About 10 months ago, I returned to Pakistan after almost a decade. A decade is a long time. It changes things. Perspective. Events. People. Processes. Shahid Afridi has finally retired. There are more imported vehicles on the roads. Roman Urdu has officially replaced Urdu in advertising. Careem is the new Telenor as a career choice for young, aspiring graduates... and there are a plethora of independent production houses.
Back in the day, there used to be a few directors and a handful of production houses for TV commercials and the ad agencies were the producers. Today, more often than not, the role of the ad agency is limited to creative concepts and independent producers and production houses are producing the films and dealing directly with the brand teams, albeit through the proverbial ‘procurement’ department.
A couple of days ago, I had the privilege to lunch with the owner of one of the largest ad agencies in Pakistan. During the conversation, the topic drifted towards the cost of TVC production, something that has bothered me a lot ever since I came back. The owner was of the opinion that the process of TVC production involves three steps. The first is choosing the location, which is the purview of the brand team. Thailand is dated; everyone has been there. Poland is the new Dubai. Turkey and South Africa are emerging. The second is the product, which must fit with the location. The third is the concept, which is the outcome of the location and product.
This may sound like one man’s opinion. However, if you look at most of the ads produced last year, they seem to have followed the same three steps, plus or minus a celebrity. In the overall scheme of things, creativity, insights and consumer needs have been compromised. Like Pakistan’s population, the economic divide is widening in advertising. The directors and production houses are becoming richer, the content and creativity is becoming poorer.
In Pakistan, an average TVC with a tier-A director can cost up to Rs 20 million; with tier-B directors, it varies between Rs 13 and 17 million and even tier-C directors charge between eight and 10 million rupees for a 30-to-40-second TVC.
If you are a director with a feature film to your name, you are likely to be tier-A. There are also brand managers who propose the name of the director (usually Indian) they want to work with and the agencies or independent producers oblige. Pakistani brands have recently worked with Imtiaz Ali (Jab We Met), Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur) and Manish Sharma (Band Baaja Baraat), producing commercials that could easily have been bettered by any Pakistani director. At the same time, many brand managers want to include a certain celebrity in the commercial. All this makes the production houses very happy because it gives them room to make more money, their negotiation power increases and eventually, the average ad production cost will go up every three months.
On one hand, there is the big name fascination; on the other there is the high-tech name-dropping gambit. A decade ago everyone wanted to shoot on Phantom because high speed was the name of the game. Today, every brand manager wants to shoot on Bolt because they want shots just like ‘that ad’. Once again, production houses oblige and add Bolt as a cost to the production and the brand teams gleefully approve.
In the overall scheme of things, creativity, insights and consumer needs have been compromised. Like Pakistan’s population, the economic divide is widening in advertising. The directors and production houses are becoming richer, the content and creativity is becoming poorer.
The question is: What is the actual cost of using Bolt and how much should a TVC directed by Imtiaz Ali cost? Let us not forget that these are less than one-minute TVCs. Until last year, Rs 20 million was one-fourth of the cost of a decent Pakistani feature film. Local celebrities are charging the same amount to star in a feature film as they are charging for a two-day TVC shoot. Clearly, someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money.
I am not against anyone making money; that is why we are in the business. I also believe that there may be some films that do cost Rs 20 million, or even more. However, I have a problem with paying Rs 15 million for a film that can be produced for 10 million. The assessment of these costs is subjective and can be brought down if the industry stands up and decides to do it. Unfortunately, the likelihood of this happening is minimal. The sad part is that the production crew and the studio staff still earn the same minimum wage they did before. It is the upper echelon of the TVC production industry that is making hay while the sun shines.
One thing that can be done is to train the brand teams on the processes that go into film production. There is no rocket science to it and it is basically research based. Currently, brand teams do not have the exposure required to negotiate TVC production costs and neither does that ‘procurement’ guy who will eventually raise the purchase order. If brands decide to invest in this type of learning, they will end up saving significant amounts of money. The directors and production houses will learn to respect the knowledge on the other side of the table and the mere mention of Bolt will not add four million rupees to the cost of production.
Another suggestion is that associations such as the Pakistan Advertisers’ Society (PAS) or the Marketing Association of Pakistan (MAP) start to benchmark production costs within the industry. There are still many brand teams who have their high-quality TVCs produced at a much lower cost. Another option is that TVC producers form their own society and work with brand teams to create industry benchmarks. Again, difficult to implement, but worth a shot. We still have not reached that level of trust in the industry. Until then, expect the cost of a two-day shoot without a celebrity and with a tier-B director to go beyond Rs 20 million very soon.
Sami Qahar is a marketing professional based in the Middle East. firstname.lastname@example.org