The sci-fi gurus of Hollywood give us a utopian vision of the future, brimming with wondrous gadgets, artificial intelligence (AI) and mind-reading apparatus that will take advertising to exciting new levels. They also give us an alternative apocalyptic vision of the future, whereby our world turns into a foreboding place. In which of these future worlds will our advertising industry live? Will it be full of opportunities or will it be a barren and sterile apocalypse of declining margins and hyper-competition?
In my opinion, Pakistan is an integral part of the advertising world. I can say this with a level of authority as I have served both inside Pakistan and in international markets. In my experience, Pakistan is subject to global forces and trends but is somewhat insulated to the forces of globalisation as a result of its lower levels of consumer literacy. This is merely a speed bump which can delay, but not duck the forces of the future. I will leave the sci-fi speculations to Hollywood and rely on guiding truths to piece together a more definitive vision of what the future holds for advertising in Pakistan.
1. The first truth is that while technology can change the way people live and interact with their surroundings, people will remain people. Technology can change behaviour, but not human nature. Human nature is the fixed point of humanity’s journey – the North Star that will help us navigate the uncertain waters that lie ahead. Mankind has been driven by the primal motivators of sex and fear for all of recorded history. Some of the most successful advertising campaigns of recent times have been driven by them, including political campaigns, spiritual and military campaigns and campaigns for deodorants, anti-dandruff shampoos, gyms, fashion brands and even burgers. My prediction is that the two will remain powerful behaviour shapers for the millennia to come. Sex and fear are extreme as examples, but they serve to illustrate a point about how human behaviour does not change over time. Pakistanis will not let go of their nature in the future. They should be expected to remain proud, passionate and quirky. They should be expected to rise as a nation. They should continue to love their music, their food and their conspiracy theories. They should continue to love their favourite brands. Advertising in Pakistan always will be about communicating with people.
The classic agencies thrived on producing big advertisements which were prescribed as the solution to most marketing problems. Advertising agencies that succeed in the future will need to adopt evolved approaches to appeal to the Millennials, Gen Z and beyond. Media will be consumed in increasingly radical ways.
2. The second truth is that people are not that fond of advertisements. This is a tough pill to swallow, but people don’t like to watch repetitive jingles and clichés in the middle of their favourite TV show just because media owners choose to put them there to earn their revenue. Once consumers gain control over their content, the first thing they will do is cut out any advertising which does not interest them. Advertising will need to be a lot more relevant to the consumer, to the content it is embedded in and to the occasion in order for it to be deemed worthy of consumption. Branded content is becoming an alternative for the classic 30-second advertisement for good reason. Making the communication pleasurable for audiences is good sense.
3. The third truth is that the way people consume media and brands is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. The medium is often becoming the message, as is the case with digital and mobile. Almost everything can now be used as a medium of communication. Traditional media was shepherded by classic, big advertising agencies filled with a plethora of experts. The classic agencies thrived on producing big advertisements which were prescribed as the solution to most marketing problems. Advertising agencies that succeed in the future will need to adopt evolved approaches to appeal to the Millennials, Gen Z and beyond. Media will be consumed in increasingly radical ways. It is difficult to predict how consumers will consume their media five years from now. Facebook took the industry by storm, as did Snapchat and Pinterest. Perhaps the future will bring us more advanced platforms that combine AI with a more direct interface to the human brain? What is certain is that agencies which keep their fingers on the pulse of consumers will win. A comfort point for agencies is that new technology adoption is slower in the developing world than the developed world owing to the lower levels of literacy. I have no doubts that future success will be driven by big data across many different applications. Agencies will need to get used to it and be comfortable with it to stay relevant.
The agency of the future will be the one capable of giving a strategic vision to the brands it serves, coupled with creative excellence across a variety of disciplines, including insight, behaviour change, digital, mobile and experiential marketing. Some will innovate, others will follow.
4. The fourth truth is that the Pakistani advertising industry is set to grow. The economy is growing at a healthy pace and the world economy is also growing. More growth means more opportunity. Rapid growth in Pakistan versus declining growth in developed markets will make Pakistan increasingly attractive for regional and global competitors. This is likely to speed up globalisation in Pakistan. Globalisation in Pakistan’s advertising industry will take two forms. The first is collaborative, whereby local partners benefit along with foreign partners. The second is more invasive, whereby foreign parties will cut out local players. Foreign competitors can be formal organisations or collections of talented freelancers. Growth is positive, but it comes with a caveat. There will be an ever-increasing demand for a better value equation for clients. The big classic agencies are being questioned today. Globally, clients are exploring in-house options for functions that have traditionally been the stronghold of agencies, including media buying and creative.
5. The final truth is that the future will be defined by the actions of the communication practitioners of Pakistan. Advertising is a people business; it is about producing great communication that influences people’s behaviour. The agency of the future will be the one capable of giving a strategic vision to the brands it serves, coupled with creative excellence across a variety of disciplines, including insight, behaviour change, digital, mobile and experiential marketing. Some will innovate, others will follow. Agencies should love technology, but they should love people more.
Utopia or apocalypse — the choice is yours.
Afzal Hussain is GM, M&C Saatchi World Services Pakistan.
First published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.