If you have been exposed to Pakistani advertising over the last three or four years you will safely be able to reach the conclusion that with the exception of a few campaigns, creativity has reached its lowest ebb. Despite the fact that the last two years saw Pakistan win Cannes and Effie awards for the first time, the quality of the advertising has deteriorated to such an extent that even the creative directors at the top agencies who are responsible for producing much of the work make no bones about admitting that something has got to give.
A fundamental change in the way the advertising industry is developing (which will ultimately force creative agencies to change if they are not doing so already) appears to be the primary reason for lowered standards. To begin with, the advent of hot shops, digital agencies, content agencies, consultants and creative freelancers has made advertising very much a buyer’s market and clients can now choose from a plethora of agencies and individuals when they are looking to outsource a creative project. This should, in theory, result in better creative work, but for a number of reasons that is not the case.
The liberation of creative work from the creative agencies means that “agencies cannot take anything for granted. There was a time when a client stayed with you for a year, but now you have to be totally confident about what you are doing and able to justify, otherwise there are 20,000 options available,” says Imran Syed, CEO, Adcom Leo Burnett.
Although Syed views this as a positive development, the fact that on average less than 30% of a creative agency’s annual revenue comes from retainership-based relationships (while the agency model is geared towards earning at least 80% of its income in that way) means that there are several cost related pressures. Because clients now shop for new agencies on a project to project basis and are more than happy to award campaigns and projects to individual freelancers when they see fit, agencies are struggling to find the right sized creative team.
Umair Saeed, COO, Blitz, explains the conundrum. “To service the number of clients I have, I need a certain number of creative people, but half the time those people are sitting idle because there is no work. The minute my team becomes leaner, I am stuck in a situation where there is too much work and the resources are not sufficient. If the team becomes too heavy and there isn’t enough work it impacts my bottom line.”
Under pressure to control costs, retain clients and maintain profitability, agencies are bending over backwards to fulfil client demands instead of standing their ground as the bastions of creativity. It’s a sad fact that the term ‘YouTube creative’ is widely understood throughout the industry as a euphemism for copying international work, a demand that agencies say often originates from the client.
Agency CEOs need to come together on a single platform and put policies in place to safeguard their interests as well as to forge a united front in terms of saying no to plagiarism and agreeing on pitch mechanics. The need for a professional association such as the PAA is more pressing than ever before.
Even as plagiarism and YouTube referencing have become rampant within Pakistani advertising, the agencies, which were once the preferred destination of the majority of art school graduates, can no longer attract young people; in fact they are adamant that they do not want to work in advertising.
“They would rather join Instagram-type firms, startups or even start something of their own. They think our hours are too long, we don’t pay enough, they will be insulted by clients and they don’t want to work on oil and masala,” says Yawar Iqbal, ECD, JWT Pakistan.
To this Atiya Zaidi, ECD, Ogilvy & Mather, adds that “the sadistic nature of the business tells them [art school graduates] that there is too much pain and not enough joy, money and importance. At the end of the day, every creative wants to put his name on good work and if you don’t get credit for it or worse, if it changes into a monster which you didn’t even create then what are agencies really able to offer these young people? Nothing.”
Even if agencies were able to attract the right kinds of people and didn’t have to “compromise by hiring second tier creatives with financial concerns” as Iqbal puts it, the requirements for what constitutes a creative professional have changed significantly with the evolution of media and marketing.
Apart from the fact that young people need to understand that advertising, by virtue of being a service industry, requires long hours and catering to the whims of the client, agencies are also looking for multidisciplinary people, i.e. those who bring more than one skill to the table. For example, Iqbal talks about a copywriter who can edit films or art directors who can also do voiceovers because “every CEO wants work to be done internally instead of outsourcing it.”
“There is a real dearth of senior creative people with merit. I think it is because people have risen up the ladder too fast without paying their dues.”
— Kiran Murad, former ECD and currently creative consultant at MullenLowe Rauf.
While agencies struggle to give prospective creatives a strong value proposition for working in advertising, an even greater challenge – and one that has directly impacted the quality of creative work – is the calibre of the creative director.
“There is a real dearth of senior creative people with merit,” says Kiran Murad, former ECD and currently creative consultant at MullenLowe Rauf. “I think it is because people have risen up the ladder too fast without paying their dues.”
Iqbal adds to this by saying that there are a lot of creative directors at the helm of affairs in agencies who “should not be in advertising! These people have been in creative for so long that they have to be promoted.” So we have art directors or Urdu copywriters or “one trick ponies” as Iqbal calls them, who end up being creative directors.
Therefore, in between the immature creative director and the one who doesn’t have the skills to be in that position, Zaidi says that everyone seems to have forgotten that part of the creative director’s “job description is that you don’t let crappy work go out of the agency’s door.”
Yet even those creative directors who have concertedly worked in agencies, understand the nuances and changed dynamics of the job (and there are only a handful of names that are repeated over and over again) and are known for being good at what they do – even they are not able to stem the flow of poor quality creative work.
Murad says it’s because everyone is in a hurry and wants everything in “three or four days so you skip the planning phase and the weeding out of ideas.”
Iqbal believes the advent of freelancers has shaken the agency’s position to such an extent that “we have started doing what the client is asking us to do.”
Zehra Zaidi, ECD, Ogilvy & Mather, adds that creative people only present the kind of work they know will be approved.
These opinions also point to the fact that despite the options available in terms of creative service providers, clients are not demanding good creative work from their agencies or, as Murad puts it, “they are demanding in the wrong way.”
The average life of the CMO in most companies, says a creative director, is about two years, so “they don’t care about the brand; they only want safe work in order to please their bosses and then make their next career move.”
So what is the fix for poor creative work? Obviously it is not easy or simple. For starters, the creative model within the agencies will need to change. Some agencies abroad have adopted the ‘Hollywood model’ where creative experts are brought together by the agency on a project basis and then go their separate ways after the project is complete. This type of model has also been adopted by many creative hot shops in Pakistan. Irrespective of whether or not this is feasible for large sized creative agencies, the point is that structures need to change. However, there is little evidence that this is happening.
Secondly, and this is something all the creative directors interviewed for this article stressed on, agency CEOs need to come together on a single platform and put policies in place to safeguard their interests as well as to forge a united front in terms of saying no to plagiarism and agreeing on pitch mechanics (a process whereby clients often make agencies work overtime and then get away with stealing good ideas). The need for a professional association such as the PAA is more pressing than ever before.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, agencies have to be able to attract good creative talent in order to produce good work. And here, says Iqbal, “we have to make the agency cool again.”
This may mean increasing pay scales for entry level creatives, giving them the freedom to produce work, which although may not pass muster at the client end, will at least not be stifled within the agency, as well as making succession plans so that there is a roadmap in terms of training from the junior to the senior level and ensuring that the right people eventually get the job of the creative director.
Iqbal has the final word: “ECDs and CDs need to come together and acknowledge that our work is shitty and identify the flaws. We have to scrutinise, review and bash our work. Only then can we fix it.”
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