Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2018

Locked in a Sisyphean embrace

To survive the next wave of change, agencies and clients need a drastic reset in attitude and mindset.

There are about 250 big and small ‘ad agencies’ which produce advertising that commands a media spend of about Rs 70 billion, 75% of which is created by merely five agencies. I shudder to imagine life for the people who are not among these five, 10 or even the top 20. And this is where the vulnerability vis-à-vis the future of the advertising industry in Pakistan, looms large. To map the future, I studied the three stakeholders in this ecosystem; agency owners, agency employees and clients. Here is a window into the future.

The agency owner

The Wright Brothers had their first successful flight in 1903. On the first anniversary of this flight, a hot air balloon tycoon was asked what he thought about the idea that one day machines would enable human beings to achieve flight in grander ways. He replied: “In the very, very, very, very far future, there may be flying machines, but not now, not now.” Hot air balloon tycoons knew the value of the sky; it was how they became tycoons. But they missed what was possible within the evolving canvas of the sky itself. They missed a market opportunity. The agency owners of today are akin to the hot air balloon tycoons. Through their misplaced sense of ‘self-importance’ they have developed frames of reference that hinder their view of what is over the horizon and what is not.

As an agency owner, what do you have to do to stay ahead (no cross that – keep up) in this incessantly shifting industry? And what will the agency of tomorrow look like? Nobody has a crystal ball and nobody can say the agency of the future will be this or that; what we can say is that there will have to be a true willingness for the agency of the future to be more adaptive and reflective of their own needs.

Dynamic banners are not a disruptive form of communication. AI is not an innovation thought up within an agency, and owning a VR headset doesn’t make you ‘digital’. Realising this may be difficult, but it is a realisation that must happen and become common among you. Have you ever thought about how jargon and buzzwords sound coming out of someone’s mouth who lacks a complete understanding of what they are saying? That’s you.


Every creative, planner and account person I have interviewed displays a tone and mindset. The manifestation of this attitude is sprinkled with superiority, hubris and a vacuous smile at the end of which are words to the effect that “clients are difficult. They don’t understand. Clients are scared of brave work. They have myopic vision, etc, etc.” To that sentiment I have to ask: If you are so great at seeing and helping to create the future, why have you not won a real Cannes for real work that has actually gone on to build a real business?


To have a future, let’s develop an agency culture where critical thinking, agile reasoning and brilliant ideas are encouraged. The supply of talent to ad agencies is already a trickle; creative talent, often in their 20s and 30s, needs to see a clear path for career development, one that is based on merit and not hindered by your plans or your family. The current soul-crushing, Sisyphean, anti-creative workplace needs to disappear if this industry is to have a future.

The agency employee

Every creative, planner and account person I have interviewed displays a tone and mindset. The manifestation of this attitude is sprinkled with superiority, hubris and a vacuous smile at the end of which are words to the effect that “clients are difficult. They don’t understand. Clients are scared of brave work. They have myopic vision, etc, etc.” To that sentiment I have to ask: If you are so great at seeing and helping to create the future, why have you not won a real Cannes for real work that has actually gone on to build a real business?

I have seen you act – on web forums, at coffee bars and on couches with your laptops perched on your lap, in boardrooms and elevators, over lunches and dinners and at conferences – as if you are the biggest disruptor of the industry in Pakistan. It’s great to have grand plans but to solve a problem, you need time for critical thinking, creative deduction and agile reasoning. However, you choose to describe it for the sake of seeming original. Solving a brand’s problem (any problem, for that matter) boils down to the fact that we must allocate time towards developing knowledge. Knowledge is how we elevate our thinking, improving our solutions in the process. The privilege of working at perhaps some of the best agencies in the world has afforded me the opportunity to meet, know and work with leading minds of this industry and none have ever claimed to have a perfect understanding of the world we live in. Please don’t pretend that you have. As you invest in learning and increase your understanding, you will rise and grow to position yourself to lead something as sacred as a client brief.

Remember that when you resist that growth or feel threatened by new information, you are intentionally or unintentionally filtering out evidence that may clash with your current opinions, thus keeping you safe in your ignorance. You sacrifice being correct in order to be ‘right’. That, for both personal and professional development, is the kiss of death. And there isn’t much of a future to look ahead to if you are dead.


While so many of us scream about the need for long-term planning, agencies will never be where you want if the words used to describe their value equate more with a short-term mindset, like cutting costs in order to pad current margins. Change your perspective and tell your agency partners that they must create, display and always sell value that you believe will help achieve your business KPIs and then reward them for a job well done. This is investment; a word that clients should be using more to detail the value they want their agencies to bring to the brands they work on.


The client

Half a century ago, agencies were paid a commission every time they aired an ad on TV. “You made money while you slept,” says BBDO’s David Lubars; for decades, it was unfair to the client. Now it’s unfair to the agency.

We understand that you are constantly looking for lower costs, increased performance, creativity and innovation and if anything, you are looking for more of it. But in this quest, what you need to see is the blurring line between price and value. And there is a difference; price is what you pay, value is what you are willing to pay. Price is where agencies will always lose and the work will always suffer.

Your expectations of what you want from your agencies are going beyond the purely creative side of the business. Your need for speed as you adjust to shifting consumer needs; your insatiable appetite for more creative submissions and forever-evolving briefs are cutting into the bone and you don’t realise that your current remuneration may not allow the agency to give you the resources your business needs.

Fees and commissions are words that elicit a potential ‘one and done’ mentality. How are agencies to build partnerships when they are treated with the same attitude and words their clients reserve for their last car salesman? While so many of us scream about the need for long-term planning, agencies will never be where you want if the words used to describe their value equate more with a short-term mindset, like cutting costs in order to pad current margins. Change your perspective and tell your agency partners that they must create, display and always sell value that you believe will help achieve your business KPIs and then reward them for a job well done. This is investment; a word that clients should be using more to detail the value they want their agencies to bring to the brands they work on.

Going further, why don’t you go for performance-based compensation models so that the agency has ‘some skin in the game’ and while you are at it, add the biggest incentive a marketer can give an agency to do great work: Be a great client.

By doing the above, agencies will demonstrate that they matter more than ever. And as change happens and business problems surface, they will increase their clients’ value more than they did before. For agencies to have a future, we need a radical new way of thinking about how to build transformative, solid, cross-competence teams. Only this can create fertile results when faced with the expectations of the modern consumer.

The future of the agency is out there. Let’s go get it.

Imtisal Abbasi is Managing Partner, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi.