali: I hire people whose values and vision are aligned with my values and vision. I appoint them for their hard work, values, and integrity.
Luminary: As an organisation gets larger there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening?
Sarmad Ali: Motivation. No matter how big or small your organisation is, you need to keep your people motivated. As the organisation grows, invest in your people to grow with it. Make them feel needed and appreciate them for their achievements. This way they will feel they have contributed to the progress of the organisation and will stick to their roles. Your organisation will benefit as much as you invest in your people.
Luminary: What are three key challenges for business leaders in Pakistan?
Sarmad Ali: There are quite a few challenges for business leaders in Pakistan. First is the human resource. It is very difficult to find and retain responsible and self-motivated individuals for any organisation. Then it is the politico-economic instability of the country that does not allow you to set long-term goals. In such situations, it becomes really difficult to keep your people inspired. Third, there is a communication gap between the employees and the top management, as everyone cannot access the higher-ups easily because of the hierarchical system. This just stretches the process of problem identification and its approval. These are just a few problems from the long list that can go on and on in our environment.
Luminary: What is one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
Sarmad Ali: Well, there are no hard and fast rules but I have some observations that might come useful. Most leaders don’t take out enough time for their staff. I understand, being on important positions mean more workload and responsibility and often one is too wrapped up in their own tasks that they don’t make time for their teams. That’s a big mistake. Your people come first and without you being available to them, they won’t have the guidance to make decisions and meet goals.
Another mistake leaders make is not providing feedback on time. If you notice some weaknesses in your team, you should immediately point that out and help them work on it. The more time you will take, the more business will be lost.
Providing the right motivation to the right team member is also the key and for this, you should have a good understanding of your people. It’s not always the money that keeps a team motivated but they might need appreciation, extra responsibility, and sense of achievement to keep them motivated for their tasks.
Luminary: Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?
Sarmad Ali: It will be difficult for me to name just one person who has helped shape my career as there has been a number of them. Throughout my career, I have had great mentors who helped mold my career and made me the professional I am today. My father has been a great inspiration as he instilled in me the values of honesty, hard work, and integrity.
Apart from him, there have been a number of people who influenced my career like Javed Jabbar, Late Iqbal Mir, Naseer Haider of IAL and Late S. H. Hashmi but if I would have to name one person who has played the most important role in my professional career, it would be Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman. He taught me to stand firm for truth and integrity. It is because of his vision and leadership that I have been associated with this group for more than 23 years and is constantly growing as an individual as well as a professional.
Luminary: What are the most important strategic decisions you’ve made to contribute to the success of the company? Why so successful?
Sarmad Ali: I believe the introduction of cross-media platforms. A country with 60 percent of the population under the age of 24 years, 34 million Internet users making the Internet penetration 17.8 percent, highest amongst the South Asian nations, and more than 139 million mobile phone users, cross-media is our chance to keep print alive.
We launched innovations that integrated print, digital and broadcast properties to deliver maximum reach to our clients as well as engage our readers in a more meaningful way. Innovations like these have helped our group in general and have worked wonders for our clients too, making it a win-win situation for everyone.
Our projects like QR codes in Classifieds have bundled print with digital and video thus providing an exceptional experience to our customers. While Jang Real has connected print with our TV channel as well as our websites, making news live from on your newspapers.
Let me explain a little about how it works. For Classifieds, now you can make videos of the house or car you are selling and we will convert them into QR codes for our print Classifieds. The clients scan the QR code from the newspaper and can watch the related videos.
The other is our augmented reality app – Jang Real. It allows readers to scan headlines of the newspaper with their smartphones and instantly be taken to the Geo News’ bulletin of the same news story. Furthermore, it includes a picture gallery, latest columns and updated information about the same news. This means, it essentially brings the newspaper ‘to life’.
We have also become the first media organisation in Pakistan to initiate “Facebook at work”. FAW is a special program by Facebook that is designed for workplaces as it keeps all the employees of an organisation looped in a Facebook page and people can have discussions, delegate tasks, share execution statuses and celebrate results with teams no matter how far they are.
Moreover, we have extended our brand beyond print to exhibitions, conferences, and events. Yearly, we organise 6 education expos in different parts of Pakistan, 3 real estate expos in the three metros of the country and two international real estate exhibitions in the Middle East and the UK.
Along with this, we have started a series of conferences under the banner of ‘Jang Conferences’ and a series of an informal discussion titled, “Breakfast with Jang’. Both these events focus on the socio-economic issues of our country and provide feasible solutions to these issues in a different format amongst a different audience.
These are small initiatives that we have taken but we have embarked on a journey of reinvention that would keep our company grow and become more successful with time.
Luminary: How can you become a better leader?
Sarmad Ali: Mentorship. This is the best way you can pass on your learning to the next in line leaders. Developing leaders internally takes time and effort, but these homegrown candidates are more likely to be successful than external candidates.
I strongly believe in David Oglivy’s saying, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”
Luminary: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? To the younger generation of CEOs, managers, startups, entrepreneurs and business leaders?
Sarmad Ali: I just want to say that there is a difference between a leader and a manager/CEO. Leadership is to persuade your colleagues to take ownership of their work and perform at their best. Leadership makes others do more, learn more and achieve more. All leaders can be managers but all managers can’t be leaders. There is a thin line between the two. The managers have employees who they can dictate to but leaders win over their followers and make them strong enough to take decisions on their own. Managers think big while leaders implement the vision too. Managers take the credit for the job while leaders take responsibility and deliver it well. Managers believe in exercising their power over the people while leaders develop power with the people.
So I would suggest them to think about being leaders and not managers. It is only through good leadership that you can gain and retain valuable human resource.
Luminary: What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
Sarmad Ali: I read a lot of professional development and marketing management books. Besides, I organise and participate in leadership conferences, workshops, and seminars for continuous growth. I also interact with a lot of different people and trust me you get to learn a lot from that as well.
Luminary: What are your company ambitions for the future?
Sarmad Ali: Presently the Jang Group, through its various assets – TV, print, and broadcast – reaches bout 35 million urban consumers and accounts for nearly 30 percent of total ad spend in Pakistan. I would at best like to increase this and in worst case scenario, to retain these levels. Our company’s ambition is constant innovation and growth.