Faizan Syed is the Founder and CEO of East River, an Effie award-winning full-service digital marketing agency. With a diverse global client footprint, East River serves an array of sectors, including healthcare, beauty, confectionary, pharma, technology, beverage, real estate, and financial services. Its past clientele boasts prominent companies such as Oreo, Cadbury, Unilever, and Pizza Hut, to name a few. Before establishing East River, Faizan brought his expertise as an investment banker and business analyst at GM to the digital marketing sphere. With a full-time, in-house team of about 100 employees, East River serves clients across the US, UK, the Middle East, and has also ventured into Australia.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
- Faizan Syed talks about what they do at East River
- Learnings from his stint at General Motors that Faizan brings into his business today
- What made Faizan start his own agency?
- Deciding how much to charge for a service
- How did Faizan discover EO?
- Business differences between the Eastern and Western markets
- Ways to motivate employees in the work environment
- Faizan’s thoughts on working from home versus working at the office
- East River’s projects with big brands like Oreo and Coach
- Resources that Faizan recommends to other entrepreneurs
In this episode…
In the realm of digital marketing, big brand campaigns are experiencing a revolution. This seismic shift is not just about adapting to the online landscape but about harnessing its power, driving engagement, and translating it into tangible results.
Enter Faizan Syed, the brilliant mind behind East River, a digital agency that broke into the international scene and won contracts from global brands like Mondelez, Oreo, and Coach. From navigating the intricacies of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to tackling the challenges of work-from-home setups, Faizan’s expertise runs deep and wide. His insights provide a fresh perspective on how to navigate the evolving digital landscape.
In this episode of the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast, host Dr. Jeremy Weisz delves into an insightful conversation with Faizan Syed, Founder and CEO of East River. They discuss how Faizan ventured into digital marketing, his transformative journey from a beginner to handling major clients, and the unique strategies that led to significant success. This episode also uncovers Faizan’s learnings from running digital campaigns in various markets, especially the unique digital landscape of Saudi Arabia.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- EO Karachi Pakistan Chapter
- Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO)
- Dr. Jeremy Weisz on LinkedIn
- Faizan Syed on LinkedIn
- East River
- “Building a Great Team and More Helpful Insights with Jason Swenk Host of The Smart Agency Master Class Podcast” on the Inspired Insider Podcast
- “[Top Agency Series] Most Valuable Advice When Selling Your Agency With Todd Taskey of Potomac Business Capital” on the Inspired Insider Podcast
- “[Sweet Process Series] How to Save Hundreds of Hours a Month Using Top Productivity Tools with Adi Klevit of Business Success Consulting Group” on the Inspired Insider Podcast
- Mondelez International
- The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
- The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life’s Perfection by Michael Singer
- The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer
- NPR: How I Built This
- The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living by Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler
Sponsor for this episode…
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Welcome to the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast where we feature top founders and entrepreneurs and their journey. Now let’s get started with the show.
Jeremy Weisz 0:13
Dr. Jeremy Weisz here, founder of inspiredinsider.com, where I talk with inspirational entrepreneurs and leaders today is no different. I have Faizan Syed of EastRiverDigital.com, Faizan before I formally introduce you, I always like to point out other episodes, people should check out of the podcast I had, this is part of the top agency series, we’re going to talk about culture, we’re gonna talk about work from home, we’re going to talk about the value based pricing and all of that, but I had Jason Swenk on, we were talking a little bit about him before we hit record here, he grew his agencies to over eight figures sold it and then started another group, his one of his other groups, he runs a mastermind for agencies and the other one he is buying up agencies, it’s really interesting, he talks about how he values them, how they’re buying them, how he structures it, Todd Taskey. Also, his episode is really good, he runs a second bite podcast, and he calls it the second bite because he matches private equity companies, with agencies and sells them. But then when the private equity sells, sometimes those owners make more on the second bite than they did on the first. So again, talking about valuation and the landscape as well. And another favorite episodes, I had Adi Klevit, you know, actually phase and I went to the Cubs game together and Adi, we are talking about software and tools and all that. And Adi. and I just talked about we geeked out on our favorite productivity tools, software, what we use for our business. And so that was a really good one where we laid out the different tools and software we use. We’ll hear a little bit about what you use. But before we get to it, this episode is brought to you by Rise25. At Rise25 we help businesses give to and connect to their dream 100 relationships and partnerships. And how do we do that? We actually help you run your podcast, we’re an easy button for a company to launch and run a podcast we do the strategy, the accountability, and the full execution and production. You know, phase one, we call ourselves the magic elves that work in the background and make sure everything works make it look easy for the company in the host. You know, for me, the number one thing in my life is relationships. And I’m always looking at ways to give to my best relationships and I found no better way over the past decade to profile the people and companies I most admire and share with the world what they’re working on. So if you thought about podcasting, you should face that actually has a podcast and pretty popular which we’ll talk about. And you should write go to rise25.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And without further ado, Faizan Syed is Founder and CEO of East River Digital you could check it out at eastriverdigital.com. They’re an award winning full service digital marketing agency with a global footprint of clients. They serve all sorts of sectors and they have health care beauty, confectionary, pharma technology, beverage real estate, financial services. And past clients include companies and products like Oreo, Cadbury, Unilever, Pizza Hut, and many many more. He is a former investment banker and business analyst from GM turned digital marketer entrepreneur. So, Faizan thanks for joining me.
Faizan Syed 3:24
Thanks for having me, Jeremy. Is great Cubs game that day?
Jeremy Weisz 3:27
Exactly. It’s a great way to spend Chicago, a day in Chicago. Can you just start off tell people about East River Digital and what you do?
Faizan Syed 3:37
Sure. So East River Digital as a full service agency. We serve as clients, like you said, across all sectors, we believe in being able to deliver audiences and then convert audiences as per the needs of the client. We work throughout the we take a full funnel approach all the way from awareness down to conversion and retargeting. And our entire team is in house and full time. So we have a staff of about a about 100 people and that serves clients across the US, UK, you know, Middle East, and maybe we’ve even experimented in Australia.
Jeremy Weisz 4:14
You know, you have a really interesting background and, you know, University of Virginia, then you went on to get your MBA. Cornell, you worked for GM. You did investment banking since I love to hear what you learned at GM, that you now bring in to your business now.
Faizan Syed 4:33
Sure. So I think it took me a while to realize what my friends had been saying all along, is that I’m not a finance guy. I’m a marketeer. And I didn’t believe them for the longest time because the perception always was that the investment banking career path is the way to go. Investment Banking or consulting you know, no one really talked about marketing in the undergrad days. So it was only that I had to pursue that and discovered that you Know what, they were probably right, I should be in marketing. And, you know, that’s how the agency came about. And within the agency, one of the core values for me when we were setting up our core values, you know, we were like, what, what will be our core values? And our teams kind of came up with what they saw and observed over two year period, we didn’t assign core values at the beginning. It was after two years, we said, Okay, how are we behaving operating, because that’s how we want to be. And our teams came up with continuous improvement. And I said, Wait a second, I learned about Kaizen at General Motors. And Kaizen is the right way. It is the Japanese word for continuous improvement that is deployed in manufacturing environments. I think it was started with Toyota. And so it is part of our core values, our core values are CIIKOO. CIIKOO. Easy to remember creative, innovative, interactive. That’s how we view our clients work. And then Kaizen, organized and ownership. That is how we view our internal work. So for me, what I took away from GM was Kaizen, always be improving.
Jeremy Weisz 6:07
So what made you start? If I look at your career trajectory, I wouldn’t think he’s gonna start agency. Right. I’m thinking he’s successful marketing analyst, he worked for General Motors. He goes on, he’s an investment banking, what made you decide to start your own company?
Faizan Syed 6:26
It’s funny, I did GM because I had a passion for cars, I still do have a big car guy I love, you know, working on vehicles. I love restoring old cars, I will, you know, enter the occasional desert rally where I live. You know, I’ve been done the drag racing thing and everything. So cars have been a big part of my life. That’s why I wanted to work in GM. When I worked at GM for four years, I worked across manufacturing, in Louisiana, New Jersey, Michigan, then I moved into marketing and strategy, and I was on their emerging leader track. But I realized that as much as I love cars, I love cars for me not as a career, you know. So that whole thing about wanting to do investment banking, that’s just something I grew up with in the environment we were in. And so I was like, You know what, alright, let’s try the banking thing. I went, got my MBA, I studied finance, and I got a gig at Lehman Brothers. Now, sometimes the universe gets together to let you know that this is not the right career path for you. And for that Lehman Brothers had to dissolve, but I persevered. And when Barclays bought out Lehman I continued on, and I was fortunate to have worked in their automotive group. And I ended up working on the General Motors IPO post GM bankruptcy. So it was really interesting for it to come full circle. But when I was doing investment Gharial, I said, Hey, wait a second. Am I happy putting in all these hours? I’m working on the auto sector. I like that great. But why am I doing this for someone else? I should be doing this for me. Now at that point in time, I decided to move back I grew up in Pakistan. And I finished my high school in Pakistan, I moved to the US for college. I decided to move back my wife had finished her residency as like, Listen, if we get stuck in New York, and I continue banking your doctor, these are like golden handcuffs you can never let go off. So this is an opportunity where we you finished your residency you finished your time I finished a few years in banking, now’s a good time for us to go experiment with entrepreneurship. If it works great. If it doesn’t, we can always come back. So I went back, knowing entrepreneurship was the path but not knowing where I’m going to end up. And I got involved in launching a TV channel and knew nothing about media. And I got involved launching a TV channel that was focused on health and lifestyle. And as I learned HTV, that was the HTV. Exactly. It was Health TV, then we moved it and promoted about HTV and health and health and lifestyle. We were featured by the BBC, they ran a global story on us that how we’re actually the only health channel with a specific to show talking about sexual health in Pakistan. In fact, that was the only kind of show in the entire region, Middle East, South Asia and so on. But when I realized the power of digital was growing, 3g, 4g services had not entered Pakistan till 2014. They entered the US, I think it was in 2008-9. So Pakistan was a little bit behind. And I said, You know what, when 3g, 4g comes in, social is going to blow up. So we need to have a digital presence for our TV assets. When we built the digital presence for our TV assets, they grew faster than the TV audience did. And so when my friends saw that the digital was performing really well. They’re like, Oh, you really know this space. You know, what can you help us out? And to my friends, one on the pharma company, said help us with our digital presence. I said, Okay, sure. I’ll get my TV team to do it. And then another friend on the logistics company, helped him out too. And then a third friend came knocking and said, Hey, listen, we have this confectionary business. We’re not happy with our digital Agency, can you take our business? I said, Well, I’m not an agency owner, I don’t have an agency. I’m running a TV channel. There’s a small team that services, our digital presence, I can help do something with that. He’s, uh, you know what? All right. Why don’t you pitch for the business? I said, Okay, well pitch for the business. So, coincidentally, at the very same time, another friend of mine, who is the local publicists affiliate in Pakistan, came to me and said, Hey, listen, so I’d helped him recruit some friends of mine, some good quality talent. He was looking for good people. And I’d help them recruit them. And he came to me and said, Listen, that one guy I hired. Yeah, that team that he’s leading, I need to let that team go. Because I don’t think I want to be in that business of creative and digital, where you’re going to stick to our traditional for now. I said, Okay, you’re gonna let him and the whole team though. He said, Yes. So we, you know what? Pause one second. What’s in that team? They’re like designers creatives. So a couple of media guys, and he’s leading the team. I said, you know, what? Don’t let them go just yet. Can I borrow that team for a week? So I went to the team lead is a friend of mine said, listen, we’ve got this potential business, you guys are about to be let go? Why don’t we go pitch for if you went, I’m gonna absorb the whole team. And so we went, we pitched and we won. Now, what was the business, the business was Mondelez in Pakistan, and Mondelez had the rights for Oreo, Duck, and Prince, which had three global biscuit brands, and they had six other local brands, we had nine brands of biscuits, cookies, and so on, that suddenly we want the portfolio of I had no knowledge of how to run an agency, I had no idea of what an agency structure looks like. And I suddenly had this one team that was being let go, that I’ve inherited, and I didn’t have the funds to pay for this team. So I told my friend who is the publicists, affiliate owner, he said, I told him, I said, Look, I’ll take everything, I’ll take their laptops at desks, the renting lease, I’ll take everything over. But I have no money to pay for any of this. In fact, can you pay for their salaries as well, for next year, it’s a great. In turn, I will work for you, white label for as long as you want to pay down this debt. We continued for the next three years working for them white labeling, to pay down that debt. And we grew from a team of I think it was about 12 or 13 people, to about 100 people today, seven years later. And I think I’ve learned a little bit about how an agency works.
Jeremy Weisz 12:32
That’s fascinating. I love to hear you know, it’s oftentimes with these stations, these stories, it’s the accidental agency. First of all, I just want to point out I love how you kind of new yourself with a conversation with your wife, because you could totally see she gets a great job at a hospital in New York. You’re never leaving. At that point. You know, it was a point in time where if you don’t pay attention to those things, it can easily go down that that path, right? And the the really innovative way you structured that there was a win win on both sides, for that person with their team and you. And I remember when I did some interviews at the sweets and snacks show, I never heard of Mondelez before, but they own like everything. I mean, it’s crazy how big of a company that is globally. And one thing I want to talk about is charging at the time. You’ve you’ve a lot of experience in the business world in a leadership world. But how did you decide to charge for it?
Jeremy Weisz 13:49
You had friends in pharma logistics early on, what did you do? How are you thinking about pricing?
Faizan Syed 13:55
I you know what, that was my Achilles heel. I had no idea how to think about pricing. I literally didn’t and I think what it so the first few years I literally was pricing based on what the market was pricing. Right so to win business people i Okay, the markets pricing, just figuratively for market prices, something at $1,000 I’d like to do it for 900 Just bring the business here. You know, now what I didn’t realize that most of the people in the market because digital was in new space, most of the people in the market did not know how they were pricing either.
Faizan Syed 14:25
Blind leading the blind.
Faizan Syed 14:28
Literally, it was a collection of everyone kind of outbidding everyone without really thinking about how do we price this thing. And so I saw the business increase. But I was like, my profitability is not there. Like I’m always stuck in a cash flow jam, like, what what’s going on? And so finally, the banker, the math, finance guy in music. Wait a second, wait a second. You know, we’re not thinking about this correctly. And right when I said that COVID happened. So it took us a few years to build that scale, build the clients, and realize that you know what money’s coming in. But we have a cashflow challenge. And then you get hit with COVID. Now you have more than a cashflow challenge, you have a client challenge, you have an employee challenge plus you have the cashflow challenge. And I think that’s when I got the greatest experience of my life. I think COVID was an eye opener for a lot of us in a lot of different ways. And I think that I was very, very fortunate to have have have experienced that period while I was living in Pakistan, with family support, you know, so at least the kids had a place to kind of roam around, I had space to get the work done, and so on. Because I know how challenging it was for families here in the US without that kind of support system. And I found another support in the Entrepreneurs Organization of which you and I bought a member. And the support was in the form of the members. And again, I’ll tell you what that means. So for the first I had been a member for eight years at that time, and I’ve been involved in the chapter in the region, so I knew what it had to offer. But I never really took its offerings for granted, I took its offerings for granted, never really leveraged them. I finally went into the website, and I said, You know what, there’s got to be other members who have agencies who are going through COVID. And who are experiencing similar pain that I am, and who have had a process of scaling their agency cashflow issues, I’d love to hear from them. I went through, it took me a couple days to find 100 names, or send out 100 emails of the 100. Most of them are in the US of the 100. I got responses from and set up meetings with 40. And in the subsequent two months, I ended up making about 70 pages of Microsoft Word notes, all of which focused on costing, structuring pricing, and how everyone did that differently. And that completely changed the way I thought about pricing and margins. And ever since then, my I have to literally at the end of the at the start of the year, I tell my team, I said we have two goals for the year. NPS and EBIT da, just remember these two words, if we have happy clients who are recommending us to other people, and we are profitable, we will always be okay. And so the pricing, I think was a big part of that. And so now, we review clients, we review profitability, and we will decide, You know what, this is not a profitable client, but it’s a big enough headline that it’s worth it in terms of let’s say, a marketing play, or this is not a profitable client. And it’s not a big headline, why are we doing this? So I had no idea. Your members and their feedback helped me understand it. And now we’re constantly thinking in terms of you know, FTE is we’re thinking in terms of you no cost per hours, were thinking in terms of overheads, you know, and so and that mindset has now shifted down to every person in the agency. Because we compensate, and we give out bonuses, based on profitability to our team leads.
Jeremy Weisz 18:16
I want to talk about some of those takeaways. I know you don’t remember the 70 pages in full. But I’d love to talk about what were some of the takeaways from those conversations of the cost, structuring pricing. But we before we get to that, is that I want to know, how did you discover EO.
Faizan Syed 18:35
I’m when I got into launching that TV channel, friend of mine in in and I just relocated to Karachi. So even though I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, again, this is not the capital, but it’s the biggest city in the country. That’s about 25 million people. It’s a huge city. It’s like New York City, but in that part of the world, with a whole different set of challenges. Even though I grew up there, I came back as an outsider. And everyone looked at me as an outsider, like, Oh, he’s not from here, even I’m from that, you know, because they’re like, Oh, you spent 12 years in America, you have no idea how business is done here. So as I was navigating through that, I realized that they were right, I had no idea how business is done there. And what I’ve learned in America over 12 years, I need to throw out the door. And I was struggling with that concept. And so a friend of mine was like, Look, you’re now co founder in this business, the businesses of a certain scale, you need to join EO because you will learn through the forum, how people navigate through personal work and family challenges. And this is a this is going to be the best way for you to learn and network and get to know people and so on. And so you got to push me into it. And the rest is history. What did you have to throw out the door.
Jeremy Weisz 19:54
We’ll talk about some of the differences between the US and Karachi or in Pakistan.
Faizan Syed 20:02
So, I wouldn’t say it’s specific. I would say it’s the Western world versus the Eastern world. Right. So there’s certain principal business differences. And then within the Eastern Eastern markets, developing versus slightly more developed. Right. So let’s see, Saudi is a more developed market in terms of GDP per capita, if you look at the numbers, right, so if GDP per capita and Saudis, let’s say, north of $30,000, Pakistan and Egypt are about Pakistan’s about $1,500, Egypt is, let’s say about $2,800. Right? So it’s big difference. Some behaviors are the same in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan and India. But some behaviors are completely different in a market with a very low GDP per capita. Right? For example, what is the same? The same is people love holidays? There’s a lot of downtime, right? There’s just and you’re not used to that, you know, living in North America, where everyone’s gungho gung ho all the time. There’s brief periods of slowness, like the summer or let’s say, the winter holiday season, but otherwise, it’s always on, right and ADM call will start at 8am. Over there, an ATM call is a suggestion. Right? If someone says they’re going to be in your office at 9am, then they’re not going to be in your office at night. If you’re in Egypt, they’ll show up at 10. And they’re early. If you’re in Pakistan, if they show up at 945. They’re early. Right, Saudi Riyadh, Jeddah, so it’s funny Saudi Riyadh. 9am means 9am. But Jeddah. 9pm means about 9:39 9:45. So now, it’s just the small differences, right? How people value other people’s time. That was the first big lesson, holidays. Number three is priority work is always a second priority for most people. It’s not the number one priority. Right? So how do you motivate people differently to make it the number one priority in the Buxton market or any price sensitive or any market with low GDP per capita pricing is the number one driver. It’s not service quality, it’s not service delivery? It is pricing? Right? So you have to solve for pricing. And so you suddenly start looking at okay, what service quality if no one’s looking at? And if everyone’s solving for price, then are we really commoditized? Are we a commoditized service? And if we’re commoditize service, are we being measured against the same parameters, but that’s not the case, either. So then the fourth thing is relationship relationship is everything. There’s a Arabic word for it. Wassa. Wassa means my connection, right? That is big. If you come with the right, Kinect, if you come with the right reference, you’re you don’t have a foot in the door, you basically shut the door behind you. Right, so that’s a big one, it’s sometimes merit will be put aside, if there was does, right, because the person bringing you on board is saying, You know what, I know I can hold him accountable, because he’s my friend’s friend. And that’s way more valuable to me than the fact that they want NSF fees and whatever. You know, so these are just some of the differences, I think, and oh, yes, the client expects you to always be on. And when I say always be on, I mean, I understand that in all markets. And I understand I came from a banking background. And you know, that was a given, but here, always on means, midnight 11pm 1am. If the clients up, you better be out. There is no concept of you know what, I understand that you have a life at home. So these are just some of the differences I observed.
Jeremy Weisz 23:44
What about motivating people. Right? You said work is a second priority. What are some of the things that you do with your team? And then we’ll get to the I want to get from the work from home versus in the office discussion. But you mentioned it’s really important and thinking about motivating people, because it’s really a second priority. What are some of the things that you think about and do when it comes to that? So motivating?
Faizan Syed 24:15
Look, it’s I’ll give you a current example. Over the last 12 months, the Pakistan market has become extremely I would say extremely interesting in terms of pricing. So if anyone’s looking for delivery center and offshore deliveries, and I think there’s no better market than Pakistan right now, because it’s experienced 60% currency devaluation, but at the same time, it’s not experienced a 60% increase in salaries right, which means the market is very price effective at this point, which also means that everyone in the market is extremely salary sensitive. Right. So if they see a 5% Increase the 10% increase in salary table jump to how do you keep them motivated to stay on your team, it’s very hard. Because if a person comes and says, You know what my costs have gone up 60%. But my wages have only gone up 20, I need to make up the differential of 40%. And I’m not able to afford to pay for my kids schooling or my parents health and education. You you have nothing left for them to say, right, because they are unable to meet their day to day expenses. So even if you wanted to motivate them, even if they are aligned with your vision, and they think this is the best place to work, they are unable to sustain their life. Right. So you, you have to let them go, is what I’ve realized, let them go, let them experience that work environment. And they are willing to put up with greater challenges in a work environment as long as the compensation is met. Now, what you do is the best talent, you stay in touch with them. Because at some point in time, they will either recognize that you know what, there is a cost differential and I’m willing to pay that difference for a better work environment, something I’m a much more passionate about. And we as a business, hopefully over that time, are able to upskill enough that we can afford that new salary structure of theirs. And so you leave that door open with them so that they can come back. That way, you’re not really losing the person forever, you’re momentarily allowing them to shift to solve their life issues, and then potentially come back if they need to, when things are a little bit more stable for them. And for you as a business you can afford them. So that I find is one way the other thing is training. We’re big on training, we’re huge on training, we’re doing training constantly, we’re upskilling and upscaling people and I think one of the biggest motivating factors is I mean, I consider our Eastover to be a training ground or let’s say, a university. For people who want to move from a digital career on to a multinational, I think we have the highest number of people coming out of a digital agency going to Unilever, in Pakistan, you know, so for me, that is, you know, a sort of, you know, let’s say, a star on a badge for us, because we’re doing something right that a global multinational fields, that our talent is suitable for them. And we use that as a tool for recruiting saying that, hey, listen, come on board. If a couple of years later, this is not the place we look at where our people have exited and gone. So it’s a great Onboarding Tool. And it’s a great motivating tool for people in the company who say like, you know, what, if I work hard enough here, I will definitely be recruited by, you know, global multinational people at tick tock where people matter, a Google and so on.
Jeremy Weisz 27:50
Talk about your thoughts on work from home versus the office. And I know that your thoughts have flip flopped. And they go back and forth from what before till now.
Faizan Syed 28:05
It’s been it’s been a struggle, I’ve always been a proponent of measuring outcomes based on success, rather than so for us pay for success. Don’t pay us for the hours. And similarly, I want to think of that with my teams. You know what we’re paying you something we’re paying for a Saturday, here’s what we need. So you want to get this done in one hour, you want to get this done in 10, you want to get this done at home, in a coffee shop or in the office. Honestly, we don’t care. Now, in theory, that makes sense. But when you layer in the following factors in a developing market, so for example, homes are smaller. Most people live in joint family homes. So there’s always this parents around, there’s kids around MIT, even a brother and his kids are out. Right. Now, how do you have a quiet space to get work done? Right, where you can deliver success. Then secondly, we have a lot of power outages. Right? Some neighborhood hoods have more power outages than other neighborhoods. Does the D member live in a neighborhood with a lot of power outages or not? If so, do they have backup power? If not, then what do you do? Because every time you’re on a call, and if there’s an outage and there’s no backup power, you’re just not able to deliver that service quality. Right? The third thing is fine, you have no power outages you live. Most people don’t live alone. You live in an environment where you can get the time and space. Are you able to maintain a good schedule because our market is a slightly late starting market? Right? So people come in the digital space or in the agency space people going getting to work is between 10 and 11. The time an agency or any agency is at its full swing is post noon. You know Hang on to let’s say post ATM. So if you’re having early morning client calls and you’re home, are you going to make that call? Are you going to be available in case you didn’t make that call and answer your phone so that you actually jump on the call? Right? So we went back and forth on this. And then of course, if you’re working from home and a client calls you and says, Hey, listen, not zoom, I need you in come to meet me, are you going to be able to take that ride across to meet them because transport got expensive fuel prices increased a doubled in the last year, year and a half. And so now everyone thinks twice before they get on to you know, their own private transport get around to all of these things factor in which makes work from home extremely variable, and makes work from home. A concept that is never going to give you the same return that it does in a developed market. So can work from home work in a developing market. My act at this point, we ran it for three years, Tuesdays and Thursdays we fixed work from home don’t come in, we still had half the office coming in. Why? Because of the reasons I mentioned, they thought that they were better off coming into the office. And finally, there was one big reason some people just wanted to get out of the house and not be stuck at home with their joint families. They just needed a place to get away. And so they prefer coming in to keeping all these factors in mind just two weeks ago, we shut down work from home and said, You know what we’re done. We’re not doing it. This is a, you know, unseat gig, you need to be here to deliver service. And that’s how we’re going to take it forward. And if we’re down the road, going to consider it only if we can tackle some of the variables personal lives alone doesn’t have power outages, we can provide them transportation. And if we can take away the variables, then fine, we might consider another work from home model for an hour. Not.
Jeremy Weisz 31:51
Yep, it sounds like though the staff a lot of that was I mean, I’m gonna say fully driven by the staff, but they totally, they were on board with that they wanted that. And they were yearning for that. And it seemed like not an easy choice. But people are all things pointed to let’s just just come in the office right at that point. I’d love to to talk a little more about what you do as a company. And you did some really cool work we mentioned Mondelez, and Oreo. What are some of the things you did there?
Faizan Syed 32:29
So one of the things we’re most proud of is right. When we started off as an agency, we had a strong creative dream, my head of business development who helped me kick off this business. His name was Shawn, his name is Shawn. He went on to Delivery Hero to one of their local companies that they bought just a year ago. But you know, he built a fantastic creative team, even at the onset, and we did a project for Oreo called and we call it Storeo. And what we did is we took the Oreo cookie, animated and 3d, I made four different characters. Right. And so the story premise was Oreo cookies save a kid’s day. And season one was how the kid left his lunchbox behind on his way to school and the cookies kind of jumped out of the lunch box and help walk that lunch box all the way to school, you know, so it was a, it was like a Toy Story meets or your animation. And it did really well. We ended up doing about two seasons of it. Until Oreo said, you know, we cannot animate characters, it was so well received that we got published as an agency in Oreos global newsletter that went to all of its global affiliates around the world. And that was a great win for us and a great achievement within our first year as an agency. Another thing that we did for Pizza Hut was pizza had struggled with its return on adspend. And you know, they were doing about a row as of about 4x. And they came to us and said, Look, you need to double this for us. And that’s a minimum requirement. And so I sat with the team, we did some brainstorming came out and said you know what? It will double it for you. But if we take it above that, is there a bonus or an incentive for us? They’re like, Well, we know agencies ever asked for that as they okay, we want a bonus or an incentive if it’s above double. If it’s below Double Fine. This is the retainer above double we want. Let’s see if we hit anything above eight. We want this if we anything above 10 We want this if we had anything above 12x We want this. So I think they can a lot of that. Uh, yeah, sure, put in the contract. Great. We averaged 11 as a return on adspend in a frequently hitting above 12. And I just thought that the way we tackled in the the way the team took this assignment on I think it even blew away the client and sometimes when you leave the client speechless, it’s a lot of fun, because they don’t expect to see that kind of return and it’s a win win for both right? They’re making money. They’re selling more pizzas, and we’re making a bonus. So that was a that was a big Going for us. On the media side, one on the SEO side. Again, this was learning from me, right? I didn’t know I didn’t know the power of SEO, we had an SEO team. And I oftentimes pipelines with a guy is just okay, you’re optimizing words like, what value is there, right, I get it, you’re gonna appear to the searches, but quantify that value for me, please. We did SEO work for dollars, which is basically the General Electric for home appliances. It’s a Turkish company that runs operations in that market. And in a 12 month period, we increased organic traffic and sales on the website by over 100%, just because of SEO. And I saw the tangible impact that running an effective SEO campaign had on an electronics manufacturer. And I was like, wow, I had no idea that SEO can be more promising than paid media. Plus, it’s more cost effective because your retainer is lower than paid media, and you’re not spending media money, and it’s all organic traffic coming from search. So I thought that was that was a learning for me, right? I mean, obviously, we deliver it to the client, but I learned something from that. And I learned about SEO there. And finally, I think the most interesting one was when in 2020, October, we do we do PR as well, corporate PR and we provide that service to our clients. In 2020, October, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, the time went on, and made a negative statement about Muslims around the world. And so what happened in the Pakistan market is that retailers started banning the sale of French products, which includes L’Oreal, which includes our brand, Lu Lu was basically the name of the brand, the model is required. It was originally a French brand. And we’re selling this because basically, the nine brands that were talked about, and everyone knows knew them as Luna, local market 70% sales decline in one month, that was a huge hit for them. And so I personally had to go to religious scholars show them this is not French company, this is American. And it’s like, I realize I’m creating a problem for later on. But at least it’s alright. But they’re not French, they’re American, can you please create short shorts and reels, talking about how this ban is wrong, and it’s affecting workers working in the country. It is affecting revenue generation tax generation. And please create those rules and let’s share them with your communities. We got these religious leaders to create reels, we posted them on their Facebook groups, we amplify those reels, we wrote articles in newspapers. And then we created an ad, the first campaign that Tiktok ran in the country about how this is an American company employing 1000s of people generating millions in taxes, and that this should not happen. We reversed the sale decline of 70% down to 10%. Within two months. So it’s a huge win for us. And again, I had never done something like this before. So you know is as an achievement, you have to think on your feet without it. It was a it was unbelievable.
Jeremy Weisz 38:20
What about with Coach, do some work with Coach,
Faizan Syed 38:24
Coach at Saudi. So we’ve just picked that up in Saudi and that is giving us access into the Saudi market. And now what’s interesting in the Saudi market is it behaves completely differently. You would think that Facebook is big everywhere, but not in Saudi 30 million is their pop 33 million let’s say roughly is a population 99% 98% is data and 4g penetration. And roughly the same number of let’s say tic tic TOCs. About let’s say 28 million ballpark uses of Tiktok snap is about between 2528 Facebook is less than 12 million matter. So Facebook advertising does not work there. You have to be on SNAP and you have to be on tick tock. And so what we’re learning is that it because you have to be on SNAP and TikTok, you will run campaigns on them. But when you run campaigns on TikTok, you suddenly a lot of see a lot of bot traffic coming out of Singapore in different markets, right. So it’s extremely challenging for us to figure out what the right platform is because yes, there’s a lot of users on these two platforms. But advertising on those two platforms does not yield the kind of results or traffic that is is authentic traffic that yields conversions. So we’re kind of learning through this process, because in other markets Insta, it’s matter of instant Facebook is Google here. This is a challenge which platform gives you the best audience worst and again, the funny thing is the local market I went export reality in Jeddah. The digital marketers were like, there are no experts in digital marketing in this market. So if you guys are talking like this, you’re the only ones talking like this. For me, that was a learning that I was like, wow, there’s, this is such a huge market such a huge opportunity. There’s no top experts here. Unbelievable. And the second thing, language, Arabic searches in Arabic optimization and Arabic, English does not work as effectively as Arabic. So English works in certain things, but not another things. And so taking all of these learnings sifting through them and applying them, I think is is something that’s really, really interesting for us at this point in time, because that market is going to explode in the next five years, just the way they are positioning themselves, the way they’re scaling. I mean, that is going to be the hub of all economic activity in the region in the next five to 10 years.
Jeremy Weisz 40:56
Faizan, and I’m first of all, thank you. Thanks for sharing your journey. It’s pretty remarkable. And I have one last question. Before I ask it, I want to point people to check out eastriverdigital.com to learn more. You also have a podcast that people can check out on YouTube, DigiTales, where you have some notable people in the region that you featured so people can check that out, as well. Um, I’d love to hear your favorite resources. It could be books, it could be podcasts, it could be audio books, it could be software, what are your favorite resources that you go to and recommend to other business owners?
Faizan Syed 41:47
So I love this question. And I’m totally borrowing it for my podcast. I think, for me, I discovered Audible in COVID. And I haven’t looked back, I was never a book reader just because I could never finish a book and was really annoying for me. And I’ve discovered that Audible makes it a lot easier for me to consume the content. And I’m able to finish one book a month now. And it’s been fantastic for me in terms of resources.
Jeremy Weisz 42:21
Favorite Audible books that you’d recommend?
Faizan Syed 42:25
Yes, I so I really enjoyed this book I discovered it’s called the Book of Joy. It’s a conversation between Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. And it talks about the barriers to joy in a person’s life, and how to, and then it got overcomes and how you overcome those barriers. And then it talks about, you know, attaining a state of joy and happiness and how to stay in that state. And I think that’s a great book, it’s a great read. And you can read a chapter by chapter, you can read the whole thing. I highly recommend that. I also read the Surrender Experiment. This is a book by singer Michael Singer if I got it right, right. He had the Untethered Soul, which is was first but Surrender Experiment was a second book. And the reason this book was interesting is because here’s a guy who was very inward driven about meditation, happiness, who ended up building a billion dollar company, his journey in building that company, and then almost losing all of it when he sold it to WebMD. And I think it’s a great story for a lot of us entrepreneurs who, you know, go through these ups and downs, and to recognize how do you manage through the downs, even when you’ve had tremendous success behind you? How I built this is a podcast by Guy Roz on NPR. I love it. And I think that was the inspiration behind me starting DigiTales for our market, because I was like, this is a great podcast, because it’s so us focused. What if we did this with entrepreneurs with successful people in our market? And that was honestly the source of inspiration for that. What else is there? I have recently started dabbling with chat GPT I have the jury’s still out on what I think about it. I’m a little confused by what AI is going to do to our digital space, and what value we will continue creating for our clients on the media front and the creative front. So no opinion yet still playing with it. During COVID, we went and experimented with all of the tools like Slack and Basecamp and you know, Trello, and I think there was one more we Asana, JIRA and I think Trello is the one we’ve settled with. I’m a fan of that. It puts everything in front of all team members you always are aware of who’s got what on their plate, strongly recommend that. And yeah, I would say that’s, that’s about it. Strava, another app, it’s become a favorite for me was that it tracks your workouts. So it’s basically a social platform for your workouts and people you work out with. So you’re constantly looking at who’s doing what, who’s doing a run, where, who’s doing a bike where, you know, and then you’re kind of motivating each other during that.
Jeremy Weisz 45:20
I love that, you know, I’m gonna check out several people have mentioned The Surrender Experiment, and I haven’t checked it out yet. So I have to and then the Book of Joy love one of my favorites is the Art of Happiness, which is also Howard Cutler in the in the Dalai Lama. So I’m gonna have to check out the Book of Joy as well. And you know, Faizan I just want to be the first one to thank you. Thank you for sharing your journey, your lessons. Everyone, check out more episodes of the podcast check out eastriverdigital.com. Thanks, Faizan. Thanks, everyone.
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