Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2017

Reinventing the print experience

Interview with Sarmad Ali, MD, Jang Media Group & President, APNS.

AURORA: Seventy years ago, print was the dominant media platform in Pakistan. What is the picture today?
SARMAD ALI: Ten years ago, print media accounted for 55% of the total advertising pie and TV was at 34%. Today, the ratio has inverted and TV is at about 52 to 53% and print, at 32 to 33%. However, if you look at it in terms of value, the pie has expanded. Print revenues have gone up, although they have not gone up at the same rate as TV revenues.

A: To what do you ascribe this change?
SA: Several reasons. One, TV was an unexplored medium until about 2002, when a lot of TV channels came in. Two, TV has always been regarded as the more glamorous medium. When TV opened up to private investment, a lot of companies and individuals with no prior media experience went into TV and established themselves as reasonably serious players. In 2002, there were five or six private TV channels; today, there are over a 100, whereas the number of major newspapers has remained more or less the same. There have been no serious efforts by publishers or corporates to go into print. In fact, for most of the corporates who went into media, print was an afterthought. On the other hand, for media organisations, such as Dawn, Jang or Nawa-i-Waqt, print was their foundation; they built upon that foundation before going into other media. Publishers have not expanded the way they should have. Most have been content with publishing from the three metropolitan cities and have not gone into the second-or third-tier cities, where there is growth for newspapers. Yes, Jang is in Multan and Quetta, and Nawa-i-Waqt in Multan, but no serious efforts were made by mainstream publishers to explore the second-and third-tier cities.

A: Why so?
SA: I think they thought their daak (early) editions were too good for smaller cities, so they never seriously looked at their potential.The Express Tribune was the first newspaper which started looking at these cities and they have successfully established themselves in some of them.

Two, there is stagnation in our readership. This may be a rather unpopular view, but I tend to think this is due to the fact that newspapers have priced themselves out of the market. Today, English newspapers cost about Rs 20 and Urdu ones about Rs 13 and this has put us out of the reach of the common man – something publishers need to seriously rationalise. In India, newspaper circulation is growing primarily because of their pricing strategy. You can buy a 40-page, all-colour newspaper for two and a half rupees (about four rupees in Pakistan).

A: Don’t you think it’s too late to do this?
SA: I don’t think so. All it requires is for publishers to look at how to correct their pricing.

Two, there is a lack of innovation in print. There are exceptions; Jang and DAWN have introduced QR codes in their classified advertising and Jang Media Group have gone into augmented and virtual reality. Three, we are losing touch with younger audiences and unless we innovate and make ourselves relevant by introducing new platforms, we will not be able to communicate with them. We need to reinvent ourselves. If we are able to do so, print will still be relevant and will still be a growing medium. The question is whether print is willing and ready to reinvent itself. Four, there is the fact that the owners of media organisations probably find TV more attractive and glamorous than newspapers and that is a dichotomy that needs to be corrected and balanced.


We need to make our brands relevant to the aspirations and values of younger audiences. If we don’t, we will be in trouble. We need to repackage our content, change our formats and layout. Make our stories shorter so that they relate not only to what they want to read, but to their shorter attention spans.


A: Could it be because TV is more profitable?
SA: Print is still more profitable than TV, which is like a bottomless pit; you just keep investing and investing and do not get the kind of returns you are looking for. But TV is seen as more glamorous than print. People in the media, or those who want to come into it, find TV more attractive. This is the other issue. The fact that we are unable to attract or retain the best talent; we are losing it to TV.

A: What about the fact that younger audiences prefer accessing their information online?
SA: A lot will depend on whether newspapers are willing to reinvent themselves. We need to make our brands relevant to the aspirations and values of younger audiences. If we don’t, we will be in trouble. We need to repackage our content, change our formats and layout. Make our stories shorter so that they relate not only to what they want to read, but to their shorter attention spans.

A: Despite these issues, what still attracts advertisers to print?
SA: Print is category-centric. There are advertisers who prefer to spend more on print than TV because they are looking at investment-driven buyers. Real estate will always spend more on print than on TV. In such cases, audiences want to see and access more information with respect to what they are buying. A 30-second TVC comes and goes too quickly.

A: But digital can do that as well.
SA: It can, but digital targets younger audiences. Real estate advertising is directed at a mature audience who have the money but are careful about what they invest in. Another category is education-focused advertising. Although this is aimed both at parents and students, it is a category where audiences want to know the career and education options available before making a decision. Then there is the financial and banking sector; although on that front, we are, to some extent, losing out to TV. The Government of Pakistan will continue to be a big spender, despite the heavily-subsidised government advertising rates. These are the four areas that will continue to drive print advertising.

A: Do you think that another issue dogging print is the lack of independent data? It is the only medium in this day and age that still lacks an industry currency in terms of audience measurement.
SA: That is the biggest issue we have, and because of this, we fail to sell ourselves. Studies are published every two to three years, but there is no industry currency. There may be problems with the Peoplemeters – there are only a 1,000 or 1,500 Peoplemeters determining the TV viewership for a population of 210 million – but at least it is there and available on a weekly basis and it is backed by the Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS) and the Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA). With print, there is nothing that is backed either by the PAS or the APNS.

A: Why is print reluctant of being measured for effectiveness and reach?
SA: Because many newspapers, apart from the mainstream ones, apprehend any discrepancy in the data and if their readership comes out lower than what they claim, they may lose advertising.

A: Then why not create a credible measurement system for the mainstream newspapers only?
SA: We should. The mainstream players should get together and start regular readership studies to compete with TV’s rating system. We should be publishing figures every two months, if not every week. There is a dire need for this. One of the reasons why advertisers are reluctant to select print over TV is because of the lack of data. The major players should create a consortium consisting of newspapers, advertising agencies and advertisers to undertake such a study.

A: Is the apathy due to the fact that the revenues are still coming in?
SA: It is short-term, not long-term.

A: The government is reported to have automated the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) system and made it more transparent. What is your view on that?
SA: The problem with the ABC system is that it is not taken seriously by private sector advertisers. Elsewhere in the world, it is the private sector advertisers, the advertising agencies and the newspapers that have put the ABC system in place, whereas in Pakistan, it is the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage which controls the ABC. Having said this, the ABC numbers used to be fairly reasonable and acceptable until about 15 years ago, when the newspapers started getting their ABC figures inflated. The reason for this was the fact that the government rates did not increase, and when this happens for 10 years, and when the cost of printing goes up a 1,000 times, you have to keep up with inflation. For that, you need higher revenues, which you are not getting if you are totally dependent on government advertising. So, newspapers were going to the ABC and asking for inflated certificates as it was the only way to survive. Government advertising rates are indexed to the ABC and had the government regularly increased their tariffs, those newspapers would not have needed to go to the ABC to get their circulation inflated.


The underlying problem is that you have a bunch of young people who do not find print sexy and glamorous, so we need to communicate with them. Instead, we talk to the head of print buying and that is it. In TV, new soap operas, morning shows and other programming come out every quarter, so they have a reason to communicate with the media buying houses. It’s rare for a newspaper to come up with new products – therefore, we don’t have anything to talk to them about.


A: Why are the smaller newspapers so dependent on government advertising? Why can’t they survive on private sector advertising?
SA: Most of them have never considered approaching private sector advertisers and they need to do this. One factor that has made them dependent on government advertising has been the emergence of media buying houses. Before they came into being, a lot of advertising agencies used to give private sector advertising to these newspapers. However, with media buying houses putting the focus on Return On Investment (ROI), rather than using print advertising as a PR tool, many newspapers lost out on that advertising. The other issue was the fact that when the government’s commercial clients were privatised (like banks and insurance companies), they stopped advertising in many of these newspapers.

A: Looking back 70 years, do you think the quality of advertising has improved or declined?
SA: It has declined, especially print advertising. The problem with print advertising is that the advertising agencies find TV more glamorous. The creative departments don’t understand print. The creatives from my generation, when print was the dominant medium, understood how to create print ads. Today, they think print ads should just be spin-offs of TVCs, whereas they should be developing integrated marketing campaigns. You have to think print to make an effective print ad – they don’t; they think TV.

A: Have the media buying houses played a role in this decline?
SA: A major role. Ten years ago, media buying houses were spending 20% of their total billings on print; today, they spend five percent. Again, the issue is that the buyers and planners do not understand print. It is our fault because we do not communicate with them. TV communicates with them on a regular basis; we visit them once in three or six months. The underlying problem is that you have a bunch of young people who do not find print sexy and glamorous, so we need to communicate with them. Instead, we talk to the head of print buying and that is it. In TV, new soap operas, morning shows and other programming come out every quarter, so they have a reason to communicate with the media buying houses. It’s rare for a newspaper to come up with new products – therefore, we don’t have anything to talk to them about. We either need to come up with new products or just find a reason to communicate with them. On a pan-industry basis, newspapers should sell themselves as a medium rather than as individual products.

A: APNS is respected as one of the cleanest and most effective trade bodies in the business. Yet, it also comes across as rather staid. Do you not feel it needs more energy injected into it?
SA: There is a big need for that. We need to organise seminars with advertising agencies and sell print as a total package rather than on an individual basis. We need to do an advertising campaign aimed at the ad agencies. We need to create a mechanism whereby APNS communicates with the advertising agencies. We are losing out primarily because of our lack of enthusiasm.

A: What happens in the next 10 years?
SA: Newspapers will survive. Even today in terms of advertising revenue, Jang is the single largest media brand. Newspapers will survive, but they need to reinvent themselves.

Sarmad Ali was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback, email aurora@dawn.com