World's Earliest Surviving Digital Marketing and Design Agency Celebrates Landmark 20th Birthday

As part of the commemorations marking our twentieth anniversary this month, I serve for your delectation twenty of the most curious, odd and downright insane episodes I’ve experienced compèring The Azam Marketing Show over the last two decades.

This blog post features the first ten incidences, covering the decade from 1997 to 2007. This was our start up phase when, first as a one-man band and then with a burgeoning number of freelance staff (the inhouse bods would come later), I struggled to pan for gold in the Wild West that was the nascent world wide web.

Some dotcom entrepeneurs I knew did find gold, made millions and brilliantly exited before the dotcom crash; the vast majority (including myself in the early days) struggled to even make as much as the kid flipping burgers in their local McDonalds.

There were few rules and almost anything went. It was brutal and it was fun.

Behind the cool, calm and sane exterior that most people try to exude in business, in the early days of the internet it often felt the battle to become the Zeus of the cyber-world was akin to competing in the Wacky Races:



From one to ten, here goes:

1. When I was researching (fro  su er 1996 to su er 1997) and launching (on 4 August 1997) the business, believe it or not I often did so on a keyboard on which the ‘ ‘ key didn’t work!

At the ti e I was e ployed as a journalist (and doing about four other jobs) for a co unity agazine in We bley, north London. The organisation was in dire financial straits and ridiculously badly run, so they couldn’t afford to buy  e a fully functioning keyboard.

Whether it was writing articles for the agazine, progra ing  y websites, or scripting the content for  y web pages, I would farcically do so without an ‘ ‘ in anything. Whenever the Deputy Editor went on his lunch-break or left work for the day, I scrurried over to his co puter with a disc, loaded up whatever I had been coding or writing, and then would go through the copy line-by-line painstakingly adding all the  issing ‘ ‘s!

You may see my 1990-built Apple Macintosh Classic in the first row of pictures, on the right, in this video we have recently released showing twenty images from our twenty years in business:





2. I spent a long stretch juggling two balls – being a scribe for the magazine and rearing Baby Azam. I would churn out articles for the publication from 9am to 7pm, at such volume that the Editor used three nom de plumes for my output, and then remain in the office, after everyone had left, to use the one computer which had an internet connection (alongside, praise the Lord, a functioning ‘m’ key) to build my business. I would usually be tapping away on the keyboard until 1 am.

I had found a shabby old mattress in a cupboard in the office block where the magazine was based and would drag it into the middle of our office and drop it down. Surrounded by desks and computers and with press releases from around the world churning out of the fax machine which was positioned near my head, I would sleep from 1am until 6am-ish.

After breakfast and shaving in the toilets, I would then spend another couple of hours working on my venture until the staff waltzed into the office.

3. I eventually parted ways with the magazine and was able to work on the business during office hours as well. The biggest obstacle was I didn’t have an internet connection as I couldn’t afford the pricey per-minute dial-up connections there were at the time.

I owe a tremendous gratitude to a number of colleges and universites whose computer laboratories were a saving grace for me. I would enrol on the lowest cost course I could find, which would then grant me access to the institution’s PC rooms.

It wasn’t always the most salubrious of environments, but I would sit in the computer centre of colleges like Westminster Kingsway with teenagers playing rap music and flinging balls of paper to each other past my nose while I manically tapped on the keyboards at 90 words per minute to execute my World Conquest Plans until I’d be thrown out onto the streets at the closing times.

4. Ahhhh… the heady days of the dotcom boom. It’s all but impossible to describe what an electrifying time it was to anybody who didn’t experience it. At this point my programming skills were still rather “rudimentary” let’s just say and so Azam’s websites looked just hideous.

But that didn’t stop people hurling cheques at me paying at a rate of $70 CPMs (per thousand impression) to show their banner graphic advertisements on my websites. To give a benchmark of how golden those days were, if a website owner nets $2 CPM these days they are doing very well. It’s akin to somebody now earning a mere 2% of what they used to for doing the same task.

I can still smell those Dotcom boom time cheques.

Here’s some banner adverts we hosted on our websites around the turn of the millennium I’ve dug out from our archives:


Books.com was a pioneering online book retailer. Barnes & Noble were very late off the mark in building a web presence, so they bought Books.com to try to catch-up with Amazon. The domain name now forwards to Barnes & Noble's website

Weren't web ads just plain ugly in those days? Many people would argue they still are

I have witnessed so many online retailers launch with fanfare and hype, and then close down a few years later. This was one of them

Amazon eventually launched a UK web store and here is one of the earliest banner ads for Amazon UK

5. As many people in my industry know, I am the polar opposite of Tim Ferris with his fabled “4-Hour Work Week” philosophy (Amazon UK, USA) and hail more from from the “100-Hour Work Week” School of Thought, as promulgated by… errrr… nobody.

As dial-up internet costs started reducing in the run-up to the millennium, I could afford to log on more frequently from my home desktop computer. To help pay that £80 / $100 a month dial-up internet and other bills, I took on flatmates for my little apartment.

One of them, Hector from Venezuela, would go out with his amigos and often return home at 2 or 3am. He would quietly unlock the front door and try to tip-toe towards his bedroom so as not to wake me up. As he walked past my room, almost every single time he would glance over and sat on the dining table in the far corner, in pitch black darkness with the bright white light of the computer monitor lighting up his face, was yours truly tapping away on a keyboard. I remember him screaming every single time, “Nadeeeeeeeeem… I can’t believe you’re still up at this time on the computer!”

Happy days.

Here’s the only picture from the era I’ve managed to find of me working on my computer. It’s from around 2002, and shows me in my bedroom in my pyjamas:

6. Remember the good ol’ “ezine”? It was a fairly well-known term in the early days of the web, referring to electronic magazines that were emailed to people. They held a position akin to today’s blogs.

By the early noughties Azam Marketing (aka moi and a handful of freelancers and consultants by this time) had built our own little web empire, with more than sixty websites.

Most of them were nothing to write home about, but one that stood out and became somewhat successful was 1Lit, an ezine. It was a literary publication, emailed to subscribers on the first of every month (hence the moniker 1Lit). You may see a screenshot from the mast of the 1 February, 2001 North American issue below and click on the image to read it. The 1 December, 2002 issue of the European edition is here.

A screenshot of the header of the 1 February, 2001 issue of Azam Marketing's literary ezine 1Lit. As George W. Bush had just become President, the issue included 1Lit's top four 'Bushisms'. Click here to read the publication at the Wayback Machine

I would spend days researching and writing the content (I can recall climbing up a hill in the village of Heptonstall in Yorkshire to take photographs of Sylvia Plath’s grave for the publication) and, after a while, it became increasingly popular. The subscriber list included many professors from the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge universities and well-known authors.

UKHotMovies.com was another website in our portfolio and was celebrated for a while in the early noughties in the UK. Despite its name, no it wasn’t a porn site (more on that subject further below), but featured film reviews, news, charts and all kinds of related information. It was one of the four most popular stand-alone movie websites in the country and we were regularly invited to the London premieres and previews of British and sometimes Hollywood films.

Particularly popular were the picture galleries of actors and actresses. When the site ranked number one for photos of Catherine Zeta-Jones, we were flooded with so much traffic – which, no matter what we tried, wouldn’t generate any income – that we had to deliberately de-SEO the webpage (for non-geeks that means making it less popular in the eyes of the search engines) as our web host kept asking us to pay more and more money for the bandwidth our website was devouring.

After many years of my team and I slaving over both 1Lit and UKHotMovies.com, I eventually had to take the painful decision to leave them to rot. The vast amount of time and cost involved in running the operations and regularly publish high-quality content wasn’t justified by the low returns.

7. Traditional businesses finally woke-up and realised the internet was not a fad that would go the way of CB radios, so they began to use their muscle to try to crush the pure-play dotcoms that had built a robust online presence. Using the Wacky Races analogy, this was akin to Dick Dastardlys and Muttleys in colossal tanks trying to ram-raid little Azam ‘Penelope Pitstop’ Marketing off the road.

Therefore, in the noughties there was seldom a month when I didn’t receive a letter from some preeminent legal firm or other based in New York, London or Berlin. Needless to say these lawyers had all but a rudimentary understanding of the internet and the premisces on which they threatened to hurl us into Valhalla were often beyond absurd.

By way of example, in the early days of the internet, search engines had less sophisticated algorithms and if you had cutting-edge Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) skills you could rank very highly when people searched for the keywords you targeted. Such were our abilities we ranked number one in AltaVista and Yahoo for brand names such as “WHSmith” and “Virgin Megastores” (for those outside the UK, two major high street retailers in the country). One day I received a coarse cease and desist letter from the latter’s law firm, with a letterhead declaring their presence in the swishest part of London, asserting what we were doing was “illegal” and we must stop immediately.

We were an approved affiliate marketing partner of Virgin Megastores, who had hired us and many other affiliates to drive sales to them. There was nothing in their terms and conditions to say we couldn’t outrank them in the organic search engine results. If we were positioned higher them their internet marketing bods were not doing their jobs properly and it was not illegal in any way, shape or form.

I immediately summoned Azam Marketing’s hotshot inhouse legal team into my office looking out over the recently-erected Millennium Wheel and, chewing one of my favourite brand of Cuban cigars, we discussed Virgin Megastores’ legal challenge (well, truth be told, I was sat on my bed in my stripey blue pyjamas reading and reflecting on the legal letter by myself, but the former sounds more Wolf-of-Wall-Streetish). Even though Azam Marketing was legally on firm ground, I am always a pragmatist and rather than blowing thousands of pounds on legal fees as many people are only too wont to do to bolster their egos, I acquiesced to the demands of the edict. We de-SEOd our website to cause it to drop in the search rankings, falling below Virgin Megastores’ webpages.

8. Left reeling from the dotcom crash that brought many an e-business to its knees, I didn’t have much in the way of an advertising budget, so tried all kinds of weird and wonderful methods to garner free publicity for my business.

When, for instance, in 2003 David Blaine spent 44 days encased in a clear perspex box hanging 30ft in the air near the River Thames, I saw it as an opportunity to gain some PR. I turned up wearing a t-shirt advertising my website and tried to get interviewed by the world’s media that had coverged on the site. I managed to interviewed both by a national TV station in Canada and also for the news broadcast of a part of the United States I can’t remember now, so one could say my tactic worked.

Most of my marketing strategies were dismal failures, such trying to promote one of Azam’s literary websites by placing branded bookmarks in thousands of books in the libraries in my area (one could breathe more freely in the days before CCTVs were so prevalent).

9. As my coding and design skills improved and I started making enough money to hire talented creatives – even being awarded a Yahoo! Website-of-the-Week commendation for one of our creations – more and more people began contacting me to build websites for them.

One fellow offered me a sizeable wad of money to build pornographic websites for him (such sites could be very lucrative, as webpreneurs kept letting slip at the first internet conferences I attended). I turned him down. He kept offering me more and more money and wouldn’t stop trying to persuade me. So, to shut him up, I blurted, “I’ll tell you what, if your wife tells me she’d like me to build the websites I will do so,” knowing his wife to be a prim and proper mother of five children. Never in a million years did I expect her to ring me five minutes later and exclaim she wholeheartedly was in favour of me building a porn network for her husband!

In all the years of running Azam, it’s the only time I can recall when I broke my word to a client and I still didn’t go ahead.

10. I can’t script an article without sharing at least one tip: if you wish to buy an asset from someone, don’t contact them using an email address using the ml.com domain name. Why? Because, as you are probably not aware, that’s the domain name for none other than the (pre-2008 crash) Masters of the Universe otherwise known as Merrill Lynch and the recipient of your missive is highly likely to believe your pockets are bulging with rather a lot of banknotes.

So, in 2005 when I received an email from someone a quick online search revealed held a very senior role at Merrill Lynch offering to buy Azam Marketing’s domain name azam.com my ears pricked in a Mr Spock-like fashion.

The reason we use azam.net as our corporate domain name rather than azam.com is because we eventually negotiated such a pretty penny that we had little choice but to sell the latter.

To this day it’s the most heartbreaking business decision I’ve ever had to make.

The picture below was taken on Tuesday of me near Westminster Bridge. The sculpture I’m standing next to, called ‘The Dance’, was designed by the talented artist who acquired the azam.com domain name from us to host a website showcasing his creations.

Me a couple of days ago outside the four-metre high 'Azam' bronze-cast sculpture which was unveiled in February 2008. The azam.com domain name is now owned by the artist who designed this sublime work of art

And there ends the first decade of the Azam story. Part II, which covers 2007 – 2017, will be published within the next several days.

Make sure you subscribe now to be notified when it goes live. You won’t want to miss why I had to drink a cup of tea at the slowest pace anybody has ever done to get out of a tricky wicket or what happened when I was summoned to meet the perpetrator of the biggest heist in human history who had changed tack to enter the online marketing industry.