Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Fault lines beyond media

Published Apr 27, 2018 03:54pm
A growth in media choice has exposed flaws within advertising.
Journalists Wusat Ullah Khan, Mubashir Zaidi, Zarrar Khuhro (left to right) are engaged in lively debate. For more than three years, the trio comes together on the popular current affairs talk show <em>Zara Hut Kay</em> every weeknight from Monday to Friday and enlightens – and entertains – their audiences with witty banter and political insight as they discuss a host of topics. (photo: Arif Mahmood/ Dawn White Star)
Journalists Wusat Ullah Khan, Mubashir Zaidi, Zarrar Khuhro (left to right) are engaged in lively debate. For more than three years, the trio comes together on the popular current affairs talk show Zara Hut Kay every weeknight from Monday to Friday and enlightens – and entertains – their audiences with witty banter and political insight as they discuss a host of topics. (photo: Arif Mahmood/ Dawn White Star)

History, it is said, is made up of hundreds of different narratives. Which one of these we choose to tell, depends on who is telling it, and to whom we are telling it. We have not captured history well when it comes to advertising and media in Pakistan. The range of narratives in Pakistan’s advertising history is not only wide – it is mostly a function of our collective or individual memories.

Let me present a short appraisal of the ad industry over the past 70 years, with some attempt at foresight. What follows is simplistic in some cases, descriptive in some, and in others, a mere opinion.

The evolution of the media has triggered growth in ad spend

Growth in ad spend is a function of a few factors. The strength of the economy, belief in the effectiveness of advertising and the cost of media. Progressive developments in media tend to drive the cost of media up. Pakistan spends relatively less per capita on advertising than most markets. It is also one of the cheapest markets in the world to buy media by CPM comparisons. The size of Pakistan’s ad industry is about $700 million. It has grown consistently and there is still substantial room for growth, which will be a combination of the factors mentioned above. Increases in advertising expenditure have mostly been a function of developments in the media landscape. Launch of cinemas, TV in the sixties, colour TV in the seventies, the launch of reputable print publications (Herald in the late sixties and fashion magazines later), satellite channels in the nineties, NTM and then the private TV channels. These developments provided new ways of reaching consumers and consequently, drew more investment from brands and marketers. Digital media channels have driven the growth of the industry in the recent past and will continue to do so for some years. Digital CPMs are higher than traditional media CPMs, so there will be inflation in the cost of media. Data from digital channels brings in greater evidence of ROI, leading to confidence in making greater investments. Estimates say that Pakistan’s ad spend will grow at seven to eight percent over the next few years – making the size of the industry comparable to some emerging markets and greater than some others.

Demand on talent will become even tougher

Pakistan’s ad industry has mostly been driven by legacy (and legendary) entrepreneurs. Prince Abbas Mirza (D.J. Keymer and of pre-partition heritage), Anwar Rammal, Shaukat Fancy, Naseer Haider, Javed Jabbar, the Thavers, S.H. Hashmi, C.A. Rauf, Bashir Khan and countless others. Later, Taher A. Khan, Shahnoor Ahmed, Jawaid Iqbal and Imran Mir built great advertising businesses. Most of these people transferred the management of their agencies to their sons and daughters or to a trusted second-in-command. The objective of this transfer in management (nay power) was to ensure that the business and its reputation remained intact. During most of our history, the advertising profession has never been the first choice of career for most professionals.


Estimates say that Pakistan’s ad spend will grow at seven to eight percent over the next few years – making the size of the industry comparable to some emerging markets and greater than some others.


If you graduated from IBA and joined an ad agency, your friends and family thought you had no career aspirations. If you wanted to study the arts or humanities or aspired to a creative career, you had to justify why you did not want to be a doctor or an engineer. It is no surprise that agency owners had no option but to transfer the power to ‘familiar people’ because there were few ‘people of skills’ available. In the late nineties, the international networks started to invest in Pakistani agencies. WPP were the first with Mindshare. The challenge then arose of developing professional managers who did not necessarily come from the families of agency owners. The industry had the arduous task of building a talent pipeline. At that time, Pakistan went through its share of political and social turmoil. Consequently, there was a massive brain drain. People such as Karim Rammal (although the son of an owner was the first professional CEO of an international agency) to amazing talent such as Qaiser Bachani, Wahab Ghaznavi, Yasir Riaz and Cyma Zulfiqar, left the country to pursue international careers. Others decided to pursue other careers or start their own companies. Sarmad Ali (perhaps the most talented advertising person of our times) decided to join the media (Jang Group), Imran Irshad first went abroad and then came back to open his own agency, Shoaib Qureshy also opened his own agency and Raihan Merchant made a fortune by going solo early on in his career. A few good leaders emerged in the 2000s – among them Starcom, Ogilvy, JWT and BBDO. There is hope that these networks will continue to develop and nurture managerial talent. The industry is going to put greater demands on talent and there is a need to build different areas of expertise. The skill profile of the ad person of the future will be vastly different from what it is today. New expertise, such as experience design, data management and technology are becoming central to the profession. Academic or vocational training for such skills is presently non-existent in Pakistan.

Stagnation in ‘commercial design’ sense

The National College of Arts (NCA) is the oldest art and design school in South Asia. The Karachi School of Arts was founded in 1964, the Arts Council in Karachi started in 1948 and the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture in 1995. All these institutions have had substantial impact on our fine arts and textile design. But how much have they influenced the collective ‘commercial design’ output of Pakistan? Drive from Sindhi Muslim Society through to Tariq Road and on to Bahadurabad in Karachi to get a feel of our design sense. This three kilometre stretch is packed with retail outlets. It is also representative of our largest purchasing power segment – the middle class. The shop signs are a visual cacophony. Go to Zamzama in Karachi, Mall Road in Lahore or Murree Road in Rawalpindi, and the experience is similar – if not worse. Our design schools have had virtually no grass-root impact on the ‘visual health’ of Pakistan. Part of the reason is the lack of design literacy among business owners themselves. This permeates, it could be said, ‘bad design’ per se. However, not all our design work has been in vain. Take Imran Mir. His rebranding of Muslim Commercial Bank in the late nineties, followed by a change of signage for their 1,400 branches nationwide, was perhaps the most refreshing design upgrade the streets of Pakistan have seen. Those of you who saw Abdul Khaliq Allahwala’s shop and sign design will acknowledge the level of design upgrade Imran gave us.


It is ironic that some of Pakistan’s recent advertising work that is archetypical in nature, has been written by Indian writers. There could be deeper cultural reasons for this phenomenon, but we will never have creative excellence without mass cultural insights.


Mir came from the heritage of Creative Unit at Dawn where Tannaz Minwalla and Mannan Hatim Ali were doing their bit in promoting brilliant design. At the same time, A.G. Khaled was redefining the art of publication design at The News. A young man named Akmal Cheema was winning international design awards for his work for Libas magazine. Shahzad Nawaz had come in with One:2:One and introduced an offbeat design genre. At Asiatic/JWT, two young Indus graduates, Shahbaz and Murtaza, were setting new standards in advertising. They later went on to make their careers with IPG, Fallon, Razorfish, Digitas and Under Armour. Rohail Hayat sharpened his tools at Pyramid Productions, pushing the envelope in production design and animation. Those were perhaps the best commercial design days Pakistani advertising has ever seen. The trend unfortunately did not carry on.

Memorable advertising has been archetypical and not easy to find

There is a class of Pakistani advertising that has proven unforgettable and which we have grown up humming to. Naurus, Binaca, Dentonic, Rhythm of Unity, State Life, Brooke Bond Supreme, Shaan, Ciba Geigy Polytrin C, Dollar Ink, Mohammad Farooq Textiles, Gillette Blue II and UFone are a few examples. Even Coke Studio falls into this category, although it is not a piece of advertising but a brand-funded programme. This class of advertising is culturally iconic, fundamentally ‘Pakistani’ or archetypical in nature, and has the middle class at its heart as the audience. It is driven by cultural insights, and is not given the ‘aspirational’ makeover much of our advertising seems to fall into. You can recognise it from miles away. This work stands as a contrast to most of the advertising that shies away from embracing our culture. When I worked in advertising in Pakistan, creative concepts were written and presented in English and then translated into Urdu for execution. Urdu copywriters were a rare breed and often not at the top of the food chain. Quite a lot of our great advertising ideas have thus been lost in translation. Reactions to advertising concepts in the boardrooms have far too often been mistaken for the presumed reaction consumers would have to our advertising. If we look to India, this has not been the case. The Indian advertising that inspires us is embedded in the language of the streets. It is ironic that some of Pakistan’s recent advertising work that is archetypical in nature, has been written by Indian writers. There could be deeper cultural reasons for this phenomenon, but we will never have creative excellence without mass cultural insights. The work people like Ali Rez are doing (and which is winning international recognition) has this phenomenon at the heart of it. This type of work needs to become an everyday practice. It will not, unless ad practitioners restore their pride in their own culture. 

Asad-ur-Rehman is leading Unilever’s Digital Transformation & Media in Middle East / North Africa. The views presented in this article are his own.

First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.