It was the mid-eighties in Riyadh. Most kids my age were out playing cricket, but I was busy hacking into a computer game called King’s Quest by Sierra. The official versions of computer games were not available in Saudi Arabia; consequently, the usual hints and support were always missing. If you got stuck, you either waited until you, or someone else, figured the way out.
I chose to hack into the code. With that came the need to transfer a large amount of data between friends and in 1990, I brought home a bulky odd-looking device, called a modem, that would connect my landline telephone headset to the PC. Boom! Just like that, this one, unassuming device ushered all of us into the online digital age. Although I was only a young kid having fun, it hit me how powerful this could be. I had no doubt it was the future. Yahoo came along in 1994, ushering in the internet for people like you and I.
However, in Pakistan, the internet was mostly a space to experiment in and have fun, and I did not use the internet in a professional capacity until 1996, when I tried to share account management data between the Lahore and Karachi offices of Interflow. Even by 1998, when Google was born, only two other agencies were using digital as a means to communicate. As a natural progression, IT departments at the client end volunteered to develop websites for their companies and as they were techies, they did the most obvious thing... they looked for technology vendors.
Although the first digital agencies had started popping up in early 2000s, it was not until 10 years later that they began receiving serious business propositions.
As a consequence, Pakistan’s first digital companies were born from small departments, developing websites within larger software development companies. From thereon, until as late as 2006, two years after the entry of Facebook and a year after YouTube came into existence, it never occurred to anyone how user-unfriendly these websites were. They were fully functional, but they lacked aesthetics and did not even attempt to make the user experience easy. The flaw was that technology people are very good with coding but useless at design and communication.
In 2008, the multinational companies began to wake up to the opportunity and did the smart thing – they asked their advertising agencies to develop their websites or at the least, design them so that the software houses could build a better user experience.
Even as late as 2015, 26 years after the birth of the World Wide Web, most clients still thought a digital presence meant only having lots of ‘likes’ on Facebook posts.
Oddly, most agency owners failed to spot the opportunity this presented. However, along the way, something happened independently that forced the advertising agencies to look at digital as a viable source of revenue. Between 2000 and 2010, agency revenues had started to shrink. Revenues from print jobs had gone as clients preferred to work directly with the printing presses. Then came the media buying houses and the agencies lost their commission revenue on media. Finally, as more and more film directors started to work directly with clients, TVC production also went, resulting in the closure of in-agency AV departments.
Desperate, the agency owners looked for anything that seemed like an opportunity and the fact that the software houses were so bad creatively, was a good way to generate some revenue. Of course, in typical Pakistani agency tradition, they did it in the most unprofessional way. Interns, fresh out of college, were hired to handle their clients’ digital requirements. By 2010, blue-chip companies began to take an interest in social media.
Although the first digital agencies had started popping up in early 2000s, it was not until 10 years later that they began receiving serious business propositions. Along the way, clients experienced many frustrating moments, not least because if the software houses lacked creativity, the agencies lacked technological know-how in equal measure.
While during the late nineties and early 2000s, agencies spent much of their time trying to catch up with their clients’ digital requirements, today, the clients are the ones who need to catch up with global trends.
It has been a long journey. However, today, the frustration has shifted from the client end to the digital agency end, which, to their credit, eventually managed to evolve at a breathtaking speed. It was the clients that were lagging behind.
Even as late as 2015, 26 years after the birth of the World Wide Web, most clients still thought a digital presence meant only having lots of ‘likes’ on Facebook posts; quite astonishing, considering that the version of the software I am using to write this article will be outdated in less than six months. So imagine the frustration digital agencies experience when their clients are still living in 2006.
So, while during the late nineties and early 2000s, agencies spent much of their time trying to catch up with their clients’ digital requirements, today, the clients are the ones who need to catch up with global trends. And they must do so quickly. There was a time when each country could conceivably choose to adopt technology at their own pace; today, this is no longer practical, simply because the speed in the evolution of technology does not permit this any longer. What is required is the rapid synchronisation in the digital capabilities of the digital agencies and of their clients in Pakistan.
Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, KueBall Digital. email@example.com
First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.