Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Celebrating 70 years of advertising

A profession in evolution
Updated Dec 28, 2017 11:26am

The story of Pakistan’s advertising goes back a mere 70 years, so by that count, our industry could conceivably be seen as still in its infancy. Yet, in the face of continuum, defined by an unpredictable business environment, political angst and economic uncertainty, the industry has exhibited incredible resilience and experienced unprecedented growth.

In the first 19 of the 70 years, media advertising spends increased from zero to approximately four million rupees (source: Gallup Pakistan). The upward trend persisted, reaching Rs 423 million in 1983 (source: Marketing Review, 1983), representing a 10,475% increase in only 17 years. As 2017 draws to a close, cumulative media ad spends are inching towards the Rs 90 billion mark (source: Aurora Fact File). This growth has been driven by a resurgent economy in general (Pakistan’s GDP crossed the five percent growth marker for the first time in FY 2016-17 after a decade) and in particular, by the rising consumerism of a growing urban middle-class.

Industry dynamics, the nature and quality of advertising and budgets have evolved consistently, in line with changing client and consumer demands and media technologies. Beneath the obvious changes, however, lie continuities. The triad of the media, agency and the advertiser remain just as, if not more, interconnected now and continue to provide a foundation to the business of advertising.

Changes in the media pie

Unfortunately, the available media ad spend data only goes back 34 years. The lack of verifiable and quantifiable data for the first three and a half decades of the industry’s existence makes it impossible to draw comparisons or make interpretations for that period.

Between 1983 and 2017, the media pie has seen several significant changes. The most obvious has been the exponential increase in the size of the pie; from Rs 423 million in 1983 to Rs 87.7 billion, representing an increase of 20,632% (source: Aurora Fact File, 2017). In FY 2016-17, digital ad spend stands at Rs 5.5 billion, accounting for six percent of the total pie; perhaps more significantly, the overall revenue figure has registered an increase of 22%. What makes these figures noteworthy is that in 1983, the spending on digital was zero.


Although the multinationals were responsible for ushering in the ‘era of the brand’, national brands realised that to stay in the game, in addition to product improvements, long-term brand strategies based on quantifiable data were needed to keep the MNCs from running away with their market share. Improvements in packaging came about. People could now pick up Rooh Afza in a plastic bottle without worrying about breakage; Tapal’s soft packs not only became an identity marker but a trend-setter for the tea category, and played an important role in enabling it to edge past Lipton.


There are two aspects of the media mix that haven’t changed, as much as certain sections of the industry would like to believe and claim otherwise. TV has demonstrated exceptional resilience, facing down competition and criticism directed its way. It controlled the lion’s share then (46%), as it does now (48%), and is nowhere close to relinquishing the podium it took from print in the 1960s, when Pakistanis were first introduced to the idiot box and their national channel – the only channel. Today, there are over a 100, thanks to the birth of privately owned commercial media enabled by the Musharraf-era deregulation.

Print, once the unquestioned royalty, has been forced to play second fiddle; its share since 1983 (28%), has continued to decline. This has been primarily because a large chunk of the advertiser’s money is being directed towards OOH (33% increase in FY 2016-17), activation (25% increase in FY 2016-17) and digital (22% increase in FY 2016-17). For context, the last two were of no consequence in the advertising budgets in 1983. Another reason has been the shift of government media budgets (one of the largest advertisers) from print to TV, further skewing the balance. And while revenues have increased, the medium’s share has declined to 23%. An oft-quoted reason for this is the lack of verified circulation figures for publications; the ABC figures are not recognised as industry currency and are viewed as merely a tool to be eligible for government advertising.

Radio too, a dominant medium after independence, began losing revenues to TV. However, the advent of the FM stations in the 90s – that brought the ‘live’ radio experience to the young – gave the medium a new lease on life. Yet, radio’s potential as an advertising medium is not even close to being realised. Despite the fact that there are 143 commercial and 45 non-commercial licensed stations today, the share of radio stands at a pitiful three percent, with only a seven percent increase in ad revenue.

An interesting development has been the Rs 400 million spent on cinema advertising – a reflection of the resurgence of Pakistan’s film industry, in terms of the volume of movies produced locally, the increasing number of cinema audiences and the box office revenues that are being raked in. With the announcement of more local movies expected to be released in 2018, as well as the screening of international (mainly Bollywood films), it is anticipated that cinema ad spends will continue their upward trajectory.

Transformation of the agency model

Changes in the media landscape have made their effects felt in the way advertising agencies operate. According to industry sources, Pakistan’s advertising market has been growing steadily at a rate of 10 to 12%. This figure is expected to grow with the entry of international FMCG and retail brands and the increasing budgets of traditional ‘big accounts’ – the telcos, financial service providers, colas and personal care products.

As the size of the pie grew, so did the number of advertising agencies. As of November 27, the APNS estimates that there are 86 accredited agencies operating in Pakistan; the actual number is likely to be higher if we take into account agencies that are not accredited with the APNS. For an industry with small beginnings with the local offices of international agencies (such as D.J. Keymer and Lintas) and no local ones for the better part of two decades, there is much to be proud of. Throughout the late 60s and 70s, several home-grown agencies cropped up.

Although not all survived or managed to maintain the positions of influence they had attained, there are others that have prospered and grown in stature through the vision, innovation and quality of work subsequent generations delivered. As the industry matured, the agency model underwent significant transformations. If the 80s gave rise to the global advertising agency, with smaller players merging or acquired by the big fish and international agencies keen to have a ‘home’ advertising agency, then the 90s was the decade of affiliations.

This single development saw Pakistan’s advertising agencies undergo an evolutionary shift in the way business was done. There was a complete overhaul of operating procedures, supplemented by the implementation of new methodologies based on market research and consumer insights. As the agencies became more professional and better informed about international best practices, this knowledge was shared with their existing – and prospective – local clients. The ‘brand’ was no longer the sole domain of the MNCs.

The discussion on the agency model would not be complete without talking about the advent of the media buying houses and creative hotshops in the 90s. Until then, the creative and media planning functions were under one roof simply because there weren’t enough media options available to warrant dedicated organisations that offered focused media planning and placement, as well as the capabilities to customise content for different media. As the media landscape, specifically TV, began to expand, national and multinational companies began recognising the benefits of using specialist agencies: expertise and lower costs. The traditional full-service agency model was under attack as two to three people boutique agencies cropped up post-2000, as did standalone media buying houses. However, as is always the case, as the economy took a hit, so did the specialist agencies which were unable to stay afloat with shrinking commissions.

As Shoaib Qureshy, CEO, Bulls Eye DDB, aptly states in his article One brief at a time (see page 45), the industry is witnessing a revival of full-service agencies. Several boutique agencies, which requested anonymity, are planning to start their media wings soon. As the co-founder of one explained, “we were reluctant to venture into buying because you need a lot of cash to bankroll the operations; however, with so many local brands now advertising, the size of the revenues are too big to ignore.”

The home-grown brand phenomenon

Although the multinationals were responsible for ushering in the ‘era of the brand’, national brands realised that to stay in the game, in addition to product improvements, long-term brand strategies based on quantifiable data were needed to keep the MNCs from running away with their market share. Improvements in packaging came about. People could now pick up Rooh Afza in a plastic bottle without worrying about breakage; Tapal’s soft packs not only became an identity marker but a trend-setter for the tea category, and played an important role in enabling it to edge past Lipton.

As local brands began realising the power of creating a unique identity, an increasing portion of budgets began to be allocated to marketing. While ‘Wills and cricket went well together’ and Pepsi was the ‘choice of a new generation’ represented by Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, in 2017, two Pakistani banks have well and truly ‘owned’ cricket; HBL was the official sponsor of the PSL 2017, while UBL went a step further and brought international cricket back to Pakistan after a long wait of eight years. With the exception of a handful of international players, the financial services sector is almost entirely dominated by local institutions, a commendable feat indeed.

Then there is QMobile, which despite the criticism of indifferent quality levelled at them, have held their own against international giants Apple, Nokia and Samsung, and successfully put ‘expensive looking’ smartphones into the hands of millions of people, without them actually costing as much. A quick look across product categories makes it evident that for the next 70 years at least, and possibly more, home-grown brands will continue giving multinationals a run for their money and the Khaadis, Shans, Soopers and Tarangs will continue to forge ahead, paving the way for more to foray into the field.


Within the last four to five years, advertisers and agencies have experimented, and deviations from formula-driven work have finally put Pakistan on the international advertising landscape. The year 2015 saw BBDO Pakistan bring home two Gold Lions at Cannes for their ‘Not A Bug Splat’ campaign – and a Bronze for MoltyFoam’s ‘The World’s First Billbed’ – a first for Pakistan.


A career in advertising

An important reflection of the changing face of advertising has been in the calibre – and volume – of the people entering the profession today. According to Tannaz Minwalla, GM & Creative Director, Creative Unit, “When I started in the late 70s, agencies served as incubators for creative talent to find training, mentorship and a voice of their own. Most designers could not afford art school and so learnt on the job.” With the injection of professional standards across the industry, that is no longer an option as agencies, advertisers and media organisations expect the new talent they induct to have the required grounding in, and knowledge of, the business. The fundamental economic principle of demand-supply has kicked in, leading to the establishment of several design institutions, business schools and media sciences universities, offering specialisations in various marketing and advertising disciplines.

Millennials entering the profession now are well-equipped to face the challenge head-on, or so they believe. Zohra Yusuf, ECD, Spectrum Y&R, has a different take on the matter. “Creativity is not something you can learn. What can be taught are improved techniques to execute an idea. The problem with young people is that they have very little experience of the real world and the issues people are facing. You cannot develop insightful campaigns without that knowledge.”

Yusuf is not alone in lamenting the “lack of creativity in the new generation”. There are many other seasoned professionals who agree. These criticisms notwithstanding, there is no question that advertising has become a viable career for people interested in commercial and communication art as payscales have improved considerably. And while advertising may still not be perceived as a ‘dream profession’ by conventional-minded parents in Pakistan, it has, at the very least, earned the badge of respectability and financial security, which are wins indeed.

The promise of future

The past always seems to have more emotional appeal than the hard realities of the present or the uncertainties of the future. Armed with the benefit of hindsight and the power of nostalgia, it is not uncommon to hear that the days of creativity and innovation are long gone. Is the state of our advertising industry really so dismal?

Within the last four to five years, advertisers and agencies have experimented, and deviations from formula-driven work have finally put Pakistan on the international advertising landscape. The year 2015 saw BBDO Pakistan bring home two Gold Lions at Cannes for their ‘Not A Bug Splat’ campaign – and a Bronze for MoltyFoam’s ‘The World’s First Billbed’ – a first for Pakistan. This year, the same agency brought home a Gold Clio for their ‘#BeatMe’ campaign, a digital initiative by UN Women. After a gap of 30 years, Pakistan will once again host AdAsia in 2019, which will be an opportune time for the industry to showcase its brilliance, creativity, innovation and resilience.

The industry is at the cusp of an evolution that is at the same time challenging and ebullient. What remains to be seen is if the industry stakeholders are willing to address issues of ethics and financial regulation, and continue investing in research, streamlining operations and setting industry benchmarks, or muddle along and be content to underachieve.

For feedback, email aurora@dawn.com