Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Limits of Advertising

Interview with Javed Jabbar, Pakistan's most influential ad man.

AYESHA SHAIKH: What prompted you to pursue a career in advertising?
JAVED JABBAR: My first exposure to advertising was during my student days at Karachi University when I became the editor of the Pakistan Students’ Observer – Pakistan’s first independent, fortnightly newspaper. In those days, the editor was also the advertising manager for the publication. It was during one of the visits to request sponsorship for the newspaper that I met Naseer Haider. At that time he was an executive at United Advertisers, prior to becoming the Chief Executive at International Advertising Limited (IAL), and my first boss when I joined the agency after completing my education. He asked me to write the copy for a print ad for their client American Income Life Insurance Company. I came up with the headline ‘Treaty With Tomorrow, Life Insurance Today’. When the ad appeared on the front page of DAWN, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Soon after it was time to decide which career to pursue. I was practical enough to realise that a career in advertising would be far more rewarding monetarily compared to one in journalism. The other decisive factor was the challenge of the compression of content that advertising demands. You don’t have the luxury of writing 1,200 words because the message has to be concise; with radio or TV, you just have 30 to 60 seconds to play with. Advertising content also has to stand the test of repeated exposure. A column in a newspaper is read once, whereas advertising is repetitive. There are very few ads that stand what I like to call the ‘test of repetition’, so for me, advertising presented a conceptual challenge because I would have to create content that engaged people. At my father’s insistence, I appeared for the CSS exams while working at IAL. Despite not studying, I was the highest scorer in Sindh, but by the time the results were in, I had decided to resign from IAL and set up MNJ in 1969. Everyone told me I was being naive not to take up a secure and lucrative CSS job but I was very clear that a career in CSS would not allow me to write, be independent and have the freedom to choose what I work on.

AS: What were the industry dynamics when you founded MNJ?
JJ: Karachi was the advertising hub and until the 60s, the advertising scene was predominantly led by the Pakistan offices of multinational ad agencies such as Lintas, J. Walter Thomson and D.J. Keymer. These agencies were instrumental in initiating industry standards and in recruiting and training talent. This was followed by a period when new agencies began to be setup by Pakistanis such as Sultan Mahmud, who set up United Advertising, and Wajid Mehmood who established Adgroup. MNJ was established by three former employees of IAL; Majeed Ahmed, a gifted designer and visualiser; ‘N’ was for Nafees Ghaznavi, and ‘J’ was for myself. We took a bank loan and started in a single room. The first year was tough but soon our work began to be noticed. Within a decade, we became the top advertising company in Pakistan, creating and placing the largest volume of ads. Not only that, MNJ was receiving the maximum number of awards every year at the PTV Awards. This was because we did not follow conventional notions of what represented effective advertising and were willing to innovate and take risks. We were lucky to have clients who approved untested ideas. Once I came up with this creative but completely crazy idea, inspired by Easy Rider (a 1969 Hollywood movie based on hippies) for a Grindlays Bank commercial, which showed a woman riding on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat, up to their Hotel Metropole branch and then asking to open an account. To my absolute surprise, the client, a staid British bank, approved the concept and it became an instantly recognisable campaign. It is important for advertising not to distract from the content of the product or service. The Grindlays campaign was based on an out-of-the-box concept but we balanced it with credible and believable content. This is when people began associating novel concepts with MNJ and the agency’s identity became a part of the persona of advertising of the time.


“The tragedy is that ratings determine where advertising revenues go and therefore advertising is now determining media content and programming”


AS: How did the iconic Pied Piper concept come about?
JJ: English Biscuit Manufacturers (EBM) was our first account. The company was changing hands at the time and the new management was spearheaded by Khawar Butt. The original copy I wrote for Peek Freans was ‘Left Right, Left Right, Peek Freans Left Right’ and the idea was to have school children march to this jingle to emphasise the mass acceptance of the brand. It was that visual that brought the image of the Pied Piper to my mind and I thought, why not have the children walk behind the Pied Piper? Originally, the Pied Piper was a negative character but we managed to turn it into something positive. The new logo of Peek Freans was a baker’s cap so we showed the Pied Piper opening the door to a new world of taste and the tagline ‘Go Marching With The Pied Piper’ became iconic. After a few years, EBM wanted a change and so MNJ came up with the theme ‘Peek Freans, Simply Splendid’, with no reference to the Pied Piper. Within a few weeks of the campaign’s airing, EBM received negative feedback from the market as to why the Pied Piper had been removed and if the brand had changed. So, the Pied Piper was revived on public demand and for the first time in Pakistan’s advertising history, an advertising symbol became part of the packaging design, whereas usually, it is the other way round. We handled another EBM brand, English Biscuits. The challenge was how to reach the lower income segments as that was the target audience. I had always written copy in English but this time that would not have worked. I am very proud of the tagline that I came up with: ‘Alif Se English, Bay Se Biscuit, Acha Biscuit, English Biscuit’. So, combining Urdu and English worked perfectly because of the brand name and the target audience.

AS: Why was English the predominant language in advertising at the time and when did Urdu start to take over?
JJ: Language always reflects social change and demographic shifts in a population. English in the subcontinent has always symbolised power, influence and privilege because of the British link, and therefore, anything associated with English was perceived to be of high quality, even by those who did not speak the language. The transition to Urdu began in the 70s, due to the impact of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto adopting the shalwar kameez as the leaders’ clothing of choice, and his decision to speak in the language of the masses rather than the classes. The shift to Urdu was supplemented by the emergence of a small, but visible, middle-class and increasing urbanisation – a result of the industrialisation years of Ayub Khan. I must pay tribute to indigenous brands which helped de-anglicise the advertising culture, such as Hamdard’s Rooh Afza, which has always had the Urdu tagline ‘Mashroob-e-Mashriq’. Tibet too, advertised in Urdu. It was during the 80s when Urdu became much more evident in discourse.

AS: In addition to changes in language, how has creativity in advertising evolved?
JJ: At MNJ, we were fortunate to have Majeed Ahmed, a man with a remarkable sense of clarity in design. He knew which fonts to use to convey elegance and modernity. As a graduate of the National College of Arts, he was able to combine a strong grounding in graphic design with a liberal, creative sensibility that was not hidebound by conventional notions. Photography played a huge part. Sadar Ismaili, the brother of renowned painter Guljee, was also a part of MNJ and he instinctively understood the need to capture photographic images that spoke for the times – sketches were no longer sufficient as the only tool of creative expression. Photography helped to reflect the hard realism that was emerging in the 70s as this was the time when Pakistan was beginning to rebuild itself after the trauma of 1971. Until then, we may have lived in a world of fantasies, aspirations and illusions, but the events of 1971 delivered a psychological blow to Pakistan. We used a photograph of a public TV in a park with people sitting on the ground looking up at it as the visual in a PTV campaign for an international supplement. The headline, ‘Our most important viewers don’t yet own a television set’ and the photograph struck a chord of realism because 90% of people in Pakistan did not own a TV set at the time. This would not have been possible with a sketch. Photography grew because of a collective realisation that a different kind of advertising was needed to reflect the changing times. I would also like to mention our campaign for the National Development Volunteer Programme (NDVP), a Bhutto initiative, in which young people were placed as interns in factories, banks and corporations to be oriented with the work culture and received hands-on training. Our theme was ‘Join The Manpower Revolution, Become Part of NDVP’. For this, campaign photos were essential because we wanted to show people in real work settings, such as engineers in the field or people training to become technicians. The use of photography increased due to the ferment of rebuilding lost morale and rediscovering Pakistan. Since then, technology has influenced creativity by bringing in special effects and Photoshopping. There is a vast new realm of possibilities you can illustrate, which was previously time consuming and expensive. Unfortunately, that also means that it has become very easy to cut and paste and adapt, instead of developing original thinking.


There has been tremendous change, both in terms of scale as well as content, in advertising but the regulation of advertising barely shows any progress in the last 30 years. There is no law governing the functioning of advertising and the industry is left to self-regulate by relying on the codes developed by the APNS, PBA, PAS or PAA. However, self-regulation is often used to mask self-interest.


AS: How did Ziaul Haq’s censorship policies influence the industry?
JJ: There were negative and positive facets. Previously, the industry had no inhibitions but now, we had to think twice about how women were depicted in commercials. On the other hand, when you have restrictions, you search for innovative ways to express yourself aesthetically without crossing the red line. MNJ did a campaign for Happy, a new brand of EBM, which targeted the middle and upper-middle income segments. We opted for a single shot commercial and the camera closed in on the face of a female model who smiles, and the voiceover was ‘Be Happy, Have A Biscuit’. There was nothing the Censor Board could object to, yet it registered a very high recall. In the commercial for Tuk biscuits, the last shot was of a woman’s hand knocking with the background sound of ‘tuk-tuk’, and that became the brand’s signature. That is how we managed to depict women in advertising while remaining within censorship guidelines. During this period, there was recognition by the government that they had to provide some avenue of entertainment and this is when PTV was encouraged to cover cricket tournaments. The year Zia’s martial law started was also the year of the Cricket World Cup. MNJ played an important role in bringing advertising to cricket when we won the Pakistan Tobacco Company account in 1979. They wanted to develop an association between the cigarette brand Wills and cricket and that is how the tagline ‘Wills And Cricket Go Together’ came to be. To personalise it, I wrote, narrated and directed one-minute portraits of five exceptional cricketers: Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Asif Iqbal and Majid Khan. These portraits were aired during the World Cup and the players attained a celebrity status they had never known before.

AS: How has the industry changed in the last decade?
JJ: It’s ironic that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The original desire to sell more and more of everything is reaching new heights, intensified by the enormous proliferation of mainstream and social media. So, the commercial ethos, which is at the core of advertising, has regrettably become integrated into media content. The single biggest change has been the unregulated expansion of advertising into non-advertising dimensions of media content.

AS: What needs to change to prevent this from happening?
JJ: There has been tremendous change, both in terms of scale as well as content, in advertising but the regulation of advertising barely shows any progress in the last 30 years. There is no law governing the functioning of advertising and the industry is left to self-regulate by relying on the codes developed by the APNS, PBA, PAS or PAA. However, self-regulation is often used to mask self-interest. There is a need for the state and parliament to intervene and regulate advertising so that objective standards are followed. This is important because advertising and media are extremely important sources of influences on the public mind. While respecting freedom of choice and expression, there is a need to verify if people have the grounding and training to differentiate between information and disinformation and respecting accuracy, ethics and precision. The industry stands to benefit from the fact that there are educational institutions that are producing graduates who come with prior knowledge of the business. One aspect that continues to disturb me is corruption. There is no accountability or transparency because media controls where the advertisements are placed, and at what rates. No one knows what the actual circulation of a newspaper is, despite the ABC figures. In 2013, the Supreme Court appointed me to a media commission and we prepared a comprehensive report that included 36 reform recommendations. One set directly dealt with regulating advertising and the conduct of media and advertisers. The tragedy is that ratings determine where advertising revenues go and therefore advertising is now determining media content and programming. The integrity and autonomy of media content has been breached by a complete surrender to the forces of commercialisation.

AS: How do you envision the industry’s future?
JJ: If the unchecked advent of advertising and commercialism in the media continues, the result is going to be a continuing devaluation of ethics. The positive aspect is the emerging CSR dimension of many advertisers, and that is commendable. This offers enormous potential for the corporate sector to initiate a new dimension of public service. We lack an official institution exclusively dedicated to public service for the industry, which would create awareness through development communication programmes for issues such as polio, harassment and violence against women. What we need are exclusively devoted radio, television and digital platforms for public service, not funded by advertising commercials or the state, but co-funded by firms. There is so much that can be done and the young can contribute extensively to this because they have such energy for innovation and creativity, coupled with brashness and an almost charming naïvete.