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, among many others. Before establishing East River, Faizan brought his expertise as an investment banker and business analyst at General Motors 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 Australia.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
- [03:45] Faizan Syed talks about what they do at East River
- [04:42] Learnings from his time at General Motors that Faizan brings into his business today
- [06:34] What prompted Faizan to start his own agency?
- [14:04] Assessing how much to charge for a service
- [18:47] How did Faizan discover Entrepreneurs Organization?
- [20:10] Business differences between the Eastern and Western markets
- [24:23] Effective methods to motivate employees in the work environment
- [28:14] Faizan’s thoughts on working from home versus working at the office
- [32:37] East River’s projects with big brands like Oreo and Coach
- [41:58] 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 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 Inspired Insider 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 Pakistan.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- 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
- “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
- “Kaizen is the right way, it is the Japanese word for continuous improvement that deployed in manufacturing environments.”
- “Always be improving.”
- “If we have happy clients who are recommending us to other people, and we are profitable, we will always be okay.”
- “Relationships are everything.”
- “Pay for success, don’t pay for the hours.”
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Insider Stories from Top Leaders & Entrepreneurs…
You are listening to Inspired Insider with your host, Dr. Jeremy Weisz.
Jeremy Weisz 0:22
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. Since this is part of the top agency series, we’re gonna talk about culture, we’re gonna talk about work from home, we’re going to talk about the value-based pricing and all that but I had Jason Swenk on, we’re talking a little bit about him before he hit record here. He grew his agencies to over eight figures sold it and then started another group, one of his other groups, he runs a mastermind for agencies and the other one, he is buying up agencies. And it’s really interesting, he talks about how he values them, how they’re buying them how he structures it. Todd Taskey also, his episodes really good, he runs the 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, actually Faizan 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 in production. Faizan we call ourselves the magic elves that work in the background and make sure everything works to make it look easy for the company to host. 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, Faizan actually has a podcast and pretty popular which we’ll talk about and you should, go to rise25.com or email [email protected]. And without further ado, Faizan Syed is founder and CEO of East River Digital you could check it out at eastriverdigital.com. They are an award-winning full-service digital marketing agency with a global footprint of clients. They serve all sorts of sectors and they’ve healthcare, beauty, confectionery, 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’s, I guess, a former investment banker and business analyst from GM turned digital marketer entrepreneur. So, Faizan thanks for joining me.
Faizan Syed 3:33
Thanks for having me, Jeremy. It was great Cubs game that day.
Jeremy Weisz 3:36
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 3:46
Sure. So East River Digital is 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 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 100 people and that serves clients across the US, UK, Middle East, and maybe we’ve even experimented in Australia.
Jeremy Weisz 4:24
You have a really interesting background and University of Virginia, then you went on to get your MBA, Cornell, you worked for GM, you did investment banking stints, I’d love to hear what you learned at GM, that you now bring in to your business now.
Faizan Syed 4:42
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, 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, 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, we’re like, 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 what you 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 CII. It’s 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 6:16
So what made you start if I look at your career trajectory, I wouldn’t think he’s gonna start an agency. Right. I’m thinking he’s a successful marketing analyst, he worked for General Motors. He goes on, he’s in investment banking, what made you decide to start your own company?
Faizan Syed 6:35
It’s funny, I did GM, because I had a passion for cars, I still do. I’m a big car guy. I love working on vehicles. I love restoring old cars, I will enter the occasional desert rally where I live. I’ve 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. So that whole thing about wanting to do investment banking, that’s something I grew up with in the environment we were in. And so I was like, you know what, alright, let’s try that 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 banking, I realized 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 with 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 and moved to the US for college. I decided to move back my wife had finished her residency was 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 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 the HTV, that was the HTV. Exactly It was Health TV, then we moved it and made it about HTV 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, 2009. So Pakistan was a little bit behind and I said you know what, when 3G, 4G comes in, social is gonna blow up. So we need to have a digital presence for our TV assets. When we build a 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 patient. What can you help us out? And do 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 confectionery 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 like 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, we’re going to stick to our traditional for now. I said, okay, you’re gonna let him and the whole team go. He said, yes. I said, wait, 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 it, if you win, 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 won 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 publicist, 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 you for any of this. In fact, can you pay for their salaries as well, for the next, 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 of how an agency works.
Jeremy Weisz 12:42
That’s fascinating. I love to hear, it’s oftentimes with these agencies stories, it’s the accidental agency. First of all, I just want to point out, I love how you kind of new yourself with the 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. It was a point in time where if you don’t pay attention to those things, it can easily go down that path, right? And 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 a lot of experience in the business world in a leadership world. But how did you decide to charge for your friends and pharma logistics early on? What did you do? How are you thinking about pricing?
Faizan Syed 14:05
You know what, that was my Achilles heel. I had no idea how to think about pricing. I literally didn’t and so the first few years I literally was pricing based on what the market was pricing. Right so to win business, we be like, okay, the markets pricing it just figuratively for market prices, something at $1,000 I believe we’ll do it for 900 Just bring the business here. Now what I didn’t realize that most of the people in the market because digital was a new space. Most of the people in the market did not know how they were pricing either. The blind leading the blind. 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’s going on? And so finally the bank or the math finance guy in me was like, wait a second, wait a second, 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 cash flow 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 cash flow 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 experienced that period while I was living in Pakistan, with family support, 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 both are members. And the support was in the form of the members. And 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 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 we’re 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 of 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, I have to literally at the start of the year, I tell my team, I said we have two goals for the year. NPS and EBITA, 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. EO members and their feedback helped me understand it. And now we’re constantly thinking in terms of FTEs we’re thinking in terms of cost per hours, we’re thinking in terms of overheads, 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.
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