Nikki Wicks
Aug 10, 2015

MasterCard’s digital engine

THE FACE BEHIND THE BRAND: Sam Ahmed, SVP head of marketing at MasterCard Asia-Pacific, invites Campaign inside the engine of the company’s latest innovation.

MasterCard’s digital engine

For someone who immerses himself in digital technology and innovation, Sam Ahmed’s other big passion might seem surprising. “Well, I collect antique books,” he says smiling. “I have a passion for old books and autobiographies, because I think you learn a lot from history.”

As Ahmed excitedly paces across a glass-walled room in MasterCard’s Singapore head office in front of a wall of giant screens flashing complex graphs, charts and live analytics, it’s hard to imagine him with a dusty old book in hand.

But we’re not here to discuss antique tomes. Ahmed has invited Campaign Asia-Pacific for a second exclusive look inside MasterCard’s digital and ecommerce engine. The last time we took a look was last year, following the launch. The company now has its first results from campaigns that used its new social media and digital monitoring tool. Before we dive into the statistics, though, Ahmed wants to set one thing straight. “I’ve got to be really clear: this is not about advertising. This is not digital advertising; this is digital business.”

Based on the premise that marketing and business don’t quite understand each other, Ahmed believes MasterCard’s engine has made significant progress in bridging the gap. “How do we, as marketing, drive business and drive ecommerce transactions? That has been the critical ethos of this project.”

Originally called the ‘Priceless Engine’, MasterCard has since renamed it the ‘digital and ecommerce engine’, a move aimed to better emphasise its place in ecommerce. The concept evolved from a desire to use the mass of data available to MasterCard through digital channels more intelligently and effectively than it had been in the past, with the aim of providing more relevant, timely offers to consumers.

Part of the motivation was flaws in the current model of marketing and ecommerce. “Typically what’s happening is you’re going away on holiday to Bali and a week later you’re getting an offer to Bali.”

Drawing from more than 20 data sources and using over 10 software tools, the engine’s technology is complex. In simple terms, it’s made up of four key sections that enable MasterCard to conceive campaigns or offers, monitor their progress in real-time — not only in terms of engagement, but also transactions — and adjust as needed.

A big difference, Ahmed points out, between the engine and the more standard approach to marketing is the ability to process consumer data in real-time, which means that decisions and tweaks can be made in a matter of minutes rather than months. MasterCard has built the facility across seven markets in Asia, including Hong Kong and China, India, Japan, Singapore, Australia and Thailand.

With Asia-Pacific being the largest ecommerce region in the world, and growing at incredible rates, it’s no surprise that MasterCard’s engine project is being driven out of Asia. In China alone, ecommerce is said to account for US$190 billion, growing 51 per cent year-on-year according to eMarketer. Meanwhile, retail ecommerce sales in Australia are predicted to rise 14.4 per cent this year to pass US$10 billion.

Yet the sector is still fairly new, Ahmed points out, and he believes the region lacks proper digital and social business models that really power ecommerce. 

“We’re still advertising and it’s not great at driving transactions. What we wanted to do at MasterCard is really be the leading player in this ecom-digital world. Everything that we do is focused on the transaction. There isn’t a world-famous marketing book written on ecommerce at the moment; we’re still writing that stuff right now.” MasterCard, Ahmed believes, is writing a significant chapter.

One of the first key activations for MasterCard’s engine was during Mother’s Day last year — a time of year when many are spending money and buying gifts. Rather than launching a ‘buy a gift for your mum and get 20 per cent off’ campaign, which is “how ecom-marketing is happening at the moment”, Ahmed says, MasterCard tapped into its social listening tools and found that many people in Hong Kong were talking about gratitude for their parents. 

So MasterCard created an emotional video around Mother’s Day. The video had no mention of deals or discounts, but at the end viewers were directed to a Hong Kong gifting site, which carried all of MasterCard’s Mother’s Day offers. The results? MasterCard gained over 618,000 video views and drove more than 300,000 people to purchase online in Hong Kong over the period.

But critical to all of this, Ahmed says, is not the technology of the digital ecommerce engine, but the emotional engagement with consumers.

“We have a saying internally that’s we’re putting the ‘E’ back into ecommerce. And that ‘E’ is emotion, because ecommerce, if you look at it from a marketing perspective, is still very dry. It’s 10 per cent off; buy one get one free; it’s just very numbers driven.”

In another case study for a New Year’s Eve campaign, featuring movie star Hugh Jackman, MasterCard again tapped into emotion, this time focusing on the connection of consumers and mentorship, to offer a ‘Priceless surprise’.

In total, with three campaigns across the region, MasterCard claims it has reached 152 million consumers across six markets, serving 1.7 billion ads. The company says this would have traditionally cost US$17.5 million, “however, the shareability of our content allowed us to reach these numbers by spending only US$3.8 million”.

Perhaps the most surprising result of MasterCard’s latest innovation is the massive change in the company’s relationships with its merchants. Using the data, analytics and social listening, Ahmed says MasterCard has cut process times with merchants from as long as four weeks to just 12 hours.

“Now what we’re doing is we’re finding an opportunity and we’re calling the merchant. For instance, we might know that 3 million eyeballs in India are interested in travelling to Singapore. So we call up a hotel partner in Singapore and say, do you want to partner with us? If you do, you need to let me know in the next couple of hours, because the next day those 3 million eyeballs have gone.

“That’s the speed that I’m talking about. In ecommerce, it’s critical.” 

The data is also showing MasterCard just how crucial it is to get the content right for each market. No matter how good the offer, if the content isn’t right for a particular market, “it bombs”, he says.

“The types of images that work in India are very, very different what works in Australia,” he says. “In India you’ve got to have colour and vibrancy, especially when you’re talking about travel. In Australia the consumer wants Zen. They want a picture of Nepal. They don’t want anybody in that picture and they want to imagine themselves there. If we put that picture in India, it bombs.”

Monitoring such behaviour in real-time has allowed MasterCard to test all of its creative in a particular market, before putting any paid media behind it. “The engine is made up of trends and insights; it’s listening, it’s publishing and testing, it’s our targeted media. But ultimately the secret sauce is that all of this technology is giving us all of this information and enabling us to say, here’s where I need to put my media money. 

“Australia, you should now put US$200,000 behind this. This is working big. China, haul back on that offer, it’s not working; we’re going to put another one on. Two years ago we were just putting money behind those offers.”

With four more major campaigns planned in the next 12 months and with plans to roll out the project in other markets, MasterCard’s engine is showing no signs of slowing down. Ahmed is clearly excited to be behind the wheel of the company’s latest innovation. He believes it’s formed a much-sought-after bridge between the marketing and business. “Marketing — instead of just taking care of the brand — is driving business at the same time,” he says.

Whether this is a chapter in a marketing book that might someday end up in Ahmed’s antique collection remains to be seen. But for now, his goal is to keep driving MasterCard’s engine forward and continue innovating. “If your team is not creative and innovating, it’s not moving forward,” he says.

See the full case study for MasterCard’s New Year’s Eve campaign


  • 2013 MasterCard, senior vice-president, head of marketing, Asia-Pacific
  • 2011 Starbucks, head of marketing and category, Asia-Pacific
  • 2009 Kraft (Mondelez), head of beverages division, Asia-Pacific
  • 2004 Fonterra, global brand director — nutritional beverage


  • Lives Singapore
  • Family Wife and two children (boys: Hugo and Harrison)
  • Hobbies Surfing and golf, reading political science and collecting antique books

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