A candid conversation with Yawar Iqbal on nepotism, lack of originality and how big MNCs have taken away creativity.
Yawar Iqbal, Executive Creative Director, JWT Pakistan, speaks to Aurora about creative blocks and why creative directors retire early.
AURORA: You have spent 13 years in advertising. How did it start?
YAWAR IQBAL: I did Communication Design from Karachi University. I studied under Durriya Kazi and she was amazing; she influenced me in so many ways. After graduating, I was determined I was not going to sell oil, soap, any of that – I was going to do something meaningful and so I went to Tannaz Minwalla. She was known for her editorial design and typography and I was inspired by her work at the Herald magazine. She thought I would be better suited to mainstream work, so she sent me to Zohra (Yusuf). I found Zohra amazing; there is no one quite like her.
A: Women seem to have had a major influence on your life?
YI: Yes! From my mother to Durriya to Zohra to Ruby Haider; all were amazing.
A: How was your experience transitioning from an art school environment to agency life?
YI: Design schools are disconnected from the ad world and they were even more so a decade ago. None of us were aware how agencies worked. In those days there was a lot of resistance from old school ad art directors who were basically self-taught and manually trained. Suddenly, there were all these art school kids with degrees who seemed to be trying to take over. There was a lot of resistance. Today art school kids don’t want to work in an ad agency; they think they are boring and old fashioned.
A: Why do they believe this?
YI: They feel the working hours are silly and they don’t get paid enough. Most of the art school kids I meet want to open their own freelance set up; they make a lot of money like that.
A: They won’t learn as much in terms of hands-on experience.
YI: I don’t think they want to learn much. They think they are very talented because they have so many likes on Facebook. The validation they get is phenomenal and they think they have learnt everything; the experience they will get from an agency is not paramount; in fact it isn’t even relevant to them.
A: Where did you go after Spectrum?
YI: I moved to IAL and worked there for eight years; then I did a five-month stint at Interflow and I have been with JWT for the last three months.
A: What prompted these moves?
YI: Creatives move for two reasons – for the portfolio or the money. I left Spectrum mainly because of the money. IAL had an amazing portfolio and they paid well, but after eight years I realised I was doing the same kind of work again and again and I was becoming complacent.
A: Agencies in Pakistan seem to be catching up with the rest of the world in terms of having a younger profile. Yet, somehow the kind of buzz you find in the digital world seems to be missing.
YI: The amount of nepotism in this profession is insane. Every CEO has a dysfunctional son or daughter heading something within the agency (whether he or she deserves it or not is debatable) and this is why a shining creative will never come to the forefront. The CEO’s son, daughter, nephew, niece – almost every agency in Pakistan is headed by them; it is almost like a monarchy. In this profession it is rare to find an individual with no family antecedents heading something. It is extremely difficult to make it in this profession at a higher level.
A: Is this one of the reasons why creatives tend to move jobs quickly?
YI: After a certain point agencies refuse to afford that creative; they feel they can get the same level of craft from someone else for a quarter of the price. In the rest of the world, when you hire a creative director, you buy into the culture of the work that person is known for; you buy into those aesthetics.
Here, we don’t have an individualistic approach to advertising. We don’t have that one copywriter who is known for a certain craft – we don’t have a Piyush Pandey or a Prasoon Joshi or a Gulzar. We don’t have art directors with distinct points of view. So, everyone is replaceable and you go for the cheapest option. In the rest of the world, hiring a creative director is a very thought out process.
WPP will pick a person because they want to win more awards, or because that person is known for a certain skillset. For example, Senthil Kumar is known for doing consumer driven, realistic work, others do fantastical, imaginative, work, some only do typography based work and they are known for that.
Unfortunately, here creatives are the Star Plus ki bahuein. Jo saaray kaam karti hain, jo haandi bhi banati hain, bachoun to bhee khilati hein, daftar bhi jaati hein, mian ka bhi khayal rakti hain. We are the ghar ki bahuein and easily replaceable.
A: You have been in this profession for 13 years, what are the major changes you have seen during this period?
YI: The biggest change has been in the auditing of our work, thanks to social media. If something is plagiarised, inspired, not up to the mark, the reaction on social media is immediate and it gives us a reality check. For a long time ads were a monologue; we didn’t care if people liked or didn’t like them. Now they generate a conversation.
A: Is this a positive development?
YI: It’s great. Now when we think of an idea, we have to consider the reaction on social media. It has also raised concerns within agencies about blatantly lifting work, because somebody will find the exact copy of this ad and clients don’t like that kind of feedback. It is very easy to fire an agency; it doesn’t cost anything to call for a pitch, although everywhere else in the world it costs a huge amount to call for a pitch.
A: Why don’t agencies do something about this, since they all complain about it?
YI: They have no regard if their teams are churning out ideas for weeks on end. Every three months all agencies go crazy and pitch, pitch, pitch because it is free. Clients love this because it gives them a sense of power. Half the time they just want to review what is going around in the market.
A: Sometimes those ideas are passed on to their existing agency.
YI: They are most of the time. We don’t celebrate our own talent, especially because it is free. Can you name one iconic copywriter in Pakistani advertising, or an art director or an iconic creative known for jingles or captions? We don’t invest in them. Ask any agency to submit the names of five people they believe are the future of advertising in Pakistan and they won’t... unless it is their son, nephew or niece.
A: What other changes have you seen?
YI: We are struggling to find a distinct point of view about what Pakistani ads stand for – and this is across all visual fronts. We don’t have a popular visual culture. We are struggling with this in our cinema and the same goes for ads. This is a huge debate and we are struggling to figure out what that distinct point of view is.
A: Isn’t that forcing the issue? Shouldn’t this be more of an organic process?
YI: It is emerging, but we also have to create and own a point of view. We have not owned a popular visual medium and we need to. It took India a lot of time to figure out theirs. Under Zia sahib most visual mediums were banned and except for PTV we didn’t have a visual arts culture. Ask anyone to do something on Pakistan and they produce truck art; that is us and nothing beyond that. We cannot be so myopic as to allow only one medium or one interpretation of popular art to be us. It has taken us 30 years to acknowledge the fact that we don’t have a visual point of view and this lack is reflected in every visual medium from fashion to textile, films and drama to ads.
A: How do other countries express their distinct visual point of view in their advertising?
YI: American ads are loud and garish; irreverent and cocky. Europeans use sexual innuendos and the darker side of comedy. Then there is British humour; the uber colourful Brazilians, the Thai who make very emotive ads. Sooner or later we need to figure that out. The biggest problem is that for 40 years our advertising has been dictated by the Unilevers and P&Gs and they forced us to into adaptations and formula driven work. We picked up a TVC made elsewhere and put the woman in the short skirt in a shalwar kameez and that was it. This was the only creativity agencies were asked to deliver, yet they made a lot of money.
The biggest agencies in Pakistan became so, because they followed those guidelines and there was zero creativity. Only in the last two to three years are we seeing ads that are doing something different – like Ufone or Kenwood. The Unilevers and P&Gs invested a lot in the country, but they also took a lot of creativity away from us.
A: Yet, at the regional level multinational agencies say that adaptations are driven by economies of scale.
YI: It is a more elaborate argument than that. Yes, adaptations are cost effective for the client, yet the same client in other markets demands a lot of creative work as well, but when it comes to Pakistan they feel they are not going to get any ideas, so why waste time trying? It is not only about cost effectiveness, it is because they know we don’t have that kind of spark in our talent. Yet, the amount of self-elevation we have in this profession is at an all-time high. We live in our own bubble and we think we are doing amazing work. If someone produces one caption that has not even been used, he or she will think they are really good.
A: But unless you make people think hard about anything, how can you expect to see sparks emerge?
YI: All the agencies except for JWT and Ogilvy are seth owned and none of them are interested in creativity. They are here to make money and are least interested in investing and creating something original. Why go through all that hassle and take the client’s flak if a concept doesn’t work?
A: Would you agree that salary packages have improved significantly?
YI: It is not true; it varies from person to person and we don’t offer salary brackets or perks for people with a level of experience. We pay people depending on their perceived popularity.
Creatives are not paid as highly as the client service people because the latter generate more money, yet the creative is the currency they deal in. Creatives are easily replaceable, so there is a salary cap whereby after a certain point they will not afford this person and they will hire a younger person.
A: Why are the opportunities open to senior creative directors so limited? Surely age brings a level of experience?
YI: In India age is irrelevant because they know that experience brings a lot to the table. Here, people leave the profession after they hit their late 30s because they have to make more money and after a certain point agencies refuse to pay them more. We are the only country in this region where creative directors face this. Our obsession with youth is also questionable.
A: What about the role of the client in this?
YI: I would love to bitch about clients, but having said this, they are the reason why we exist. Clients are the same everywhere. The same clients, who encourage agencies to win awards in India, completely change when they come to Pakistan, because they feel we don’t dialogue with them in the way we should. The conversation is only with the agency head and he is promising them everything but creative work. It is all about money.
CEOs should be convincing their clients that they can still make money even if they allow the agency to work on something creative. This is why there is no creative work. I am surprised we even talk about creative work; the transaction and the currency is not the creative idea, it is about how much money is being made.
Yawar Iqbal was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
For feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org