Widely renowned as the definitive pioneer in Pakistan’s advertising and media industry, Taher Khan stands out for his innovation, creativity and dynamism. The remarkable success of Interflow Communications, Pakistan’s largest advertising group, has established Taher Khan as an authority on Pakistan’s advertising industry.
His passion for media prompted him to take unprecedented risks. For example, Taher Khan launched Pakistan’s first private television channel, NTM, at a time when there was no concept of private media ownership. This has been an invaluable example for Pakistan’s recently launched television channels.
The Interflow Group covers all aspects of advertising, media and communications with a commitment to professional excellence. Taher Khan talks to Blue Chip about his remarkable career success.
You have been a pioneer in Pakistan’s advertising industry and the Interflow Group is now a force to be reckoned with. Has your success surpassed your expectations?
Taher Khan: “I guess it has. I didn’t think that God would be so kind. We started with a vision of changing the way advertising was perceived in this country and in every field where we felt we had to raise the level of professionalism and excellence. We were the first ones to create a proper production house because there were no film production facilities. We ventured into media buying with MindShare. So, wherever there was a need to improve and raise the standard, we have ventured into that – and by the grace of God, we have been quite successful.”
You took great risks because you had to change attitudes and introduce new concepts into Pakistan.
TK: “Yes, I did. Whenever you enter new fields and try to blaze trails, you obviously face the possibility of failure or a prolonged effort. The risks I don’t regret taking.”
What challenges did you face along the way?
TK: “I think my biggest challenge was that I was one of the first people in my family coming from the Frontier to venture into business. I had no family background in business so I had to learn everything on my own. The second challenge was that I started without any money so to build resources while you are getting along is challenging. When I started my advertising agency, it was with a lot of optimism but very little money. One of the big challenges in our country is retaining talent. We have been successful in retaining people; we have done better than the average for this market. I think one of our biggest success factors has been our ability to retain good people. Also, I think the ability to retain the Interflow family even when people have left and done very well in the industry. Today, if you look at the industry, most people in the media and media-related businesses, including the electronic media, have been part of the Interflow Group at one time or another.”
How do you see the future of Pakistan’s advertising industry particularly during this period of economic instability?
TK: “I think there was a time in December last year that one was feeling very apprehensive and January also reflected a bit of that tension. But, in February things picked up and we may not grow as much as we have been growing over the last few years, but I don’t think that there is going to be any major dip in advertising revenues. Most of the advertisers that we have here are stable like P&G, Pepsi and Unilever etc. I think they do understand that this market is not as affected by the current global recession, unless the law and order situation deteriorates beyond what it is right now. But, given the way things are, I am quite optimistic.”
You launched the first private television channel, NTM, which was again another huge risk.
TK: “That was a huge risk at that time. You must remember that at that time there was no human resource available so we had to create an entirely new sector. That was a big risk but, again, it was worth it. It was extremely challenging: we had a resource constraint, we did not have the kind of money available to us, but within our resources we
The Interflow Group is one of the pioneers in the field of marketing communication services in Pakistan. Established 25 years ago, the Interflow Group stands today as the driving force in the field of media, communication and advertising. With 14 companies and a workforce of over 1600 employees in 30 different offices across the country, the Interflow Group brings solutions to all creative needs; from advertising to media buying, from activation to event management, from out-of-home to specialised marketing solutions, from television to radio and production facilities. The Interflow Group has brought some of the world’s best companies in the field of marketing communication to Pakistan through strategic partnerships and joint ventures that provide innovation, boldness and excellence for all stakeholders.
concentrated on the quality of our HR and that’s why even today, the major players in the industry today are ex-NTM.”
You are still very much involved in the electronic media with TVOne, NewsOne and WasebTV; how have you seen the media evolve over the years?
TK: “From a lack of choices, now there is a plethora of choices. I believe that the market is not big enough to sustain over 60 television channels. There has to be some market rationalisation. The number of news channels in Pakistan is greater than that of India. It has been an unplanned and unregulated growth. In my opinion, PEMRA should have looked at it and regulated the growth in some way. Even now, the policy of just granting licenses is going to adversely affect the market because it is not a subscription-based market; the only source of revenue is advertising and I think the advertising pie in this country cannot sustain this huge number of channels and any addition will further aggravate the situation.”
Do you think PEMRA has been empowered sufficiently by the government to regulate?
TK: “I think PEMRA is in a difficult situation because where policies are concerned, PEMRA should be more effective. Their role is to look after the progress and well-being of the industry.”
What about media ethics?
TK: “I am a believer in a voluntary code of conduct. The media has certain responsibilities. While it has the right to be free it also has to assume certain responsibilities. There have been times when we have been guilty of being irresponsible. For example, some of the scenes of violence that are shown, some of the opinions that are allowed to be propagated freely, some of the attitudes and behaviour that the media has shown; I think we need a voluntary code, we need to define some boundaries for ourselves and I think that the government has always been good enough to ask us to come up with our own code rather than imposing one on us. The Pakistan Broadcasting Association is working on it. We are debating amongst ourselves but it would be good if we come out with this code sooner rather than later.”
Do you think the flourishing of the media has played a role in exacting transparency from government?
TK: “I think the media has changed the way politics is done in this country. Politicians, policy makers and the establishment are all aware that they are under very keen observation and every act of theirs can be scrutinised. Whatever they are doing is now exposed to the people, so it has been a huge service that the media has provided to society. By and large, it has raised the awareness of people; it has also made rulers and policy makers more accountable. If we have a voluntary code of conduct, we can avoid the areas where the media is criticized, i.e. showing scenes of violence and propagating certain views which are not in the interest of the country.”
Over the years, Interflow has expanded exponentially and you are now straddling a vast media empire, what are your plans for the future?
TK: “The plan at the moment is to consolidate our latest venture which is the electronic media. We are planning to launch TVOne in the US, to be followed by Canada and the UK. We are planning on trying to still improve. NewsOne is still less than 18 months old so we are trying to improve. The next year will go into improving our three channels; TV One, News One and WasebTV.”
Your wife, Seema, has also played a fundamental role in the growth of the business.
TK: “She has been my creative partner from the very outset. We started Interflow together and she has led the creative side on Interflow, which has been a major contribution as the rise of Interflow has been on the basis of its creative excellence. Today the role that she is playing: she is Chief Executive of Airwaves Media and heads our TV channels, and she is putting 100% of her time into that. She has already launched TVOne as a premium entertainment channel and now she is putting her energies into NewsOne and you will soon see the difference. She is basically a creative person but she brings a lot of energy into whatever she is doing. She is extremely hardworking and dedicated in whatever projects she undertakes, so I think that she has played a critical role in the success of the Interflow Group.”
This work ethic has been instilled in your children; your daughter Sara, runs Radio One FM91.
TK: “My daughter is the CEO of Radio One FM91. When she took over as CEO, the radio business was running at a loss and in a very short span of time, she turned it around not only in terms of it being rated as a top channel but also making it profitable.”
You are also involved in philanthropic initiatives; when did you get involved in these?
TK: “I am a believer that the Almighty is just using you as a channel. One of the reasons I have tried to grow my businesses is because I am happy and proud that I have been able to provide employment to so many people. By the same token, you have to give back what is given to you. Not just by cheque book generosity which is also important – it is good to part with your money and give to charity – but also to be able to put your own time and effort. It is a duty we have to society and every Muslim is duty bound to do that. Huqooqul Ibad is very important.”
Who have been you role models in your life and career?
TK: “Prophet Muhammad (May God’s blessings be upon him) is the greatest role model. In the more contemporary sense, Bill Gates is a role model for me and not just because he is so innovative and creative, but also because he is now dedicating his life to philanthropy and change. The biggest tribute to that is when Warren Buffet had to give his money to charity; he gave $66 billion to Bill Gates. He has handled success with such great humility. I went to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York two years ago and it was only after a while that I realised he was sitting on the table right next to me. He is so unassuming and humble.”
What do you think have been the secrets of your success?
TK: “I think it is common sense, hard work and good luck. You don’t need to be an Einstein to be successful, you just need common sense. You need to work hard because there is no substitute for hard work and of course, like every Muslim, you have to believe that someone up there should like you. I am a believer in kismet but I also believe that kismet is made through your efforts.”
Would you describe yourself as a workaholic?
TK: “I hate the idea of being idle. Time is precious. However, I would not call myself a workaholic because I do find time for things that I enjoy. I do manage to spend quite a bit of time reading. That is my passion. I just finished reading Desperately Seeking Paradise. I was also reading this book on Taj Mahal. My interests are current affairs, religion, and philosophy. I don’t read fiction unless it is very strongly recommended. I just read White Tiger which I enjoyed.”
What advice would you give people starting out their careers?
TK: “There is one thing that I have always believed in: I am a believer that we are blessed with a country that gives us immense opportunities. I tell all youngsters and students when I address them at different business schools, if you take my own story: I am a Pathan from a tribal area, I grew up in East Pakistan and I came to Karachi. A lot of people who are not successful blame the country or blame nepotism. I personally think that this is one country where if you are working hard and if you are innovative, creative and progressive; the opportunity is here for everybody. I am a living example and so are many like me who have been given so much by this country. Although I think this country gives us more than we deserve. Making it to the top of the field here is relatively easier. I am opposed to the idea that people who are not successful blame it on the country.”
Mr. Taher A. Khan
Chairman and Founder
Mr. Taher A. Khan founded the Interflow Group in 1983 by starting an advertising agency called Interflow Communications. 25 years later, the Interflow Group has evolved into a communications and media force in Pakistan, with 14 companies (wholly owned or joint ventures) providing services on a 360° platform; in the diverse fields of advertising, television, radio, media buying, activation, productions, out-of-home and specialised solutions. The Interflow Group’s associations and joint ventures are with international media and communication giants including the WPP associated companies; Ogilvy, Bates and Mindshare. Today, Mr. Taher A. Khan heads the Interflow Group as Chairman and Founder, and enjoys acclaim as the advertising veteran of Pakistan. He is actively involved with all the Group Companies, and strives hard to help them become leaders within their work discipline. His experience, expertise and network gives him a strong grasp in all facets of business. He excels in building and developing brands. He is a patron of the Cancer Society, a trustee of the Fatimid Foundation, a member of the Board of Governors of Dr. Ziauddin Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, a member of the Young Presidents’ Organisation and the International Advertising Association (IAA) to name a few.
What about the instability and violence we are witnessing?
TK: “That is the biggest misfortune. Karachi was once considered one of the safest cities in the world in the 1970s. I think the biggest problem we have had is people who have misinterpreted and misused religion. In the name of religion they have introduced extremism and a total lack of tolerance in society. If you read, for instance, Friends Not Masters and then you read In the Line of Fire, you will find that both were tackling the same elements of extremism in their own way. So, nothing has changed. Unfortunately, they have been given the opportunity to grow from a vociferous minority to a powerful militant organisation. They have always been a pressure group in this country but their pressure was not as violent, and today, they are imposing their views and enforcing their line of thought. This is the biggest challenge that the country faces.”
Awards and affiliations
Having completed a quarter of a century in the business, the Interflow Group has received its fair share of recognition over the years.
Pepsi Co Award (held in NYC with worldwide participation)
- Best Graphics TVC – Kung-fu for Mountain Dew
Conceptualised and produced by Interflow Communications, this was the first Mountain Dew TVC produced outside North America, and is also being aired in international markets.
Indian Abby Awards
All Pakistan Newspapers’ Society (APNS) Awards
- Business Performance Award
- Special Business Performance Award – Periodicals and Regional Publications
- Client Performance Award
- Public Service Campaigns’ Award
- Aurora Awards
Indian Abby Awards
- 3 Awards and 11 Nominations
- Number 1 on Pakistan Television Network (PTV)
- Number 2 in Press
- Number 2 on Radio
- Member International Advertising Association (IAA)
- Member All Pakistan Newspapers Association (APNS)
- Member Pakistan Advertising Association (PAA)
- Member Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA)
- Member Karachi Chamber of Commerce