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How I Got Here… Alex Khan, Smaato APAC managing director

After studying business administration and economics at university, Alex Khan fell into advertising sales and from there eventually to cutting-edge mobile supply-side platforms — an immensely satisfying career path, though a far cry from his childhood dream of becoming a professional sportsman

Education

Growing up as the youngest of five brothers in a small town in the south of England, there was a huge amount of competition between us all — my upbringing taught me the importance of loyalty and teamwork but also helped me develop a strong sense of resilience.

I played representative football, cricket and hockey, and at one point, hoped I could turn sports into a professional career.  

I had no real plan beyond this when I arrived in Northampton, but then very quickly realised that there were sportsmen out there who were more talented than me. Still, I captained the university football team and played semi-professionally at weekends until I got injured.

That’s what really threw me into my university work. I knew then that I had to graduate and get a job — though I had no idea what that would be.

My start

Even when I graduated, I really didn’t know what direction I would take. I sent off a bunch of job applications with no real plan in mind.

Then one of my school friends, a recruitment consultant, asked to see my CV for a graduate role he was looking to fill. It was for a sales job at a magazine publisher and I was given an interview straight away. Within just two weeks of graduating, I had my first job, selling display advertising space.

I started in computer magazines and found the transition from university very easy. I loved going to work and it was all great fun.

The role taught me how to build partnerships and relationships. To make my clients trust that I would look after their budgets. I am still friends with many of my early clients to this day.

Two and a half years after graduation, I was now a sales manager and had already moved from print to online for the first time, selling advertising space for recruitment bulletin boards.

I then made my only move away from advertising, to run wholesale and retail teams selling computer memory chips across Europe. From my base in London, I learnt how markets moved at a time when the price of chips was extremely volatile.

If we didn’t sell out our inventory every few days, we would be taking on losses. It taught me how to construct short-medium- and long-term deals using multiple blended rates, because each day, the new stock would arrive at a different price.

After making a return to digital advertising and spending three years looking after European sales at an online video network, I moved to Yahoo! UK as head of agency sales in 2002 — my first foray into a big global company. I’d become used to working in multiple currencies from my memory chip manufacturing and distribution role. Having exposure to multiple cultures meant I would adapt well to the environment within the company.

I took over a great team who was motivated and we really excelled as a sales unit. You could say it served as a turning point in my career.

Approach

I’ve been very lucky that my career has taken me around the world. I’ve now spent the last 12 years in Asia-Pacific, where I’ve been fortunate enough to launch a couple of businesses. Notably, I worked as chief executive of a great company Catcha and was part of the team that took the company public. I then left to join Adapt.tv, which was my first role in pure programmatic video advertising.

When Adapt.tv was acquired by AOL, I found myself back at a big corporation as regional managing director. I thoroughly enjoyed the role, and it was a fantastic experience working with very talented people.  

The then chief executive, Tim Armstrong, was one of the most motivational leaders I’ve seen — he was very charismatic and driven. We really built AOL into a good business in Asia-Pacific after we launched here.

Transitioning from a corporate environment to an entrepreneurial role is actually smoother than most people would think.

When you’ve been at a company where there’s such a level of discipline and structure as in a corporation, all the rigour that you develop and your ability to organise yourself never leaves you when you go into being an entrepreneur.

It stands you in good stead, especially as you have to be a little bit more diligent as an entrepreneur — more careful about the decisions you make because your relationship with investors is a lot closer to home.

So far, I’ve covered print, bulletin boards, manufacturing, online video, programmatic video and programmatic display, but one area I hadn’t really covered was mobile. I’m convinced it’s going to be a super important area, globally.

Alex with the team at Smaato

My future aspirations are very closely aligned to Smaato, whose Asia-Pacific business I have led since August. We want to make sure it will be the number one mobile in-app supply-side platform — we only deal with in-app and expect it to be the big advertising growth area.

Personally, I think that’s where the market is going to go, particularly in light that advertisers want to direct consumer conversations, and I think mobile and in-app is the way to do that. Over the next five years, we want to build one of the world’s biggest in-app SSPs.

Highs

I am fortunate enough to have experienced many highs in my career but, to name a few standouts.

Firstly, I feel very fortunate to have fallen into an industry which I am passionate about. When I reflect back on the 20-year old Alex Khan, I really had very little idea about the industry or how my first role would play out.

I have met the most talented motivated and inspirational people, worked with some of the world’s largest and most respected brands; yet, it’s the people and teams and relationships we develop that motivate me the most.


Lows

I have been lucky in that there have been very few low points. I spent part of my career in the Nineties in bulletin boards, and despite the experience I gained, I really didn’t enjoy it. It was a long commute out from west London to the company’s offices, and it wasn’t an enjoyable period for me.

But I’m blessed that I can look back on a long career where there’s very little that I would like to change. I’ve had some good successes and I’ve worked with some amazing people. And I always learn.

That’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if you’re an FTSE100 chief executive or an entrepreneur plucking up the courage to do your thing, just as long as you’re learning and enjoying what you do.

Do’s and don’ts

My advice is to listen and don’t talk too much. I always tell my guys, you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio.

Ultimately, if you want to have a career in sales, or in a service-led business, unless you know what your client or customer wants, you’re not going to be able to arrive at the right point for them to engage with you, if you don’t listen to them.

So always keep your ears open and be available wherever possible. And don’t do all the talking and certainly never overpower them — don’t be too pushy. It’s a service you provide and that’s something you should take to heart.

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