Over the last decade, ARY Digital Network has emerged as a dominant force in Pakistan’s media industry with a presence across 126 countries. Following in the footsteps of his father, the legendary businessman Haji Mohammad Iqbal, ARY’s pioneering President & CEO Salman Iqbal talks toBlue Chip about ARY’s success and highlights urgent issues like media ethics and regulation as well as the media’s role in contributing to a vibrant democracy by ensuring government accountability. Prior to running the television station, Salman Iqbal was involved in other businesses within the ARY group, including treasury, gold and property. Speaking to Blue Chip from ARY’s London office, he explains how he came into the media industry and why he has never looked back.
ARY is a leading player in Pakistan’s media industry, what factors have contributed to ARY’s success?
Salman Iqbal: “I think the biggest factor is the viewers because we gave the viewers what they expected. Being pioneers in the satellite industry we had the option of making mistakes and learning what Pakistanis around the world wanted. We started internationally; we started from London, then we went into Europe, then we went into South Africa and then we came to Pakistan and they loved it, so we learnt a lot.”
What are your views on Pakistan’s media industry at present?
SI: “I think it has become quite big now. I was looking at the advertising numbers and television has gone to Rs25-26 billion a year and newspapers have come down to Rs9.3 billion. The market is growing and there is an enormous boom but the sad part is that PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) is giving more licenses to channels so three or four big groups are sustaining but the smaller ones are not. So it is a very difficult situation because the share of advertising revenue is only so much. The cake is only so big and not everybody can have a bite so you will see a lot of companies not doing very well or going down in the future. But I think Pakistan has shown an enormous amount of media growth over the last 10 years. ARY has been in the Pakistan market for almost 11 years now. We were the first channel internationally and the second domestically to go satellite, the first was Indus Vision and we came second. We became bigger than Indus Vision which came in with one channel and we had four channels. Now there are more than 56 licensees in Pakistan, which have multiple channels and landing rights. As far as the advertising market is concerned, we are expecting the market to grow by 25% in 2012. Even with the political turmoil in Pakistan, the advertising market is doing quite well.”
Why do you think that is?
SI: “I think the only form of entertainment we have in our country is television. We don’t have many cinemas; we don’t have shopping malls or entertainment arenas like in other parts of the world. So people have nothing to do except watch television. Having such political turmoil and terrorism in our country, you won’t see large gatherings of people in one location except for weddings. There used to be a lot of concerts in Pakistan but things have completely changed. I remember we did a Bryan Adams concert in 2005/06. It was unbelievable. I remember Bryan himself couldn’t believe that 40,000 Pakistanis attended. It was so safe. So there is nothing else except television and with the television pie growing so big you will see a large shift in advertising from BTL (Below The Line advertising) to television.”
What are your views on the regulatory authority governing Pakistan’s media industry and what are your views on media ethics?
SI: “Talking about the media regulatory authority, I think they need to learn a lot. It’s very easy to copy and paste the laws of different regulatory authorities and try to implement that same law in Pakistan but it doesn’t work that way. It is easy to cut and paste Ofcom’s laws and apply it here but the UK is a completely different market. For example in the UK you cannot show blood, violence or any adult content till after 9pm whereas in Pakistan these channels have been showing such content because we have no other option. PEMRA needs to change the laws as per the country which they govern. There is a lot of work to be done, we have been fighting through the PBA (Pakistan Broadcast Association) and with other television channels to liberalize and disintegrate PEMRA because PEMRA comes under the information ministry and hence still cannot regulate PTV; so if it cannot regulate PTV why should it regulate the other satellite channels?
Speaking of the ethics of the media industry, we have completely shifted. Freedom of press is important for every country but this freedom has to have some kind of governance. You cannot go against your own country just because you are trying to prove freedom of speech. Even if you look at the UK and the US, they will never speak against their own country, they will speak against their governments but not their country. They will never do anything treasonous. Our news channels have to learn the difference between freedom of speech and a position where you bring the country to its downfall. For example, when my seven year old son goes to Pakistan the only thing he sees on television is bombing, bloodshed and violence. What impression would a child get? Pakistan is the only country which has 60% of its population under the age of 25. We have a young population and where are we taking them? It is our responsibility to guide them. What impact will this have on their minds? The horrific Sialkot incident where people felt that they could take the law into their own hands is just one example.
If you look at our talk shows, at the end of the talk show I can bet that not a single question is answered, it is all left up in the air. Nobody answers the questions, they just start fighting with each other, there are no facts and politics is personalized, which is not good. The government is blamed for every single thing. It is the job of the government to make sure that they have good spokespeople to ensure that what they are doing is portrayed accurately and if there is any wrongdoing, to correct that.”
What challenges do you face in Pakistan?
SI” “Pakistan is a very challenging country. Every single day we face challenges. We face challenges politically and socially. If we don’t say something which we think is not responsible the public starts blaming us; if we say something which is responsible the political parties start blaming us, so we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. But we cannot complain because we selected to be in this business. We have to make sure it is not sensationalized and it’s just facts. The talk shows generate opinions which I think is very important in our country and is important in every democratic country.”
You were involved in the other concerns of the business (property, real estate, gold) what drew you to come into media?
SI: “It’s a very funny story actually. I moved from Dubai to London in 1999 because of my daughter, as she is a special needs child. My father came and bought a very small UK company called the Pakistani Channel which broadcasted for 12 hours a day only and was in a bad state. It was the only Pakistani channel in the world and my father said that we could not let this company go down so he decided to buy it. At 2am I was out with friends on the weekend and my father called me and told me that he had bought a TV station. I laughed and asked whether he had bought Channel 4 or BBC. When he told me it was the Pakistani Channel I was shocked. The next morning I discussed it with my father. I am a finance major and I used to take care of the finances of our family business, I was the head of treasury. My father told me to sit at the channel for three months, do the due diligence and that he would find a CEO for the company. He said he wanted to expand the company and make it international. It has been 12 years and we still haven’t found that CEO yet! I took the reins after three months because we wanted to be very aggressive. We tried a few CEOs but it didn’t work out. They had a five-year plan while I had a two-year plan. The media industry is too innovative to wait for five years. Within two years we went into 60 countries, within four years we launched six more channels. Now we have eight channels in Pakistan and we are broadcasting five channels in 126 countries so we are the largest Urdu content-based company in the world. So it has moved quite fast. The building that we are in right now is the building we started in which is why I will never let this building go. When I started we had 180 people in this office with three shifts. We were broadcasting into 126 countries from this place. We had satellites, cables and fibre optic links. After three years we were getting too big and it was getting too expensive so we had to move to Dubai in March 2003. From Dubai we moved our playout and broadcasting center in 2006 to Pakistan. In Pakistan we have the biggest studios in South Asia, they are over 350,000 square feet. We have 28 studios where we make all our dramas, sitcoms and news.”
In your life and career who have been your role models?
SI: “Rupert Murdoch has been a very big role model. I have met his son James on a couple of occasions. The PR company that was launching Star TV was also doing my launch. We launched eight days apart. I launched on September 16thand they launched on September 24th in the UK. When I went to New York to meet one of my friends, Aaron McNally, Rupert Murdoch had just bought Direct TV and he walked into the office and sat with us for twenty minutes. He knew everything about the Pakistan market although he was not in the Pakistan market as aggressively as he wanted to be. He knew everything about media, he is dedicated and has conquered most of the world. To be as dedicated as him and to have channels all over the world is quite an accomplishment. He moved to Australia and he succeeded there. I was reading his book and he had so many tough times when he came to America but he was determined to conquer the country and he did. News Corp is now the biggest media company in that country.
My biggest icon is my father. Whatever I am right now is because of him. Whenever I walked into a business meeting I would think of how my father would handle things. He is the one who actually created the brand ARY. He fought against the whole family and moved the family from doing the wholesale gold business to the retail side. He said, why are we always selling other people’s gold, we should sell our own gold brand and everyone laughed at him. People said that we could not compete with UBS and Credit Suisse who have enormous budgets. He said that we have to try. He launched ARY Gold in 1988 singlehandedly. After launching the gold brand, he was the first person to hallmark gold. It took him eight years. When we started television I sat with him for six hours in his office discussing why I should be taking up the TV station. He said that what he saw in himself he also saw in me. He wanted everything to be brand ARY. I said that ARY stands for Abdul Razzaq Yaqoob, what will it stand for in terms of television? He instantly said, ‘Always Remembering You’. Most importantly he said it must be a family channel which everyone can watch.
My team is the most important thing, my CEOs are very professional, my team has come a very long way with me. I have 22 offices all over the world which are professionally managed.”
As one of Pakistan’s inspirational business leaders and media pioneers, what has been the secret of your success?
SI: “I think dedication. If you pick up something, don’t let it go. The initial capital to buy the business was given by the family but the expansion plan was not paid for by the family. I had to create my own business plan and move forward. Content is so expensive. I did not go to the banks, I did not borrow money. I remember that my team and I would work at 18 to 20 hours a day for at least two years. I am very lucky that I have such a supportive family. Allah opened doors for me.”