Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jan-Feb 2016

The gaps in the middle

Between creative directors and digital prophets, brand managers must control the reins of the brand’s direction.

Looking from the outside in, advertising seems so enchanting. It’s a brave new world where magic glues together ideas, words and imagery to create memorable art that the world will see. That – and we get paid for it. But once you look past the quirky characters, the foosball-centred office spaces, and the high gloss finish of endless iMacs, this bastard child of backpacker spirit and Harvey Spectre-ish ruthlessness comes up and shatters all your romantic notions.

No Mr Bernbach, advertising is not art. Not anymore, at least. There is no compromise in art. There are no low hanging fruits in art. Art faces no expectations, and thus doesn’t need to try so hard. Art has integrity because there is often one artist translating into one stakeholder. Even when artists collaborate, they do so on the basis of complementing each other, never competing.

Advertising is a different beast altogether; one that must be tamed by multiple specialists with their unique, ultimately competitive ways of attack. The TVC, radio, content, digital, PR, print, activation, outdoor and numerous other avenues that each campaign much touch these days brings together a motley crew of experts that often don’t play well with each other.

This is why, in the age of specialist agencies and tactical marketing outposts, the coherence that is required for a campaign to flourish is compromised. When all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. Between creative directors, digital prophets, and on-ground gurus, brand managers must carefully control the reins of the brand’s direction and personality. This is an extremely tough job, and one they must be lauded for. Because every day they face smart, talented individuals out to gain a bigger piece of the marketing budget pie.

Between creative directors, digital prophets, and on-ground gurus, brand managers must carefully control the reins of the brand’s direction and personality.

Aimed with perseverance, bravado and the hypnotising lure of great ideas, these specialists will, like Gog & Magog, work and pitch relentlessly to gain the favour of the brand planners.

The trouble arises when each agency views their niche as the perfect place to put the brand’s advertising money. Digital and social will show you a vision of the promising future, traditional media will sing the anthem of mass appeal and experiential marketers will bet their reputations on the ROI of one-to-one human interaction.

In my short time in the ad world, I have learnt that powerful ideas can come from anywhere. So it is likely that the challenger hotshop or the new kid on the block social influence firm will come up with something spectacular. And they will ensure that it works flawlessly in their area of expertise, whilst appending a few PPT slides on how the campaign can be amplified on other media as well. Alternatively, you will get a precooked campaign from the region. In both cases, being the good brand manager that you are, you will try to port the same into a 360-communication campaign and get your other agencies to work on it in parallel via their respective mediums.

However, they may not share the enthusiasm or vision of this idea. Or they just might not get it. Or they might mess it up. To illustrate this point, I will bring to your court four local campaigns that had so much potential... but we (the agency and the brands) sacrificed them at the altar of business.

The poster child of branding and marketing triumphs in Pakistan, the Jazz marque was recently… dishevelled, for lack of a better censor-friendly word, by Nargis Fakhri’s curves. I have to hand it to them, their one creative, albeit infamous, print media execution was absolutely brilliant. It leapt off the page, got people talking, and made the brand the buzz of the town.

Beyond the narrow corridors of the Facebook has-beens and wannabes, that one print ad was a truly innovative risk. Yet, where media placement succeeded, the creative fell flat on the ground. Why did they think that their immediately identifiable Jazz brand would need to piggyback on a celebrity, and that too an awkward Bollywood second-rater? I can understand if you cast her as talent in an otherwise sound concept, but one look at the campaign visuals and you can see that Fakhri is at once the plot, the setting, and the big idea. Does your customer base identify with her? Does anybody in their sane mind think that Fakhri, an international starlet and all that, will ever buy or even come within 15 feet of a budget carrier-restricted mobile phone from Pakistan? One wonders if this really was rather about the biggest budget film you can get approved. What were you thinking?

Although Pepsi’s ‘Khana baney exciting’ campaign relied on a rather dated insight connecting the drink as an enhancer of food, the visualisation of the thought process was refreshing and engaging. The fact that the right drink (in this case, a Pepsi) can make or break the meal is something that rings true with real audiences, so the before-after flip of food from boring to exciting at the mere presence of the magic cola bottle was a rare gem from a company that usually relies on a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may-but-lets-cast-a-cricket-star-in-the-ad approach to marketing.

The social influencer model was nothing short of revolutionary in Pakistan, with numerous Instagrammers, Facebookers, and Twiteratti joining in the cause and organically spreading Pepsi’s platform to their respective fan bases. Two absolutely brilliant shots in two different mediums! But the misfire on OOH and radio was such a mess that the recoil disturbed the trajectory of the entire campaign.

For OOH, they decided to go for (surprise surprise!) a shot of the two lead actors from the ad along with the tagline. What? You had ONE job! Convey the concept onto a billboard. Agency, why did you resort to this formulaic copy pasting? Brand, why did you settle for this? And just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, you release a ridiculous radio spot that is basically the sound of knocking.

I mean, come on.

Then there is that special case where the idea is powerful, but the brand integration is amiss. Think Anwar Ali and the Bank Alfalah Rising Talent arc. We all root for the underdog, and the entire thing had a great PR angle around the time of the cricket tournament, but doesn’t it bother you that Bank Alfalah has absolutely no role in the success of this man? If anything, he should be endorsing the sock factory that he worked for while he trained!

Similar situation with Novella which created a wonderful tearjerker of an ad featuring overworked men, but then neglected to mention how Novella is relevant to the story! These two examples show the classic disconnect between talented directors and caught-sleeping strategic planners.

From the surface, it seems the conflict is inherent in the inclusion of standalone specialists that do not understand the dynamics of other media. But that’s not entirely true, as the specialist agency can do things quicker, better and smarter than their full service counterpart. That being said, the cohesiveness that would arrive from an across-the-board integration of big idea is the reason that 360-degree agencies still command the respect they do.

Honestly speaking, I haven’t found the right answer yet, but I suspect that the need of the hour is unique service providers that can match the nimbleness and expertise of specialists whilst retaining the big picture quality control of the full-service model. When I go for pitches, the hardest question I am asked is what our agency’s core competency is. Unfortunately, this 1200-word essay doesn’t fit into one slide.

Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.