Mahreen Pasha, Creative Director, Lowe & Rauf, on the pressures of working in an evolving agency space.
AURORA: What led you into copywriting?
MAHREEN PASHA: I have always loved writing and from an early age I knew I wanted to do something in creative writing. As a child, you pen things down and think you have written the next bestseller – but it turns out that’s just crap! By the time I got to high school I knew that my passion was to tell a story creatively. When I looked at options in terms of creative writing, I realised that I enjoyed advertising because it was an audio-visual way of telling a story. As someone with a short attention span, it was a great platform to try different tones, stories and ways of talking to people. I was lucky to be able do my Bachelor’s in Mass Communications at California State, because it was very close to UC Berkeley and a lot of the professors who taught there also taught evening classes at California. I really lucked out there. I had a forte for writing, so when I came back to Pakistan I thought copywriting would be a great way to start.
A: Where did you start your career?
MP: JWT Pakistan. It was the only agency I applied to. I was willing to do whatever it took and they were very clear. They said if you are looking to make a quick buck, this is not the agency for you. If you are looking to learn and experience advertising, then you are in the right place. I opted for the learning and that is where it started from.
A: Why did you leave JWT?
MP: I decided to take a year off to augment my skill set.
I thought that to progress I should have an MBA under my belt, so that I could take on management positions. I also wanted to explore what else was out there and I decided that an MBA was a good way to get permission from my parents! However, after a semester I realised that numbers were not for me. I am a creative through and through. I gave up the MBA and joined Ogilvy Pakistan; then after five years I joined Lowe & Rauf.
A: Your experience so far has been within the multinational agency ambit?
MP: Yes and that was a conscious decision. Although there were people who said
I should join a local agency because that is where one can do local work, I reject the notion that you can only work on a local palette at a local agency. There is a certain flavour that local agencies bring to their advertising but every agency has local brands. JWT, Ogilvy, Lowe all have local brands that resonate with their target audience. It is a matter of the kind of local you want to be. All the agencies I worked for had the balance I wanted in my career.
A: Is the training provided by multinational agencies really hands-on, or is it just a series of broad brush lectures on methodologies and trends?
MP: I have been through workshops conducted by people coming from the region as well as half-day sessions with people coming to teach a specific tool. By and large, it’s the latter that you experience most; someone coming in for a day, talking at you and then leaving. This is a big weakness on our part; we need to be more proactive in accessing more insightful and enriching training. A lot of this has to do with the fact that it costs money and that the security situation is such that people don’t come to Pakistan easily.
A: How do you feel about this swing towards adaptations? As a creative director, this surely is an intrusion on your, and your team’s, creative capabilities and space?
MP: It does get a little frustrating when you find out that a brand that you believe in and want to be a part of has a regional campaign they want you to adapt; but that is when you need to find avenues where local work can be created. I always look for those spaces where we can create something rather than just adapt everything to a local format. Also, there are a lot of local brands that are now putting money where it is required.
A: At the local end clients tend to ask their agencies to emulate Indian commercials; what is it about Indian ads that attracts them?
MP: I don’t think clients think about what it is they really like about those commercials. If they did, they would realise that they like those commercials where the brand is not showcased until halfway into the ad. The commercial is actually a story and the story is powerful enough to resonate with the audience, so that by the time the brand appears it also resonates with the audience. This is what clients mean when they say they want an ‘Indian commercial’; they want that connection. Yet they are not willing to let us make that connection because they are caught up with, ‘where does my brand come in? What will the packaging look like? How quickly will the woman smile after she uses the product?’ All these hang-ups stop us from creating a story and limit us to executional cues and production values.
We need to make the environment in every agency conducive to hiring and retaining people
A: Why don’t clients encourage similar storytelling from their Pakistani agency?
MP: Because they have not invested in the commercial; they are looking at Indian commercials from the point of view of the audience. When it comes to their brand, they don’t look at a commercial from an audience viewpoint, they look at it as marketers and this is why these hang-ups come in. If they were to step back and say, let’s just tell a story; speak to the audience and have a conversation with them, a lot of the ideas we put forward in our first round of presentations would go through. But clients are becoming braver. Kenwood is a good example; their commercial created a buzz because for the first time the tonality didn’t feel like a commercial. It was a smooth conversational execution and it resonated with the audience. Hopefully, this will give other clients the confidence to try this approach.
A: There is a mania for celebrity endorsements among client and agencies. How effective is this?
MP: There is always merit in celebrity endorsements; using a face that is known and loved always works, although we may have become a little too obsessed with them, especially when you see the same celebrity endorsing eight different products.
A: Why this obsession with using Indian celebrities?
MP: That is an unfortunate reality. I would love to say we should use our own faces, and we are slowly beginning to. Unfortunately, there are not that many Pakistani faces that we can put our money behind. The other reality is that we are heavily influenced by the Indian media and most Pakistani consumers watch Indian soaps and movies; so if using their celebrities helps sell a brand, then great.
A: Continuing the theme of intrusion, agencies are filling up their own digital space with a separate set of creative capabilities and people.
MP: It is about finding the balance; the creative people in the digital team and the creative people in the ATL team are working towards the same objective. It is about using the expertise the digital team brings and merging it with the ATL team’s storytelling ability.
A: There are further erosions afoot. Recently, GolinHarris, a PR company and Millward Brown, a market research company, have opened offices in Pakistan. Listening to their client presentations, it becomes abundantly clear that there is very little difference in what they are proposing in terms of capabilities and strategies with what mainstream agencies are proposing. Okay, they will say that they do not suggest creative approaches, but they are certainly ready to influence them. So what does a creative director do in such cases?
MP: In my experience if, for example, PR have a strategy and a creative direction they want to take, it still has to gel in with the overall brand strategy, and most of the time they will use the cues from executions we have developed. And if they propose ideas, they bounce them off the strategy and ATL team to ensure they do not clash with what has been done before or goes against what the brand stands for. So I don’t see this as a big encroachment on my space yet, because so far I have been involved whenever a major campaign has been put together. Yes, there are times when we don’t agree, but that is a healthy discussion and the same thing happens between strategy and creative; that sort of pushback and argument. It is not unexpected and it is certainly unavoidable. But if everyone’s intentions are to take the brand forward, we will work around it. The other angle to this is that as marketers and consumers have both become savvier, these companies have had to become more creative and holistic in their solutions, which is very, very good, but also why it sometimes feels as if we are all talking the same talk. It’s a matter of understanding what one another’s expertise is and finding common ground.
A: This suggests that the advertising agencies will have to reinvent themselves. How do you see this happening?
MP: Honestly, I am not sure. I think it is a matter of what works with your consumer and the external influences working with or against you. The evolution will happen, as for what it will look like, I am not sure at this point.
A: Which are the campaigns you are most proud of?
MP: I don’t show my portfolio because I have yet to make a campaign which I believe showcases my creative strength. What you have in your mind and put down on paper and what is eventually executed are poles apart – and I am sure every advertising professional will tell you the same thing. A lot of this has to do with the ground realities in terms of what your consumer is like, what the brand team is like and what the marketing objective are. Of course, there are campaigns I have enjoyed working on. For example, the work I did on Cadbury; I loved the TVC which featured a brother and sister.
I also enjoyed the work we did for Tang GCC. We pitched against Ogilvy Dubai and Ogilvy India and we won the account and I was the lead creative for three years. I would not include the work we did in my portfolio, but I am proud of it, because I worked very hard to achieve the objectives of the brand.
A: Why not include it in your portfolio?
MP: Because creatively they were very simple, functional ads, but those were the ground realities in the GCC market. The brand team told us to keep it simple. However, the results showed that consumers were very positive about the brand and the communication.
A: As a creative person, don’t you find the sheer clutter of ads and their repetition on TV compromises the effectiveness of your work?
MP: Absolutely, and the brand teams are not paying enough attention to this. There are advertising blocks when the same ad comes on six times. It boggles the mind. Why would you do that; why would you let your media buying company buy such a slot? It is extremely irritating and I have never heard anyone say this is a good idea.
A: There was a time when creative leaning people flocked to agencies. Today, they opt for media, digital or even entrepreneurship. Why is it such a big issue for agencies to attract creative talent?
MP: This is partly our fault. There was a time in Pakistani advertising when creatives were fearless and created very good campaigns. Somewhere along the way we lost that spine; we became more client oriented and started taking dictation from, and acquiescing to whatever clients wanted. In the process we sort of sent a message to the new generation that if you get into advertising, you have to sell your soul a little and, well, comply. We need to make the environment in every agency conducive to hiring and retaining people; make them feel that agencies here are like agencies abroad. When I ask most of the people I interview what they expect from an agency, their expectations are geared to the kind of environment that exists abroad.
A: What kind of environment would that be?
MP: More laid back. People can do their own thing, dress how they want and timings are not an issue. These are small things but at the end of the day this is what agency life is equated to. This lack of structure does not exist in Pakistan. Clients abroad understand that this is the way agency people operate. They accept that there will be disorganisation and a sort of de-structuring. Clients in Pakistan are not willing to accept this; they want structure and an office environment.
A: Don’t you think that creative directors in Pakistan are apathetic? They seem to lack drive and ambition. In fact, most seem quite happy to fizzle out after a while.
MP: I can only talk about myself and I don’t see myself fizzling out. Nor do I see myself in this position for long, because that would be a waste; whether it is moving onto an ECD position or onto the region, remains to be seen. I have ambitions and I plan to take this agency places.
Mahreen Pasha was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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