Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jan-Feb 2018

No excuses for blandness

Why strict guidelines governing the advertising for Islamic banks do not excuse their blandness.

Is creativity haram? This is not the right kind of question… I am not looking for a fatwa here. This is the kind of question you ask yourself after looking at the ads for Islamic banks in Pakistan. From their logos to their communication, they all look the same; geometric patterns, arches, Islamic architecture, Arabic fonts, shades of green…

Every critique of Shariah-compliant advertising comes with the usual culprit as a defence: religious constraints. Ask any brand manager why his bank looks, sounds, and behaves exactly like every single other competitor, and he will cry you a river about how difficult it is to have anything approved by the board. Which board?

In fact, we have started to believe that constraints are the last thing we need in order to be creative. Yet, this could not be further from the truth; constraints can be an advantage when it comes to doing great work; or even better, they are essential to creating extraordinary work.

If you have ever faced writer’s block, you know what it’s like to be paralysed by the prospect of innumerable choices. Restrictions take away those choices (in Islamic banking’s case, a lot of choices) and with them, the paralysis of choice that stops us from getting started vanishes. I am a big fan of brands in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia which, despite many constraints, produce outstanding work.

Here are some examples.

1. STC (Saudi Telecom Company) wanted to do a series of public safety ads on the dangers of using a mobile phone when driving. The brief was simple. Communicate that using the phone when driving is as dangerous an addiction as using heroin. It can ruin your life and the lives of others. There were a few constraints though... Don’t show people who are injured; don’t show blood; don’t even show a crashed car! So, not that simple. The ad above is what Y&R Saudi Arabia came up with.

2. In Saudi Arabia, the most prevalent mass media are print and OOH. But you mostly see men in them because showing women is tricky. So, when Al Rajhi Bank, a leading Islamic bank in Saudi Arabia, promoted Laki, a personalised card for women, their agency, FP7 Riyadh, set out to show how the card was unique to each woman and created the first OOH ad in Saudi Arabia featuring women, but without breaking any rules. They used mirrors on MUPIs (Mobilier Urbain Pour l’Information or outdoor information panels) with a camera linked to a Near-Field Communication (NFC) device, a Bluetooth beacon and the message: ‘Discover a card that’s unique to you’. The beacon inside each MUPI sent notifications to any woman who passed by the panel. As she passed by, she saw herself framed within the context of an Al Rajhi bank ad that was unique to her. She could then give permission to have her picture taken, have it sent to her mobile, and then share it with whomever she wanted to. Every share became an ad for the bank. Furthermore, a link allowed the women to contact the bank directly and start the application process.

3. The do's and don’ts for advertising in Iran are numerous and often act as precursors to a second list issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Now have a look at this series of ads created by Badkoobeh (a full-service advertising agency in Iran) to launch new internet banking and mobile app for Refah Bank.


Brand managers who know their audience will still win! Knowing the target culture only strengthens the approach. Once the constraints are accepted as a challenge, just dig deeper.


Now answer this. Why can’t we learn to use constraints to help our own creativity? The test of creativity is when ideas are debated instead of being brainstormed, when boxes are defined, and when the canvas is not blank. Coming up with better ideas by starting from somewhere (even if it’s a ‘bad’ idea!) provides a springboard to bounce off ideas and find a starting point that can open up new ideas, rather than hold you back.

A well-known creative director at a multinational ad agency in Tehran was asked by a group of agency folks and marketers how anything could be advertised in Iran, given that women have to be totally and completely covered. His answer was that ad campaign briefs anywhere in the world come with a list of ‘do's and don’ts’, and for him, avoiding even showing a strand of a woman’s hair is no different from avoiding showing a woman who doesn’t reflect the target audience. Every market and industry carries its own challenges. Some are regulatory, others religious, cultural or even linguistic.

Of course, Islamic banks have to toe the line and comply with the strict advertising guidelines. Yet, there are so many examples of amazing advertising that have arisen despite many constraints; one cannot simply accept the substandard work we see in our industry.

The basics have not changed. Brand managers who know their audience will still win! Knowing the target culture only strengthens the approach. Once the constraints are accepted as a challenge, just dig deeper. What does your target audience expect; what makes them tick and what opportunities exist in the market that have not been explored? By highlighting these elements in a campaign, brands will automatically begin to speak to their audiences on a local level and resonate with them.

Let me leave you with the work of Shehzad Yunus, one of my all-time favourite creative directors from Pakistan, now based in the UAE. If you sell dog food in Saudi Arabia, and the law says you cannot show a dog but the client wants to show a dog, what do you do? You show a dog by not showing a dog!

Or, how do you sell thongs in the UAE when you cannot show what they look like? Showing women in skimpy lingerie is an absolute no!

You use ‘the butt!’ in a tongue-in-cheek way.

Umair Saeed is COO, Blitz. umair.saeed@blitz.pk