sabir sami

An interview with Sabir Sami as originally published in Synergyzer Annual 2019

Sabir Sami, MD – KFC MENA, Pakistan, Turkey & Asia highlights that even though Pakistanis are tech-savvy, the trait has not been translated into processes in Pakistan’s work culture, while he also talks about the general absence of media planning in Pakistan.


Synergyzer: In terms of consumers, which international markets is Pakistan closer to?
Sabir Sami: Pakistan is closer to the Indian market as well as the Arabs. The culture, language, and cuisine are similar to India.  With the Arabs, we share religion which is an important part of Pakistan’s national fabric since it defines how we think, feel, and behave.

Synergyzer: What about the adoption of digital practices?
Sabir: I believe the digitization of consumers happened much faster in Pakistan and people here are quite comfortable with using technology. The adoption rate of cellular phones was much more rapid than the West since our landlines were generally not that great. Now the country is fast adopting smartphones and consequently, social media also has a high usage.
In this regard, I would say, parts of Asia Pacific including India, Thailand and Singapore from the Far East as well as Turkey are all very similar.

Synergyzer: And what would your opinion be on media planning and buying as done in Pakistan?
Sabir: I do not see a high level of sophistication for media buying in Pakistan as compared to other markets. The focus in Pakistan is on buying, not on planning and strategy development
Clients in Pakistan do not always have a detailed understanding of media strategy and media efficiency; they just look at the cost per rating point and tend to be over simplistic, considering the job well done if they saved money on the exercise.
In my opinion, media should be considered an investment, not an expense and one should look at the returns on investment and how to optimize those returns. One should answer questions like, ‘What is my media strategy? Is it to build trial or awareness or frequency? Who are my target audiences; core and secondary? Am I catering to urban or rural consumers?’ And in terms of results, ‘Is my strategy effective? How do I measure it if it’s working?’
These are the layers of understanding involved in developing a media buying strategy in accordance with the brand strategy. And then you choose the best medium for your brand rather than focusing only on, ‘How do I spend as little money as possible?’ and ‘What negotiations can I do to get cheap TV advertising?’

Synergyzer: How does KFC select which media to advertise on internationally?
Sabir: As I said earlier, everything depends on our brand strategy and business objectives: Are we trying to build frequency? Are we trying to bring new consumers onboard or getting back lapsed consumers? What are their demographics? Any psychographics that stand out?
First, we answer these questions and accordingly generate a brief to the media agency who, then, recommends a media mix strategy and details what messages should go on which medium. For instance, to build brand awareness we might opt for TV, but to push promotion or sales we opt for cell phones, whereas, to bring back lapse consumers we would choose emails or TRM (Total Relationship Management) marketing.
Let me give you a more detailed example. We know that people check their messages and emails one last time before leaving office. So to drive sales for KFC, we send text messages and emails to people’s smartphones between 5pm to 7pm in the evening saying, ‘Hey, order a bucket of KFC for dinner tonight’, to give them a simple reminder when they are the most inclined to buy food.
Also, with the power of digital, a new class of performance marketing is emerging. Gone are the days when you would run an ad for a year after which you would ask yourself, ‘Did it build my brand equity? Did it meet my sales?’ Rather we know that if we conduct text message promotions today, we will know how many customers actually responded by tomorrow. Hence, we can measure the effectiveness of the promotion concept as well as the media buy almost immediately and adjust if required.

In Pakistan, you have brand managers who simply hand over the responsibility to the media agency and do not understand media well enough.

Synergyzer: Is KFC following the international strategy for media planning and buying in Pakistan?
Sabir: It is being introduced here as we speak. As I just mentioned, performance marketing and result-oriented marketing will serve as the driving forces.

Synergyzer: The currency for advertising on any medium rests on the basis of GRP’s usually, at least in Pakistan. If this is not available in a market, on what basis does the budget get approved from the region?
Sabir: GRP’s are available universally now, so that is not the issue. Rather, they can be generic and a misleading KPI (Key Performance Indicator).
So the challenge is, in my opinion, that not all GRP’s are created equal; a 30-second GRP is very different from a 15-second or a 60-second GRP. Furthermore, GRP’s on radio, TV, and social media are all calculated differently. Hence, you need savvy media buying managers at the client end. On the contrary, in Pakistan, you have brand managers who simply hand over the responsibility to the media agency and do not understand media well enough.
Let me explain through an example. At Yum! Dubai, we have a media buying manager whose sole responsibility is to understand and buy media effectively. The process is that the brand manager makes the brand strategy, which is then used by the media manager to derive a media strategy, which he further gives to the media planning and buying agency. The objective, for him, is not to get cheaper ad rates, but to meet the goals of the brand.

Synergyzer: So, internationally, when KFC is buying TV ad slots, what do you look for and how do you gauge the effectiveness?
Sabir: The concepts are pretty universal: We look for effective reach, penetration, frequency, and we also keep in mind the effectiveness of primetime versus non-primetime, target markets and programming, and where the spot is located.
But I really wonder whether the brand managers in Pakistan today understand these concepts well enough to hold a media agency accountable.

Synergyzer: Why is it important for brand managers to understand media buying?
Sabir: My strong opinion is that every brand manager should go through in-depth media training.
During my time as a brand manager, there was just TV, radio and print. Now with digitization, the world has become complicated. The responsibility cannot be handed over to media agencies without the brand managers understanding it. We have to keep in mind that it is not only the brands that are the media agencies’ clients, but they also work for TV stations and networks. And while the media agencies may not be servicing a competing brand, the brands that they have are competing with your brand in consumer awareness, consumer purchasing and consumer head space. Hence, if the media agency favors the other client over you then you lose prime ad slots. As a consequence, your brand may not get the intended amount of awareness.
The brand managers should have enough knowledge to measure the results and hold their agencies accountable for performance or the brand will suffer.

Synergyzer: Internationally, what usually is the percentage of government versus corporate spending on advertising?
Sabir: I do not think that government spending is as high as it is in Pakistan in the countries that I am heading KFC in, even though most are emerging economies.
You see there is the concept of ‘second’ or an ‘underground’ tax economy in Pakistan, where most companies are either not registered and do not pay any taxes, or pay very little taxes. As a result, they cannot advertise because they have undeclared finances while companies globally spend more on advertising versus their respective governments since they are listed with their respective tax authorities.

The focus in Pakistan is on buying, not on planning and strategy development
Clients in Pakistan do not always have a detailed understanding of media strategy and media efficiency; they just look at the cost per rating point and tend to be over simplistic, considering the job well done if they saved money on the exercise.

Synergyzer: What are KFC’s yardstick measures for awarding franchises: Internationally and in Pakistan?
Sabir: The rules and regulations in Pakistan for awarding KFC franchises are the same as in the rest of the world. When we choose franchisees, we firstly [and obviously] look for businesspeople who have the capital to invest. Secondly, we ask ourselves: Would they fit our culture? Do they have the same passion for brand building, maintaining product quality and providing consumer experience as us? And if they do, we graduate to the next phase of working with them.

Synergyzer: How do you tackle problems with franchises that may lead to its liquidation and change in ownership?
Sabir: Although we measure business on the same yardsticks throughout the world including Pakistan for maintaining brand standards, product quality etc., we do run into ownership issues with franchisees from time to time. What usually happens is that they are not able to perform due to mismanagement, poor capability etc., which eventually leads to financial trouble. After that they get into negotiations to sell the business and then again as master franchisers, we make sure that we approve of the buyer in accordance with our yardstick measures.
Since we are talking about buying or selling a business that may be spread across a number of cities, the process can drag on for a while.

Synergyzer: What are the standards for procuring ingredients?
Sabir: Again, our standards for procuring ingredients are followed uniformly throughout the world. Be it chicken, bread, oil, or flour, they have to lie in between a minimum to maximum range of specifications.
We maintain our standards by awarding business to only those suppliers who meet our criteria: Firstly, their business practices must pass the GMP auditor standard, i.e. the Goods Manufacturing Practices Audit, which ensures products are produced and controlled according to the quality standards and regulatory requirements specified by health authorities. Secondly, they must be able to meet our present and future capacity needs.
For our key ingredients, we have multiple suppliers to ensure business continuity in case any of the suppliers runs into a problem.

Synergyzer: What does KFC gauge when hiring for executive positions internationally? How?
Sabir: We have repeatedly seen that those people who have been successful within Yum! – KFC’s parent organization – exhibit certain traits and characteristics, which may or may not work for other organizations. Hence when hiring leaders, the very first thing we make sure of is whether the person can fit into our culture or not. Then only comes relevant experience and technical skills, which can also be attained on the job. The third aspect that we look for is humility and a lack of ego. Lastly, they must be hungry for growth and passionate about learning, having new experiences and meeting new people.
Moving on to how we do it, we use internationally accepted questionnaires for personality assessment to understand the leadership style of candidates. Our strongest tool, however, is the interview process: Our senior leaders involved can sense whether somebody is going to fit in our culture or not, which we know instinctively and unanimously.
Is our process 100% foolproof? No, it’s not. Do we make mistakes? Yes, we do. But, by and large, the process is successful and that’s why we use it.

Synergyzer: What about hiring for trainee and other junior positions?
Sabir: In this case, technical skills become more important because a trainee cannot be expected to demonstrate leadership expertise.
Similar to our hiring for executive positions, we look for a culture-fit in our junior cadre too in terms of values: does the person believe in people and respect them? What motivates them? Are they hungry for growth and learning?
It works best for us to have around 4 to 5 people involved in the hiring process. Since we prefer individual interviews over panel interviews, 3 to 4 people conduct interviews individually and then we reach a decision based on collective opinion.

Synergyzer: How does KFC’s culture stand out from the rest, since having a culture-fit is the most important part of your hiring?
Sabir: While most companies concentrate on what they do, we focus on who we are. We also believe that rather than only being in the business to make money, we are actually in the business of building lives, building careers and growing people – essentially taking care of each other.
We are able to establish this culture through our core values. We have faith in the positive intentions of people and believe that 99% of our people want to be successful – nobody comes to work thinking, ‘Today I will do a bad job’. Hence, if people are struggling, there are reasons why they are not able to perform. Therefore, we try to understand and support them.
Secondly, we have an acknowledgment and appreciation-oriented culture. We believe that people do not work for money; they work for managers and the workplace environment. More importantly, human beings have an inner desire for recognition hence we have a big thank you culture.
Another core value of ours is being customer focused. Even within the organization, we are customers of each other so when somebody asks for help, we stop everything and help them out.
These are universal values across our organization that are taken into account during performance evaluations conducted at year-end even for senior leaders; 50% weightage is given to business resolve and the other 50% is culture. For instance, if I miss all my targets but I have done an outstanding job at maintaining culture, I will still be able to pass my annual evaluation. In the end, getting results is not the only answer, getting results the right way is the right answer.

While most companies concentrate on what they do, we focus on who we are. We also believe that rather than only being in the business to make money, we are actually in the business of building lives, building careers and growing people – essentially taking care of each other.

Synergyzer: What do you feel our local graduates lack in comparison to international graduates?
Sabir: In my opinion, Pakistani graduates are as competent as international graduates because the intelligence of our people and the education systems followed in our schools are at par with the rest of the world.
However, I have often seen that employees of Pakistani origin look for shortcuts to accelerate their careers without putting in the necessary hard work and time, without realizing that they cannot get much further without the required effort. Trust me, if they spent that same amount of time focusing on their work, they would be far more successful!
Also, Pakistanis sometimes tend to think that life is only about competition, and they try to get ahead by pushing other people down. What they fail to realize is that we live in a world which is interconnected. It functions through collaborations and those who achieve success are those who figure out how to take everybody along with them. Pakistanis need to adopt this mindset.

Stay tuned for more with Synergyzer!

Previous articleQ&A: CEO – GroupM, Fouad Hussain on How to Counter Media Inefficiencies
Next articleQ&A: PAA Chairman, Ali Mandviwalla on improvising current government policies & why PAS, PAA, APNS & PBA should work together