The hot shops made a serious comeback in 2014. But are they sustainable?
Two of the most talked-about creative ideas in 2014 – Kenwood’s Khush Raho and Ufone’s Ghadda/Gadda – originated from hot shops (Arey Wah and Gameover Productions respectively), and another hot shop – Farigh Four – won the PAS Award for Best Campaign of the Year for Shaukat Khanum Memorial and Cancer Hospital. Besides these noteworthy developments, small and medium sized clients are trickling towards small shops in their search for big ideas, encouraging several new hot shops to open their doors in the last two or three years.
Although hot shops are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan, it has been almost seven or eight years since any significant developments took place in this area. At that time, in the early 2000s, there were so many smaller hot shops popping up (most of them design-focused) that Aurora carried a cover story on the topic (Hot shops vs. big shots, Nov-Dec 2004).
Many of the findings from that story still hold true: hot shops are still lean set-ups with minimal staff, they still do not have the financial muscle (or in some cases, the expertise) to offer media planning and placement services, and most importantly, the majority are still started by former ad agency employees who were either frustrated by the large agency’s rigid structures or disillusioned by the lack of opportunities for growth (a problem that the seth-run agencies have faced for a long time but do not seem inclined to solve).
However, there are changes too; while the previous iteration of hot shops was generally started by creative/client service duos, the new generation has strategy and planning people involved. Similarly, although staff numbers are small in order to keep overheads low, many hot shops now have unique ways of capitalising on their strengths and those of the industry in which they operate.
Kamran Sarfraz, Director Operations, Arey Wah and a former client service person with 15 years experience in most of the major agencies, believes that one of the reasons larger agencies find it difficult to produce good work consistently is because “the creative resources are fixed and one creative person cannot do different types of work.” His solution is to have a panel of creative people with different skills whom he works with on a project to project basis, depending on the requirements of the campaign.
Many hot shops point out that large agencies lack focus because they try to do many things and take on too many clients. Not only does this result in mediocre creative work but smaller clients are often not given the attention they deserve. .
Farigh Four is slightly different in that the creative, strategy, client servicing and finance functions are shared between the three main partners. Gameover Productions, a production house turned creative hot shop has the leanest staff setup of all; Faisal Qureshi, the owner, is a one-man team for all operations. However, Qureshi’s clients come to him for the big ideas while working with larger agencies (as is the case with long time client Ufone and short term client HBL, who work with Interflow Communications and Prestige Grey respectively), thereby easing the burden of design, media planning and placement.
Most hot shops are usually approached by mid to small sized brands (and in some cases by large companies for a smaller project) looking for one or all of the following: good creative ideas, personalised attention, competitive rates or greater control over creative.
Evidence of this last aspect is visible in the TVCs of some small brands that have recently started advertising for the first time; here a brand manager’s or the marketing head’s name is prominently listed as the concept writer in the credits. What ensues is disastrous and counterintuitive to the whole point of the existence of hot shops: the creation of disruptive ideas. Thankfully, however, most clients approaching a hot shop expect the experts to produce the big ideas, which is what has led to the debate about whether hot shops (as opposed to large agencies) are in a better position to come up with good creative ideas.
While the larger agencies would rather not admit to the inversely proportionate relationship between the size of an agency and the size of its ideas, hot shops have some good reasons as to why this holds true.
Firstly, presenting out of the box ideas is almost a matter of necessity for hot shops if they are to grow their businesses in an intensely competitive market. Umair Kazi, who is a partner at Ishtehari, a small agency started in 2011 by two employees who broke away from Bull’s Eye (now BE DDB) says, “I am willing to suggest crazy ideas in the hope that I will be noticed. I plan to beat the competition with outrageous ideas.”
Secondly, as Shahvaar Ali Khan, Founding Managing Partner and CCO, Farigh Four (and former Lowe & Rauf employee), says, “Large agencies are too bogged down by processes and structures and lose sense of the spontaneity of the creative. Good creative should have structure, but it also has to be spontaneous and experimental.”
Many hot shops point out that large agencies lack focus because they try to do many things and take on too many clients. Not only does this result in mediocre creative work but smaller clients are often not given the attention they deserve. This leads many in the hot shop business to say that they would much rather focus on quality by not taking on too many new projects.
Speaking for the large agencies, Ali A. Rizvi, COO, Interflow Communications says that while lower net worth clients may perceive big agencies as being more expensive and less attentive to their needs, “I have never heard of a hot shop saying ‘no’ to business.”
Considering that hot shops do not get any media commission and have to rely solely on retainers and concept fees to survive, they are really not in a position to refuse business and some admit to this.
According to Kazi, “It sounds very appealing to say that we will always remain small but I am not going to say it. As opportunity comes we will try to learn new things. I don’t plan to stay small forever.”
This suggests that given time and opportunity, most hot shops will eventually either grow in size or become unsustainable and shut down (this has proved true of many of the hot shops profiled in our 2004 story). While there is nothing wrong with hot shops growing in size, what tends to happen as a result is that they lose the strengths of being small, which includes personalised client attention, quick turnaround times and ultimately the creation of strong ideas.
Hot shops are important to any advertising industry because they give ad people an outlet to exercise their creative energies in a way that advertising agencies don’t and they provide clients with an alternative to the large agency. However, even if they grow in size, it is crucial that hot shops preserve the essence of being small in order to continue creating big ideas.