Affiliate network Awin interviews Nadeem Azam in their blog

On the 20th anniversary of our founding, Europe’s leading affiliate network Awin has interviewed our CEO, Nadeem Azam.

The interviewer asks Nadeem:

  • how affiliate marketing has evolved over the last two decades
  • the developments that have been pivotal to Azam Marketing’s success
  • the three most important lessons he’s learned during his career
  • the biggest challenges Azam Marketing faces
  • what a start-up publisher needs to do to succeed

Read the full, eye-opening interview below or a shortened version here on Awin’s site.

Azam Marketing is a publisher and full-service digital marketing and design company which is headquartered in Covent Garden in central London.

Azam Marketing started their affiliate journey in 1997 by building a network of niche websites promoting advertisers in the USA, UK and continental Europe, becoming an affiliate on the Awin network in 2001.

Having built up an expertise in online advertising and web design by working on their own websites, Azam Marketing went on to provide these services to other businesses. To date they have built 427 websites and helped 993 clients to grow their online presence.

We speak to CEO, Nadeem Azam about how the affiliate industry has evolved over the past two decades, lessons learnt from his career and the biggest challenges Azam Marketing faces within the industry.

Nadeem Azam at Awin's black-tie dinner event "An Elaborate Execution" in 2009Congratulations are in order as Azam Marketing celebrates 20 years within the affiliate marketing industry and 16 years on the Awin network. What was your opinion of the affiliate space when you founded the company in 1997?

Thank you. Affiliate marketing was all but non-existent in the UK and the rest of Europe and we started off by partnering with advertisers in the USA. This included the likes of book and magazine retailers, hardly any of which exist anymore either because, at some point or other, they went out of business or were snapped up by other companies.

When we started in 1997 there were a few American affiliate networks that had recently launched. We belonged to around a dozen affiliate programs, either working with advertisers directly or via the nascent affiliate networks.

When we applied to join advertisers’ affiliate programs, we would sometimes have to fax or post our details!

To receive payment, we would usually email or fax an invoice, and in most cases our affiliate commissions were paid to us by “check”, as they’re called in the USA.

Although the set-up, technologies and know-how was rudimentary in the early days, there was a tremendous sense of optimism about this new world that only a relatively few buccaneering entrepreneurs were trying to develop an understanding of and grow a presence in.

With its roots in the military and academia, the internet was not a particularly commercial environment in the mid-1990s and that meant there was a meaningful camaraderie and sense of community. For example, programmers on the other side of the world I hardly knew would see me post on a Usenet group about struggling with creating a script to add functionality to a website and, without even asking, spend an hour or two creating it and then sending it to me! In the same mode, I would spend hours on bulletin boards and Usenet groups assisting people to build and promote their websites.

Has this opinion changed two decades on?

Boy have things changed! Twenty years in internet marketing has probably involved more transformation than a hundred years in many professions like law, dentistry and high street retailing.

Whereas it was a struggle to find an affiliate program in the UK and around Europe, there are literally tens of thousands nowadays. Things have turned upside down and nowadays it’s a challenge to find a medium or large size retailer that doesn’t have an affiliate program!

Affiliate networks like Awin are now full of shiny, sophisticated tools and API solutions. Payments are automated and, on the whole, reliable: I can’t remember a single point in the last ten years when Awin has missed a payment to us.

Despite the brave new cyberworld that has come into being, we are still at the dawn of the internet revolution. Affiliate marketing is at an early stage of its evolution, and has a way to go to ensure, for instance, that tracking is robust and dependable.

Which key digital milestones have significantly shaped Azam Marketing’s business strategy to make it the company it is today?

Good question.

From a practical perspective, the shift first from high-cost and low-speed dial-up to low-cost and high-speed dial-up and then from dial-up to broadband, has been a key pillar in enabling Azam Marketing, our advertisers and their customers to enjoy the benefits of the internet.

If it takes you twenty seconds of screeching sounds to log onto the internet and then you have to pay an arm and a leg for a flaky 56k connection, you’re not going to use it very often!

In terms of improvements instigated internally, we pivoted to success when we started running Azam Marketing as a data-driven operation on every level rather than one where decisions were made using a more arbitrary, ‘creative’ approach let’s just say! Now the judgements my team and I make are based on pure logic, obsessively analysing relevant information and metrics.

To give an example, whenever we are hired to drive leads for a new advertiser, rather than rushing headlong into trying to flood them with traffic, we use a combination of tools and manual research to meticulously study every aspect of their competitor’s strategies and, if we are sending leads to landing pages, we will take the pages through several rounds of usability analysis and split-testing before we settle on the final, near-perfect one.

I suppose the fact that my nose is glued to a computer screen with the likes of Microsoft Excel and Google Analytics displayed on it much of the day makes Azam Marketing a less exciting enterprise than we used to be in the early days, but I have learned a lot over my decades in business, and the data-driven approach to decisions means ultimately less time and money is wasted in the long-term.

Name the three most important lessons you have learnt during your career as Founder and CEO of an award-winning global agency?

1. The Customer is King – after the startup enthusiasm wanes, the majority of unsuccessful businesses eventually begin to be run to service the egos of their staff and ensure they don’t have to take themselves too much outside of their comfort zones. The vast majority of successful businesses put the satisfaction of customers at front and centre of everything they do, even decades after starting out.

I am flabbergasted at how the management of hardly any small or medium-sized enterprise bothers to obtain feedback from their clients, customers and employees. It’s usually only when a client or colleague leaves that it dawns upon them they were disgruntled!

In my own company, at the end of every month every staff member has to give me feedback as their Manager and must include at least one thing I should improve about myself. I have also set-up mechanisms for staff and clients to send their opinions to me completely anonymously. This ensures I don’t have my head in the clouds and can live up to the mantra my staff are sick of hearing me proselytise, of the customer being king.

2. Time is Money – the world is full of people who want you to help them and their businesses for no remuneration, whereas they would seldom commit serious time, energy and money to assisting others on a pro bono basis themselves.

I have wasted thousands of hours over the years by foolishly getting sucked into working on other people’s initiatives to the detriment of my own progression. I have finally developed a nose for sussing out ‘users’ and ‘time-wasters’ and will not give them the time of day any more.

It’s saving me a lot of time, as, for instance, I get contacted by at least twenty so-called entrepreneurs every week who want me and my team to work on their new-fangled and usually ill-thought-out business ventures on a ‘revenue share’ – i.e. no payment – basis (tip: the best way to get rid of such people is to ask for their business plan – 99% of them can’t be bothered to create one and you’ll never hear from them again!).

3. Health is Wealth – if you are not physically, psychologically and spiritually balanced and healthy, unless you have an innate talent which most of us are not blessed with, you are unlikely to succeed in business in the long-term.

The online marketing industry we work in can combine the worst excesses that advertising is renowned for (the hard drinking culture and the like) with the dangers prevalent in the IT sector (long days sat on a chair, excessive snacking while on the computer). Among affiliates, we used to joke about the “affiliate belly” this would result in.

I’ve seen too many talented young people in affiliate marketing not live up to their potentials because they didn’t look after themselves. They have made very little progression with their careers over ten or fifteen years; others have left the industry because their unbalanced lifestyles eventually took their tolls on them.

On the other hand, I’ve witnessed individuals I’ve mentored who did look after themselves go on to tremendous success – earning six figure incomes in their early and mid-thirties – because not only did they work with exceptional strategy and focus, but they heeded my advice to prioritise their health too. These people do not turn up to the office boasting about having a hangover that impedes their performance.

I myself walk at least 10,000 steps four days a week, go to the gym three times a week, eat healthily, and practice mindfulness and pray every day; were it not for these I would almost certainly have burned up and been spat out by this demanding industry a long time ago.

I still spend way too much time with Marilyn (my PC) than is good for me and that penchant is a work in progress let’s just say!

What is the biggest challenge Azam Marketing faces within the industry?

The three biggest challenges we see as an affiliate are, firstly, the dominance of cashback and voucher code websites and browser plugins, secondly, the shift from desktop to mobile, and thirdly, ad and tracking blockers.

In terms of the former, Azam usually sits as the beginning of the funnel for purchasing decisions as we have a network of content-rich websites, with, for instance, book reviews. While we may encourage someone to buy a book, it can be the case that another affiliate receives the commission by claiming they have a voucher code for the bookshop (even though in most cases they don’t) and the ‘click-to-reveal’ feature on their website – banned by the IAB UK in 2010 – drops their cookie.

In terms of mobile devices, a significant ratio of advertisers still don’t have tracking installed that reliably tracks affiliate traffic on mobiles. Also, many larger retailers, gaming companies etc. are aggressively encouraging users to download their mobile apps, which means affiliates will have less of an opportunity to earn referral commissions going forward.

As for ad and tracking blockers, which are being installed in their millions by the month around the world, including being integrated into increasing numbers of browsers, these are obviously a threat to affiliates as they mean adverts are hidden and any clicks users make from an affiliate to an advertiser’s website is not tagged back to affiliate.

You are 20 years into your affiliate marketing career, but for startup publishers starting out within the channel, what is the future looking like and what advice can you give?

Despite what I have stated as my answer to your previous question, the opportunities to become a successful publisher are very much there.

When Azam Marketing launched, most people didn’t even know what the internet was and, even when people started going online, they were very hesitant to provide their credit card details to any website, as they were worried about being scammed.

Over the last twenty years internet shopping has become mainstream to such an extent that it is driving high street retailers out of business, and, even in mature markets, is expanding at such a rate that ecommerce was responsible for 41.6% of all retail sales growth in the USA last year (2017 US Department of Commerce figures)!

Therefore, the opportunity for start-up publishers to become profitable are tremendous. The formula is simple: a nose for where the opportunities will lie, the willingness to work in a focused and sagacious way, and… a little bit of pixie dust!