Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2018

The power of potential

Owner, barely average. design, discusses advertising that speaks openly about things rather than just coffee.

It is the beginning of March and I’m sitting at the Espresso office. The owners are there, as is the CEO. We are figuring things out for the next 18 months, which direction the brand needs to go in, expansion plans, menu evolution, etc. Standard stuff. I am asked what we are going to do for the March 23 ad. I reply that I don’t know yet. We always have the fall-back message of hope and blind patriotism (everyone seems to like those) so I’m not really concerned about it. Safety nets facilitate procrastination well.

We sidebar into a conversation about Gwadar, the increased Chinese presence, politics and the government, and it is suggested that we look at CPEC as the subject for March 23. I don’t know enough about it at that point to write something insightful, so I nod and we move on to other things.

Many years ago, we decided that Espresso’s advertising would focus on a broader spectrum of things rather than just coffee and food. That we would use whatever voice we had to bring attention to larger conversations; conversations we believe people are having when they come to Espresso. Sometimes, those topics are unpopular and we have been taken to task for some ads and applauded for others. Over the years, we have grown comfortable with the role of being the brand that says the things others will not, but perhaps should.


Social media is an interesting beast. You can try to ride it the way one used to ride print advertising (measured, planned, drawn out) or you can harness the ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ speed that the medium provides.


A couple of weeks go by and I find myself without an ad or a thought. However, there has been a great deal of conversation about the Chinese over the last week in my social circle. The fact that we see Chinese people everywhere; that there may be as many as a 100,000 of them in Pakistan; that we sold the rights to the port for too long a duration and that $62 billion isn’t enough. There is a lot of support too, but the bar of approval seems low among the people I meet. It tends to be based on: “If we haven’t done it for ourselves, at least someone is doing it for us.”

None of this sits well with me and I know what shape the ads are going to take. We develop a couple and I decide to litmus test them. I know which one I like and I know which one should probably be released. They are two different ads and there isn’t enough clarity to go with my gut. Some of the indecision comes from realising that Espresso’s fan base has grown in diversity since 2010, when barely average.design (ba.d) won the account and we first decided to lead with our conscience. The rest of the indecision stems from recent ads that didn’t go over as well as we had expected. A question often asked when ads are being reviewed is: “If people aren’t understanding your perspective, does the provocation of a conversation lead to any kind of progress?”

Everyone who sees the ads internally has gone for the one I like. No one’s gone for the one I think is right. I roll out both ads to a second group of 20 people without giving them any background information. The majority does not understand the first ad (the one we all like); the majority understands and appreciates the second one. We have a winner.

The ad ran for three days and stirred a lot of emotion among audiences. Many thought we were taking a shot at Pakistan’s population, others thought we were taking a shot at the army. In truth, we were taking a shot at an under-performing government which has let us down and compelled us to sell low. Fortunately, enough people understood the ad for us to deem it successful.

Social media is an interesting beast. You can try to ride it the way one used to ride print advertising (measured, planned, drawn out) or you can harness the ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ speed that the medium provides. Because all of Espresso’s marketing now tends to be online, we decided to piggyback on the speed of distribution and be nimble about the topics we choose. The goal with these ads is to express an opinion. We then hope that it provokes thought and creates a debate.

No one in our office, or Espresso’s, is naive enough to think that we are not going to piss anyone off. Thankfully, that rejection is something we are all willing to endure as long as it advances a dialogue that we feel needs to be out in the open. In a world governed by political correctness and an increasingly pervasive herd mentality, it’s important to let people know that someone is willing to speak openly about the things which are often only discussed in private spaces.

I was in a meeting a few months ago with a potential client in the female hygiene products business and felt a little emboldened by the recent girl power momentum. They had read something where I had written that the key to normalising the stigma around menstruation was to talk about it without talking around it. We had two conversations over five hours and I never heard from them again. I got the feeling at the end of the second meeting that while they liked the idea of talking about menstruation, they didn’t want to really talk about it.

The bulk of ba.d’s notoriety comes from the fact that it is responsible for Espresso’s work. That extends to the client acquisition process as well. A lot of the initial conversations start with “we love the work you do for Espresso” and that’s as far as the clients want to take it – appreciation. They are drawn to it because they feel it is insightful, bold and a little left of centre. The irony is that it is seldom what they want done for themselves. The bigger the client, the more conservative they are. It is a frustrating exercise to go through but I understand why it is this way. Everyone wants to know that their guy can go there, as long as their guy doesn’t take them there. The power of potential, I suppose.

Ahsan Shami is owner, barely average. design. He tweets @barelyaverage