Imran Afzal, CEO, JWT Pakistan speaks candidly to Aurora about the practices that are putting the advertising profession in jeopardy.
AURORA: Why did you join the advertising profession?
IMRAN AFZAL: In my school and college days I was a rather bad student. My father was a CSS topper and a gold medallist in law; my brother topped the CSS and my two sisters are gold medallists in English literature.
I was the black sheep of the family. I was into sports and outdoor activities. Somehow, I managed to pass my BA and MA and then I did my MBA in marketing and that was when I began to enjoy my studies.
I came into advertising by accident. The college had arranged a few interviews with ad agencies and I applied; Publicis called me and that was how I joined the agency.
A: In what capacity did you join?
IA: As account executive; the job resonated with me because I don’t like monotony. In advertising there is a new challenge every day and I liked that. It clicked with my personality.
A: How long were you in Publicis?
IA: For three years and then I moved to McCann to work on the Coke account. I worked there for five years and ended up as the account director. I moved to Ogilvy for a couple of years as director client services. After that I moved to Evernew for three years and during this time I moved to Karachi to look after the entire Evernew Group. In 2009, I was approached by JWT; they were looking for someone to head their Lahore office, specifically for the Pepsi account. I have been with the WPP Group ever since. In 2011 WPP opened a sister agency to work on Pepsi and grow other businesses; it was then that Walter was formed and was asked to head it. In 2015 I moved back to JWT Lahore as MD for their northern operations and in November I was asked to move to Karachi as CEO.
A: You started your career in 1998, so you have seen many changes as the profession evolved. What were the salient milestones?
IA: When I joined the agency business, life was completely different. Everything was handled as a one-window operation. Then globally and subsequently in Pakistan, everything became specialised; that was the biggest change. Another change was that in those earlier days, agencies collaborated with each other; there was open communication between them.
A: Even among competing agencies?
IA: Yes, even among agencies working on similar brands. Today it has become so cutthroat; people have taken it to a personal level and this is what I don’t like, because it is harming the industry. There is a Pakistan Advertisers Society but there is no association for advertising agencies; there is no forum where we can sit together and standardise the industry. This is harming us in terms of creativity and resources. Now with increased competition and these personalised wars going on between agencies, people have put work behind them. Since moving back to Karachi, I have been very vocal with the agency CEOs I have met. Agencies are offering to work at zero percent commission and there are no standards. Clients need to understand that if an agency is offering to work on zero or one percent commission, they will make it up by some other means. In the past, agencies used to work on a 15% commission and everyone was happy. Now, to acquire business, all sorts of other ways are used; whether through relationships or unethical means. We need to do something about this and make this industry prosper again.
"We put in resources, time and brains, and some pitches go on for three to four months with four or five rounds and then you find out that the deal has been made somewhere else and the business is gone."
A: There are also issues concerning how pitches are conducted.
IA: They have gone completely haywire. Sixty to seventy percent of all pitches are decided in the boardroom and not on merit, and when you appoint an agency on the basis of relationships or on unethical dealings, good work is not produced because merit is not there. We put in resources, time and brains, and some pitches go on for three to four months with four or five rounds and then you find out that the deal has been made somewhere else and the business is gone.
A: Why don’t clients simply appoint an agency, rather than go through a meaningless rigmarole?
IA: Internally they have to show that there was a process. Agencies know which pitches are won on merit and which are not. In this industry, corruption is a plague; it has seeped in at every level and it is harming the execution, the production, the creativity – everything.
A: So what is to be done?
IA: The good agencies and CEOs who don’t believe in these practices should join together and push the other agencies and tell clients that this has to stop. At times clients are also involved; the market knows who is making money illegally and who is not, but people don’t talk about it, which is the reason why since November I have been vocal that we must try and stop these practices.
A: What response did you get?
IA: Agencies that want to produce good work are for this and for having a strong advertising forum.
A: There was the PAA and then the IAA in the past, but these associations have failed miserably. What will change now?
IA: A lot of agencies don’t want to do anything, because if there is a strong association, it may harm their business. If they are working on zero or one percent commission, they will have to prove their worth with the work they produce rather than acquiring business through other means. That is the difference between multinational and locally owned agencies. I am the CEO of this agency, but I am an employee and answerable to the systems and process. There are no systems and processes in local agencies; it all depends on how the owner wants to run the agency. If you have a strong association with the capacity to check on standards, commissions and fees, such agencies will lose business. They don’t want things to change because they will lose business; it is as simple as that.
A: Is there a way forward?
IA: There has to be and this is why I am meeting people. The need of the hour is to have a strong association. Four or five people should make a start and then pull the others in. The only way this industry will flourish is by creating standards and getting rid of corruption and personal gain.
"There are no systems and processes in local agencies; it all depends on how the owner wants to run the agency. They don’t want things to change because they will lose business; it is as simple as that."
A: How much will depend on clients driving this change?
IA: Clients are becoming more vigilant and pitches have become procurement rather than marketing driven; this change shows that there is something wrong, that these unethical things are happening at the client’s end as well. This is why internal audit teams are jumping in. Having said this, the problem is more on the agency than the client side. To be honest, this is not an issue with our industry only. It is a nationwide problem; it has seeped in so badly across every industry.
A: Given the extent of this problem, how difficult is it for those agencies which remain above board to survive?
IA: In my six years at JWT and Walter I have said no to a couple of pitches because I was aware that there were under the table dealings going on. Yes, it becomes difficult for us because we work on merit. I am very vocal that if there is a hint of something wrong in a pitch or with an account, I will say no. Even speaking so bluntly in this interview may harm my business and there may be clients who will not call us for a pitch, but we are willing to make this sacrifice.
I want this agency to be fair and credible and trusted by our clients. My responsibility is to put in place strong checks in terms of financials, vendor and client dealings; our objective is to produce effective work. Yes, this is a small pie and we are all fighting for a share, but we should fight through fair and honest means.
A: As you say, it is a small pie; what is your outlook on growth in the next couple of years?
IA: There is growth; both organic from existing clients and in terms of new business. More companies are looking to advertise; lawn was nowhere until about three years ago and now it has become so big. The problem is that in every category new players are not coming in; for example, there is only Coke and Pepsi in the cola segment. In dairy there are only three big players; Pakistan is the fifth largest milk producer in the world, yet packaged milk accounts for only five or six percent of the market, so there is a huge gap. The same goes for telcos; there are only five, which is why every agency is trying to poach these accounts. The cell phone segment will attract new players because this category is moving at a very fast pace. The recent acquisition of Engro Foods by the Dutch company FrieslandCampina is a positive sign. If they come to Pakistan, they will bring with them international brands as well. I also see a lot of positivity in terms of the economy. The organic growth among clients shows that the economy is growing. A couple of days ago I had a meeting with a couple of foreigners who were doing a feasibility study on a new brand they want to launch in Pakistan. Yes, growth is slow, but it is happening.
A: The success of the Indian ad industry is said to have been based on the drive to build up local clients. What are your views on this?
IA: Indian advertising is based on very strong insight based concepts, which is why it is more relatable; their advertising touches hearts and minds and the message is very clear. In Pakistan we lack these insights.
IA: We don’t dig deep enough. Clients and agencies need to move out of their comfort zones. We will not get to know our consumers and produce work that resonates with them by sitting in air conditioned offices. I have question marks about the research and a lot has to be improved there. I took a brand team to a college cafe, and we sat there for an hour and observed how those kids were behaving and what they were eating and talking about and the outcome was completely different from what the research was telling us. Research can only give direction. Today, it is not about SECs; the world over, people are talking about the consumer mindset, rather than their income levels, their house or car. Globally, brand love has become a big thing, and we should work on this. India works on this very strongly and in doing so consumers feel that the brand is thinking of and engaging with them rather than just selling to them.
"Indian advertising is based on very strong insight based concepts, which is why it is more relatable; their advertising touches hearts and minds."
A: How do brands here justify this practice of airing the same TVC as many as four to five times during a single commercial break? Don’t they perceive their nuisance value to the audience?
IA: It is bad media planning. There has to be smarter media planning to determine the level when a TVC becomes a nuisance rather than delivering a message.
A: The other issue is this idea of producing a commercial and letting it run for months on end. People see a communication once or twice and they move on.
IA: There are budget constraints at times, which make it so that only two campaigns can be produced a year.
A: But technology has made film production so much cheaper; why is it that most agencies shoot their commercials abroad?
IA: The problem is that everyone wants to travel abroad; even clients will push you to do shoots abroad, rather than think about who is the right director for a particular TVC. This, too, is harming resources at mid and junior levels. They come into advertising expecting to travel on shoots, rather than focusing on producing great work. In every agency it is a fight at every level between associate creative directors and creative directors about who is going to go for the shoot.
A: My point is that you can probably produce three commercials here with the same amount of money you spend shooting at a foreign location.
IA: I disagree. The reality is that we have a limited pool of directors – three or four at top level and four or five at mid level. Now, all directors have certain strengths; some are better at emotional films, other at fast paced films, others working with kids. Either we have to increase our pool of directors or we have to look abroad. Also, with the kind of costings coming in from local directors, foreign productions are actually a lot more cost effective – including hiring a top Indian director and the travel package to Thailand.
IA: Because they have raised their quotes to such a level. They have a monopoly because they are in short supply. For example, the telcos can’t go abroad for every shoot because their turnaround time is short; they have to produce a film within a week, so they are dependent on the local directors and on what they charge.
Imran Afzal was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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