Interview with Rashid Khan, Managing Partner & ECD, Fishbowl.
AURORA: When and how was Fishbowl established?
RASHID KHAN: Fishbowl started operations in 2014 as an agency that looks at creative across conventional and social media. I switched to advertising from the brand side where I had worked for almost 20 years. My partner, Gulraiz Mojiz, has been in the advertising industry all his life. I began my career with British American Tobacco, where I worked through from trainee to Head of Brands. I switched to the telecom sector and was the Marketing Head during the launch of Warid. I then joined Ufone as their Marketing Director. When Philip Morris came to Pakistan, I joined them as their Marketing Director; I was also their Marketing Director in Malaysia. When I returned to Pakistan, I wanted to start something in advertising and this took a couple of years to come to fruition.
A: What prompted you to switch from the brand side?
RK: I wanted to get into advertising. Having been on the brand side, I was used to dealing with agencies and I had some thoughts on what to do and I was able to convince Gulraiz to come into a partnership with me because I needed someone who knew the industry. When we started operations, we had a zero client base. The first project we won on a pitch, and then delivered to the market, was the launch of the Pakistan Super League (PSL).
A: Why was the agency named Fishbowl?
RK: We were thinking about names while listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and the lyrics stuck in our heads.
A: Fishbowl is probably best known for the Nurpur and Dostea campaigns, both of whom are Fauji Foods brands. How easy was it to convince them to take a relatively unconventional route?
RK: We were extremely lucky as an agency to have a very receptive client, which is rare. Initially, we did have apprehensions about whether Nurpur would buy into the concept, so we presented a couple of ‘safe’ options as well but strongly recommended the one they eventually chose, and we were actually surprised they went for it. They gave us the space to do what we wanted to do and they appreciated the results. It was great for us as an agency, because the reason why we set it up in the first place was in order to be able to do this kind of work. When we started, a lot of people pointed out that there were so many agencies out there. My view was that I did not think they were doing what they should be doing. I believed that there was space for better storytelling. The fact that Nurpur went for it was brilliant.
A: Was the Shan Shoop TVC a one-off or will there be more advertising in the future?
RK: It was not a one-off. Shan was dormant in the noodles category and they wanted to re-launch them. They came to us with a clean slate; they wanted a new positioning and the challenge they presented us with was the fact that they wanted to sell to kids, yet globally, the market is moving towards teenagers as well. They wanted to target those teenagers but retain the kids. We created an insight-based campaign on the idea that there is a kid in all of us, hence Ham Sab Andar Say Bachay Hain. It was the introduction of their new positioning and you will be seeing more on that soon.
A: Who are your other major clients?
RK: The list is long; to name a few, we work with Service Industries, Olio and we also handle a restaurant brand called Chai Khana. We look to do work which matters and not many brands actually go for this. In the past, we handled one or two major brands for three to four months and then figured they really did not want to do what we wanted to do, so we parted ways politely. At Fishbowl, we are also creating a brand of our own and we will not take on business for the sake of it.
A: Fishbowl is also credited with having launched and established the PSL branding. Why did the account move after just one year?
RK: PSL is controlled by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and they have their own policies. They have a bidding process and once we launched and established the brand, they probably went back to that process. What I realised over a period of time is that a lot of clients don’t want someone to challenge them on positioning or on their research. There is also the fact that many brand managers do not necessarily have an appetite for risk and therefore do not want to create new or breakthrough advertising. Our joy comes when we know we have an idea that will stand out, and at the other end, we have a client who sees it and gives us the go ahead. However, 90% of the time, the expectations among clients is to do something that has been done before.
A: Have you or would you turn down a client on the basis that they want things done their way?
RK: No, I wouldn’t turn down a client who says he wants something done in a particular way and shows me a reference. I will consider it, maybe put a twist on it and see how it fits into the overall positioning of the brand; or if there is a camera technique that is being used, sure, we will pick it up, but I would certainly turn down a client who wants to plagiarise an ad. There is a difference between inspiration and plagiarism. To put it simply, I will choose to be original versus looking at the pay cheque. I may lose a project, but I don’t want to plagiarise.
A: Is there any particular reason why you chose to locate Fishbowl in Lahore?
RK: I was living in Islamabad when we decided to start the agency. We went out looking for business in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore and our initial business came from Lahore, so we set up base there; the idea is to eventually branch out to wherever business comes from. Gulraiz is from Karachi and he looks after our projects there. At the moment, we have some business in Karachi but not enough to justify an office. However, it is our priority number one and the moment we have another Karachi-based client like Shan, we will be there.
A: What are the key challenges a new agency faces when starting out?
RK: Our philosophy is that the only way to stand out is through our ideas and our creative capabilities. For example, when we pitched for Dostea, the brief was that the product should be positioned around friendship, so I took the I out of dosti and replaced it with an E and an A and we won the pitch there and then, and that gave us a lot of encouragement. If you have an idea and you think it through and base it on an insight, clients will buy it because the industry is saturated, there is so much vanilla out there and if they spot the right flavour, they will go for it. The challenge is to move out of that red ocean space and think for yourself. This is our philosophy – it has not turned us into a huge agency in four years, but we believe in it and stick to it.
A: Are there any inherent advantages in starting an agency from scratch?
RK: We had the advantage of skipping the unlearning process because very often, in order to innovate, you have to unlearn what you have learnt. We had complete freedom to rethink things in terms of dealing with people, setting up teams and approaching creativity. From the outset, we knew that if we did what everyone else was doing, we would not make our mark.
A: How easy or difficult was it to find the right talent in Lahore?
RK: We were very lucky. We hired young people and gave them slightly better positions than they would normally have been offered given their experience, and they have grown with the company. We did hire one or two big names, but it was the younger lot who took to the challenge. If you are a little unconventional in terms of how you hire, then it is easy to find the right people.
A: Unconventional in what way?
RK: We avoided the industry norm of looking for say, an ACD or an ECD with five years’ experience and so on; if you do this, it becomes a challenge, especially in Lahore. We looked at people as individuals; we gave assignments rather than interview them. We asked them to turn around what we had given them in a few days and then we gauged the people who were able to think as well as deliver.
A: Where did you find them?
RK: Local universities, student networks, Beaconhouse National University, National College of Arts and since I have been in marketing all my life, I knew a ton of people to get recommendations from. We hired off the conventional CV system. We didn’t tell them that we would promote them to a higher position in a couple of years; we just brought them in at better positions and it worked for us. Now they have acquired four years’ experience handling major campaigns, so if they go somewhere else to work, they will find good positions at a much younger age.
A: Surely you would not wish for them to leave?
RK: Of course not; I want my team to be with us for as long as they can, as long as they are happy and we can keep them happy. But everybody has to grow, right?
A: That is a very refreshing point-of-view to hear. The fear amongst many agency owners is that their people will leave them.
RK: Maybe it is because of my background. In the FMCGs and the multinational world, they tell you that in three years, you will either move up or move out. If I hire 26-year-olds and they work for me for four years, become account directors and tomorrow Saatchi & Saatchi (for example) offer them Rs 300,000, a car and the position of head of a business unit, I will be happy for them. I know I can’t do that for them. It is about human relationships. Somewhere down the line, the same person may be in a position to help me out; this is how the universe works.
A: How much of your output is conventional versus digital-based?
RK: In terms of revenue, about 85% is conventional. Although everyone is talking about social media and digital, the budgets they allocate to that side of the business are small. That said, digital is becoming significant and we have to overcompensate our resources on the social media and digital side. If I were to break down the amount of work we do on digital and the amount of revenue we generate from it, it would be negative; so I offset the revenue I am getting from conventional media in the interest of having a good social media strength because that is the future.
A: What improvements would you like to see overall in the industry?
RK: The fact that advertising needs to be able to operate like an industry.
A: Could you elaborate?
RK: For example, everyone knows that advertising revenue and margins have shrunk drastically, but there is no significant body of agency owners who will sit together and try to come up with a minimum retainer. Nobody works on tariff. If you look at other industries, pricing is mostly an industry-based decision and then they manoeuvre here and there to be competitive. In advertising, it is ridiculous. You could be working with a client for a million rupees a month and then someone comes in and says they will do it for Rs 200,000; the figures that are quoted are ridiculous.
A: But you do have an association.
RK: What association?
A: The Pakistan Advertising Association (PAA).
RK: What does it do? What has it done for the industry? I was a member of the PAA and attended a couple of meetings; they don’t do anything and none of the big boys show up. In this industry, it is every agency for itself.
A: Are you looking for an affiliation for Fishbowl?
RK: I think that at the moment with 22 people, a few good campaigns and a few good clients under our belt, Fishbowl may not yet be that interesting for an affiliate. Of course, if we were approached based on “we’ve seen your work and it’s interesting,” that would be nice and we would certainly consider it. However, in order to go to Hong Kong or New York and make a case before global agencies, I believe we need to do a bit more in order to be credible. It is the high expectations we have of ourselves to achieve a certain level before we go and talk to a global agency, that leads us to believe we are not quite ready.
A: What are your ambitions for Fishbowl for the next three years?
RK: I would like us to be a recognised creative force in Pakistan with offices and a client base in all three cities.
Rashid Khan was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.For feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org