Wajid Ali is Head of Paid Search at global brand performance agency ForwardPMX.
He spoke to Econsultancy about what his role involves day-to-day, how he came to work at ForwardPMX, and some of his favourite creative ad campaigns.
Hi, Wajid. Please describe your job: What do you do?
Wajid Ali: I oversee all of the paid search delivery teams across EMEA, which includes a team of over 120 people based in the UK. My role includes overseeing recruitment, training and development of staff, as well as supporting new business, existing client strategy and ensuring that our proposition is future-proofed in the ever-changing landscape.
To do this I work closely with key suppliers in EMEA Google and Microsoft, along with specialist or local suppliers and platforms that our international offices work directly with such as Yandex, Baidu, Naver, etc.
Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
Wajid Ali: ForwardPMX is split into two key areas: media activation and consultancy. I report directly into the head of media activation, Daniel Gibson. Paid search is the largest part of this offering, accounting for about two-thirds of all the activity.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
Wajid Ali: Good interpersonal skills and the ability to anticipate problems ahead of time are a must for any managerial position, especially when supporting strategic client conversations. Being a technically inclined individual has been a great asset for me at ForwardPMX, given the business has always taken a tech and data-first approach to solving client problems.
One of the most important areas in my role is effectively growing the team, whilst ensuring we are recruiting the right people, training them in the FP way, and offering them the best development opportunities for them to grow within the company. This is one of the reasons we have been able to scale ForwardPMX output so successfully: we have a team of people who are really passionate about what they do, genuinely living and breathing our ‘always learning, always teaching’ philosophy.
The side of my role that requires me to be the strategic practitioner benefits from my love of tech; a genuine enthusiasm to understand new technologies, how they work and what they mean for our clients (within the search landscape and beyond) is very important. Understanding the direction the industry is moving in is also important; when platforms release new features and formats, it can change how teams work, and I need to ensure that we’re ready for anything that may come up.
Tell us about a typical working day…
Wajid Ali: One of the things that I love about working in an agency is that no two days are the same. I get involved a lot with pitches and new business as well as client strategy meetings, and this will include the whole team getting together to build a strategy or discuss a 12 or 24-month roadmap. As the industry keeps adapting to new challenges and new technologies, it’s important to keep abreast of these changes to ensure that we’re embracing any new opportunities that come about as a result.
Another big part of my job is working alongside the HR team to ensure we’re recruiting the right kinds of personalities for the agency as we continue to grow. The majority of our analysts start from graduate level, and hiring is less about a candidate’s specific education, and more about passion and keenness to learn as we give them the best possible training to grow and develop in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment.
I also oversee the structured data team – separate to paid search – which manages data feeds for a number of channels and services, including Google Shopping and creative/dynamic placement for social.
I also spend time supporting the development of our own tech stack, Stage. This comes in the form of helping teams around the business identify opportunities based on challenges our clients are facing, and doing some basic feasibility testing for the dev team to deliver a scalable long-term solution through our tech platform.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
Wajid Ali: In seven and a half years, I have never dreaded coming into work. I am motivated because I know that whatever role I have been in, I have the ability to be involved in decisions that shape the future of the agency. Whatever level, we all want to push each other to do things better, to help the agency adapt and grow. It’s an environment where you can positively contribute to the business’ future, and see your hard work pay off, which is a very special thing to be a part of. I have been a part of other agencies where this isn’t the case, where you’re not listened to feel like you have no impact.
All jobs have challenges, and for me it’s when the team work really hard on a on a project or plan for a client that doesn’t see the light of day. This may be because the client’s budgets change, or other business changes on their side causes the brief to no longer be valid. Putting a lot of time and energy into something that doesn’t happen can get frustrating at times.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
Wajid Ali: Hands down, this is our in-house tech platform, Stage. Being such a flexible platform for data interrogation, surfacing insights, scaling client reporting, automating repetitive tasks and aggregating a virtually infinite amount of data makes client delivery significantly easier and faster than anything I’ve come across.
How did you end up at ForwardPMX, and where might you go from here?
Wajid Ali: I ended up at ForwardPMX by chance. I had just left my previous agency and thought I was done with working in an agency environment. Realistically, I thought I wanted to go client-side and thought that I needed to make that move to keep growing as an individual. I had felt like a small cog in a massive machine in my previous agency, which was really demotivating.
I had an interview and got a job offer for a client-side role that seemed almost exactly what I thought I was looking for; I also interviewed with a marketing agency specialising in Broadway shows that involved a lot more than digital marketing. Then, by chance, I had the opportunity to interview at ForwardPMX. It was a rigorous interview process, which involved lots of senior members of the team at the time, including the CEO, given the size of the agency at the time which was less than 40 people.
I went in thinking that I knew everything there was to know about paid search, but after seeing how things were being done at ForwardPMX, I was inspired and realised that I still had a lot to learn. ForwardPMX offered me the opportunity to learn more, and be around people a lot smarter than I was, at a subject I thought I’d mastered.
Looking ahead, I am in the process of moving to role a new role as Global Head of Technology at ForwardPMX. I believe that as we grow and adapt to the changing agency landscape, along with talented people, an evolving technology platform will continue to enable ForwardPMX to be a market leader in the areas we operate. Personally, I also believe that regardless of my new role, there is still so much for me to learn. As I have progressed, I have learnt more about how the business operates, challenges around new markets, the changing digital landscape, media buying problems and so on, which continues to evolve on a regular basis.
Which data-driven companies do you admire?
Wajid Ali: Aside from the five tech juggernauts, companies that have a grasp of trying to extract as much value from the data that they have seem are apart always industry disruptors. I find aggregators like Uber and Airbnb fascinating. Ultimately they are tech companies that have applied a pretty simple idea an industry, or problem, that hadn’t seen that type of innovation before.
Once companies like these have got off the ground, it’s an endless marathon of eking out the best possible service or value, for customers and themselves, by analysing every data point they have to hand. This can range from Uber pool ride routes to pricing recommendations for accommodation to the type of imagery being used to promote a product.
How can companies become more data literate?
Wajid Ali: I don’t think we should be concerned about data literacy per se. Companies need to be more aware of disruption from emerging technology that may or may not involve a better understanding of first and third party data.
All businesses and brands have some degree of uniqueness that differentiates them, but there is a need to be able to embrace change and be aware of new opportunities that come up. You only need to look at the likes of Kodak and Blockbuster: both industry leaders that failed to embrace emerging tech that was disrupting their industry; they now sit on the shelf of classic business case studies in universities around the world.
What creative have you enjoyed recently (in PPC or beyond)?
Wajid Ali: One from a couple years ago comes to mind where Burger King aired a TV ad that triggered the Google Home Assistant to respond to the question “what is the Whopper burger?” The subsequent hijacking of the Wikipedia entry that the response was read from and the backlash from disgruntled users aside, the PR off the back of this was priceless.
A couple of PPC campaigns that stand out over the years for me are the Snickers campaign that targeted users searching on Google who misspelt a popular search terms like “Amazin” or “Wether”, to show an ad to promote their “You’re not you when you’re hungry” slogan.
The other was Ann Summers back in 2010 in the UK which targeted the search volume for political search terms such as ‘hung parliament’ and ‘uk elections’. They served a provocative ads around the topics to promote their brand with copy such as “Visit Ann Summers and find out why we believe in a well-hung parliament”.
Any tips for performance marketers struggling with rising CACs?
Wajid Ali: My advice would be to understand the true LTV of a customer before making a decision on whether things are too expensive. Many businesses have a short-term view of success when trying to understand how the business is doing, which makes it an easy trap to fall into for marketers.
Instead of focussing on the immediate ROI, it’s better to look at what the long-term impact or success to the business may be for the acquisition cost of that particular type of customer. Ultimately, you’ll find the business will be much more successful over the long term by taking this approach.