Should creativity have a nationality? How far can a good idea travel? Should Indian campaigns cross the border and be appreciated in Pakistan? Can a local ad do the same?
From 1964 until the late 90s, the media in Pakistan was very strict about what made it to the airwaves. We had popular English programmes like Six Million Dollar Man, Knight Rider and Air Wolf (among others), giving us a foreign flavour, but the rest was all good quality homemade content, such as dramas, sitcoms, talkshows and brand commercials that would keep us entertained. Jingles for brands such as Bata, Binaca and State Life are still remembered today. In early 2000, we converted from a single television channel to a multiple channel universe. Even when this transformation was taking place, the one thing that was guaranteed was that content would be homegrown. As the bouquet of satellite channels started to increase and the TRP fight heated up, a shift took place whereby a lot of content came from India, including Bollywood songs and Star Plus dramas.
Today, the fixed point chart of any channel in any given week has approximately 20-30% Indian content and for music channels a good 60-70% of the content consists of Bollywood songs. Throughout this period, the one industry which defended itself against any sort of foreign invasion was the advertising industry. We took pride in conceiving an idea and producing it locally. The only time we looked abroad was for the production of the content, and that too only in dire circumstances, such as non-availability of a director, budgetary issues, technical requirements or location issues. However, whatever had to happen was done under the supervision of the local agency. This practice improved the overall production values and helped local production houses gain expertise. The directors also knew that they had to bring their ‘A’ game to every project and deliver beyond expectations.
However, the latter part of the last decade saw the advertising industry falling for the glitz and glam of foreign advertisements. Long before the upheaval started in Pakistan’s advertising-scape, MNCs were pushing the globalisation process, airing foreign-made ads to enhance their brands’ global presence. India, however, remained a no-go area. In fact, certain brands would not even advertise in slots that aired Indian content and PTV as per its policy would not air any TVCs that featured Indian talent. Today, our airwaves are full of Indian commercials. Rather than globalisation, we have fallen into ‘Indianisation’. So what is the big deal about airing Indian ads?
Creativity without borders
“Because the ads are ‘Indian’” doesn’t qualify as an answer. We need to set aside our emotions and approach this discussion with progressive thinking. I spoke to several local ad people and read many blogs. Each conversation started with an initial push back to ‘Indianisation’ followed by a rationale.
A friend who works for an MNC was clear in stating that there are pros and cons to using Indian ads. Pros, because it is cost effective, there is celebrity appeal and it leverages global best practices. Cons, because it discourages local creativity and employment opportunities, and hampers the growth of local talent. At the end of the day it really depends on the brand and how easily the communication translates into this market.
Then there are the global brands that need to maintain their brand essence. Yet, in every market they adapt if the market focus and brand pull requires it.
In the case of Pakistan, we should not perceive this as ‘Indianisation’ but take it as brands leveraging on regional commonalities.
Indian celebrities have a huge fan following in Pakistan and the revival of cinema is a testament to it. Why shouldn’t brands capitalise on this opportunity? Take Katrina Kaif’s recent commercials for different brands, which are conceived and shot in India; most of the ideas have universal appeal and are simple enough to be carried across borders. So far, so good. However, do these ads pass the cultural relevance filter? The answer would be a clear ‘no’ in many cases. Culturally we are still conservative and the only action such ads induce is to switch to another channel, whereas the goal of a TVC is to reach an audience and deliver a branded message. (As an aside, if the goal were to deliver a bold message I think Veena Malik would have done a better job.) Take the example of Samsung’s current ads. One of them shows a girl clad in jeans and a shirt leaning against a wall next to a roadside dhaba talking to her friends and drinking chai. Does this happen in Pakistan? The setting is relevant to India but not Pakistan. The tagline states ‘Pakistan smart bun raha hai’ whereas the brand is really fooling us. Then why should I buy the product?
This doesn’t mean that everyone gets it wrong. An ad for Olx.com (a classifieds website which operates in India and Pakistan) features two brothers having a discussion, with one brother trying to convince the other that he should sell this motorbike. The idea is universal and the humour is relatable and that’s all the relevance you really need. If it resonates with me then I will enjoy it, regardless of the fact that it is Indian. But if I don’t connect with it, then no Pappu or Shahrukh (Pepsodent) will make a difference.
A conclusion that can be drawn from this is that it’s OK to air Indian ads if they meet the relevance factor and fall under a global campaign domain. Based on this, it is fair to speculate that there will be more such campaigns in the future. This is good news for media buying houses as they will end up sustaining their business volume and with the market becoming more neighbour-friendly, they might even see growth. On the other hand, this trend is alarming for creative agencies already affected by this fascination for all things Indian. They are likely to see fewer commercials with the ‘made in Pakistan’ tag. ‘Indianisation’ will mean a further dip in overall agency business and pressure on remuneration, which can only mean cutting down on full service agencies and creating smart set-ups, which can serve as dispatchers but not creative thinkers. Such pressures kill creativity, which is certainly not the need of the hour for a growing industry like ours. Employment opportunities and growth prospects for people associated with the creative field will stagnate in an industry which previously gave global communication to Coke, Mobilink, Mountain Dew and other prominent brands.
Local celebrities will continue to feel the pinch and go across the border to work in Indian movies and songs, creating a huge vacuum in terms of local brand ambassadors.
In addition, local celebrities will continue to feel the pinch and go across the border to work in Indian movies and songs, creating a huge vacuum in terms of local brand ambassadors.
The onus is on the creative agencies and brands to convert yesterday’s Gujjar into today’s Indigo man. If brands want to make it big in Pakistan they need to support the learning curve of the industry, not threaten to destroy it. Global brands are the reason for the progression of creativity in India and global learning has played a huge role in what they have achieved. Over the years, local agencies have done a great deal to help global brands establish a foothold in Pakistan and for sustained growth this process has to continue.
To sum up, a universal idea will have universal citizenship.
As long as it is culturally sound and relevant, inspires, improves local production standards, introduces new ways of thinking, challenges technologically but most importantly, doesn’t hinder local growth and creativity, it will be embraced.
Ali A. Rizvi is COO, Interflow Communications. firstname.lastname@example.org