The Supreme Court ban on billboards in Karachi has brought to light a systemic weakness within the OOH industry.
The year 2016 was a rollercoaster one for OOH advertising in Pakistan. After hitting record highs in terms of ad spend and square footage, the industry sank to an all time low by losing almost half of its revenue due to a Shakespearean instance of judicial activism, whereby the Supreme Court banned all OOH advertising in Karachi. As a result, a Rs 20 billion per annum industry, estimated to account for a quarter of all advertising spend in Pakistan, is now facing an existential challenge that may portend the beginning of the end.
The dark side of this otherwise legitimate industry was dragged into broad daylight in a survey conducted by 24Grey in December 2015. According to the survey, seven out of 10 marketers said they were directly or indirectly offered a kickback for their OOH business, and nine out of 10 OOH vendors admitted to having paid kickbacks to secure business or to install inventory. If you are surprised by these numbers, you have probably never handled OOH advertising directly.
Those of us in the business know it and privately admit it, but publicly we keep quiet and let the status quo persist. This shadowy environment forces the industry, both on the advertiser and vendor side to constantly face crises in order to cover our tracks. The slow uptake of OOH evaluation tools, such as MOVE (Measuring OOH Visibility & Exposure) and OUTNET, confirm this widespread, almost institutional, resistance towards a stricter level of scrutiny and measurement.
Ask any marketer whether OOH needs to be better measured, and the answer will be a resounding yes. Ask them how they are measuring it right now and almost everyone will admit they don’t do it. Of the few who say they do measure their OOH investments, most will be using data provided by their vendor or agency. Dig deeper and those numbers are mostly based on assumptions or incidental information from dubious sources. If there is anything more dangerous than having no data at all, it is having misleading data.
That absence of self policing and institutional transparency has led to a lack of advertiser confidence in the medium, which affects long-term growth potential and creates an environment whereby people have to be routinely bribed for the industry to function. It is almost surprising that the Supreme Court didn’t use this as their rationale for banning the industry in Karachi. A Rs 10 billion per annum industry in the city wiped off with a Rs 500 rupee gavel.
Online comments suggest that Karachiites generally think of OOH as a nuisance and no one is mourning the loss of over 4,900 OOH structures – apart from the Sindh Outdoor Advertisers Association, which belatedly made a feeble request to the Chief Minister to resurrect their industry.
This ruling’s impact will not be restricted to Karachi alone. Other municipalities are looking at using it to limit the ubiquity of OOH in their cities. Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi have already lost over 500 OOH units in the last five months alone; it’s hard not to draw a parallel.
The trickle down effect of this ruling will almost certainly result in the loss of thousands of jobs, reduction in city tax revenues and damage corporate confidence. Had it been any other industry, we probably would have had burning tyres and tear gas to navigate. But OOH as an industry doesn’t have the confidence in its own legal right to exist and this constrained any concerted efforts to fight the ruling or negotiate its terms. Online comments suggest that Karachiites generally think of OOH as a nuisance and no one is mourning the loss of over 4,900 OOH structures – apart from the Sindh Outdoor Advertisers Association, which belatedly made a feeble request to the Chief Minister to resurrect their industry.
Whether Karachi and its citizens will be better off without OOH is up for debate, but everyone agrees that the city looks better than it ever has since the OOH boom started 10 years ago. Yet, we must question if a popular motive justifies the outright ban of an industry that otherwise had licenses, paid taxes and worked under the direction of the local government. Did the OOH industry always play by the rules? Certainly not. Was it at times reckless in its expansion? Absolutely. But did it warrant a ban without being given a chance to fix a problem? The owners of these structures were not faceless corporations, but citizens of Pakistan whose livelihoods were tied to OOH.
The Supreme Court bench cited public safety, unlawful use of public land, environmental impact and the lack of legal authority of local government to justify its ruling. None of these are problems that cannot be fixed or addressed through better regulation and tighter supervision – which the OOH should pay for through higher taxation. In past monsoons, billboards have fallen down causing loss of life and structural damage to electricity grids. This can be easily policed by creating stringent guidelines on the structural stability of billboards verified by qualified engineers and by making it mandatory to have annual safety inspections without which licences will not be renewed.
Billboard owners are known to cut or trim trees to ensure their boards are visible. If billboard owners can be made to permanently pull down their structures, then the authorities can certainly force them to not touch the trees surrounding them and perhaps even make them plant and maintain 10 trees for every billboard they install.
For 2017, the writing on the wall is clear. OOH advertising in Pakistan must formalise, unionise, legalise, become and act like a legitimate industry. OOH vendors need to assume leadership in restoring public and legal confidence in the industry.
We all agree that using public land for private profits should be illegal. Yet, can a city already strapped for cash afford to forego the four billion rupees in tax revenue OOH was estimated to be generating for Karachi? This amount of money could translate into hundreds of hospital beds and provide safe drinking water to thousands of houses every year. A new bill in the Sindh Assembly could create the legal framework to allow use of public land for OOH and tie all proceeds from it to causes like public health and sanitation.
All this isn’t such a far-fetched idea. Look at the tobacco industry for parallels. Everyone agrees that cigarettes are a health hazard, but we don’t ban smoking; instead we tax them heavily and control their activities. A similar regulatory environment could make OOH advertising more acceptable. These steps will not fix everything overnight; compliance and implementation will continue to be a challenge. However, democratic, transparent and forward thinking societies find solutions to common problems for the greater good without resorting to authoritarian devices that fix one problem by replacing it with another one.
For 2017, the writing on the wall is clear. OOH advertising in Pakistan must formalise, unionise, legalise, become and act like a legitimate industry. OOH vendors need to assume leadership in restoring public and legal confidence in the industry. Marketers need to start quantifying and rationalising their OOH investments. This is the only way this vibrant industry can restart its upward trajectory.
Hameed Kashan is Team Lead, 24Grey Media & Analytics.