Overcoming a personal tragedy brought Naveed Ahmad back to the mobile ad game
Here’s a sneak-peek at a feature story in our upcoming May 2014 issue
Nussar Ahmad founded his first marketing company in 2002, when he was just 24, making free calendars for York University students and selling ads.
Things came together when he landed Pepsi as a client, but he was eyeing bigger things. Five years later, the natural-born marketer was running a three-person operation out of an old factory in Markham, Ont. and had morphed into mobile – at the time, that meant sending promotional text messages. It was called Addictive Mobility.
A year later, his older brother Naveed came aboard, between jobs in banking, as COO to help build Nussar’s mobile advertising dream.
It was still early in the smartphone era, but Nussar was already moving from text messaging to in-app advertising, poaching mobile tech experts and relocating to downtown Toronto. He had opened Addictive Labs, a gallery showroom where he gave marketers and agency execs “the full mobile experience,” to give them a taste of what mobile could do. To hear Naveed tell it, Nussar had what every entrepreneur needs: a natural gift for winning over clients. “He could sell ice to an Eskimo.”
Naveed’s stint with Addictive was brief. Several months later, he got an offer from Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Dubai that he felt he couldn’t refuse with a young family to support. He continued to advise Addictive on financial matters, but was sure his days as an ad tech executive were over. That is, until tragedy struck when, just a week after his 34th birthday, Nussar died suddenly from a heart attack. At that point, Naveed faced the daunting choice of winding the company up, selling or coming back to nurture his younger brother’s dream.
Nussar’s sudden death left the company’s future in doubt in the summer of 2012. Naveed and his family inherited the company, and had to decide what to do with it. They considered shuttering it—their mother even suggested that option—but after speaking to some of the Addictive team, they realized how much it had meant to Nussar.
It wasn’t a financial decision in the end, says Naveed. “It was more about legacy.”
With no one else to take over, Naveed left his job in Dubai and returned to Toronto to build the business. He was terrified, he says. He’d been in banking for the last decade, and most of that time he was halfway around the world. He may have known something about the ad tech business from advising his brother on finances, but leading the company was something else entirely.
The odds were tough, given the loss of a founding entrepreneur, but Addictive rebounded and today has become one of the more successful mobile startups in Canada, growing into a full-service mobile advertising company with 23 employees in Toronto and a small outpost office in Dubai. Addictive has done work for OMD and Starcom MediaVest, completed campaigns for Rogers, Ford, Tim Hortons and Bank of Montreal, and has direct sales relationships with Shazam, Songza and UberSocial for Twitter. Its media team boasts it can reach 97.3% of mobile users in Canada, and 92.6% of users in the U.S. – over 140 million devices combined.
Naveed started slow – meeting the team and learning their roles, finding his way around the industry and understanding the technology. “He didn’t just come in and start pulling levers,” says Kevin Markland, director of the agency partnership practice. “He did the homework and really beat the trail on the ground.”
It was a year before Naveed took on the title of CEO. But when he did, he moved decisively. One of his first big ideas was to open an office in Dubai, where he still had an active business network. The Middle East has a burgeoning mobile market—with an average of more than one device per person—that had been underserved by Western tech companies and digital agencies. Within the year, he says Addictive made strong inroads into the market, working with global media companies on campaigns for Nestlé and Jaguar.
His next big move was connecting with the University of Toronto’s faculty of computer science. He knew the company’s core strength was that it had been mobile-focused before the digital ad industry was, and to keep that head start he’d need to recruit the best and brightest data scientists to spin insights and refine Addictive’s strategy. This year Addictive will bring on three of the university’s 22 CS master students as interns.
But Naveed says he can’t take all the credit for holding the company together through its transition. A lot of that came down to Nussar and the tight-knit, loyal team he had built. “Any of these people in the company could have walked away and gotten a lucrative job somewhere else,” Naveed says. But the team stuck it out.
Audrey Wu, 28, has been with Addictive since the very beginning. She met Nussar at York where she worked with him on Campus X, a cross-university magazine he founded shortly after his foray into calendars. She went on to work with him at Addictive, in that old Markham factory. There were no sidewalks outside, and on the way to work she’d have to stand on the shoulder to let trucks pass. She remembers calling her city councillor to have roadkill removed.
Now Addictive’s director of ad operations, Wu had worked closely with Nussar for half a decade and remembers him fondly. “One time, we were watching this woman who was a CEO of a company speak. He was like, ‘One day, that’s going to be you!’ ” she says. “He always saw that anyone under him doesn’t have to stay under him—that they could be as good and as powerful as him.”
Addictive’s team was hit hard by the loss of its leader. But Nussar had a rare talent for team-building, and had always envisioned the company as Team Addictive, a close-knit family of equals. Markland credits Team Addictive for coming together to face the crisis. He says while the industry is defined by scarce talent and short contracts, Addictive’s attrition rate is low and most of the team stayed with the company after Nussar’s passing. “During that whole time, it wasn’t leaderless. Everyone knew what had to be done,” says Markland. “He wouldn’t have wanted us to fold.”