Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2018

Whatever happened to cool

Why agencies have turned their industry into a very boring one.

Ten years ago, you had to have the right client portfolio, the right kind of office and the right (read: fast) growth track to get the (yes) right kind of recruit. A foreign affiliation and the plump salary was just the cherry on the top. That’s what we all thought, right?

Now, most offices are smart and Instagram-worthy. Most of the top 10 agencies are foreign-affiliated. Two are foreign ‘owned’. Most of them have top-tier accounts. Salaries are at an all-time high. There is a fast track to the top – you can be a Creative Director by 30 and an ECD before 35.

So this should be the golden age of advertising in Pakistan.

It’s not. Most agencies are not even attracting the best talent, let alone retain it. And if you don’t fix this soon, you will die a slow and painful death.

The reason is pretty simple.

You’ve turned a very exciting industry into a very boring one.

This was a super cool place to work. It was more than just art and copy.

Advertising sells us dreams of who we can be, what we can do and where we can go. It shows us an alternative reality of our life, one that we haven’t even imagined yet. It can be informative, jolting or entertaining. And those behind it are magicians, town criers, soothsayers, storytellers, voyeurs, healers, and even cupids. We have the power to change society. How exhilarating is that? Imagine the power you have within your grasp.

Bright young creative minds don’t see it that way. They don’t even know this world exists. Partly because no Communication Design or Media Sciences programme at a university is telling them that. And partly because they see a dry and bureaucratic industry run by fossils, aloof and removed in glass offices and who never had to work their way up. The ones who frown if you answer a personal call from home and berate you for putting music on. Yes, they still exist.

Where I work, we know we compete with TV channels, production houses, digital agencies and the lure of the freelance workplace for the best recruits. Not other agencies. We understand having creative freedom, thinking big and not always getting everything right is important. I have lost count of the number of times I have met creatives at interviews who feel strait-jacketed with no potential of growth in their current work environment.

Here is what they usually have to say:

Bad briefs

Some are better than others, but the brief is a moving target. Often pages-long with no substance. When I started out, it would be a one-pager – with the business objective, the barrier, a description of the target, a few mandatories, the deliverables and the budget. The client took you through it; you asked questions, disagreed where necessary and went back to craft the big idea and required conceptual work. Today, however, the brief requires a small army of planners to decipher it. And even so, the brief changes halfway through. And the creative gets frustrated, spending more time trying to tick all the boxes instead of ideating. Get rid of the clutter and just write down the bare basics. Luckily, we have a strategy team that does just that. They know how not to bore the creative.


When you ask for ‘clutter-breaking’ work and then produce three references for the visuals and story and insist on a jingle, it does deflate the creative team. It’s the equivalent of the agency writing your business plan for the year. Let us do our jobs.


Client involvement

We love a spirited discussion with clients and we welcome ideas – after all, good ideas can come from anywhere. But when you ask for ‘clutter-breaking’ work and then produce three references for the visuals and story and insist on a jingle, it does deflate the creative team. It’s the equivalent of the agency writing your business plan for the year. Let us do our jobs. Agency heads and client service teams need to urge clients to take the blinkers off and take the leap with us into the wide unknown. Because a great idea has two parents – the creative who produced it and the brand manager who approved it.

Too many layers of approvals

This is at both the client as well as the agency level. The layers of bureaucracy are killing the creative process. Consider this. A creative team puts together a conceptual plan. There are at least four layers of approvals at the agency’s end. And usually another four at the brand level. Can’t do anything about the client’s bureaucracy but let’s simplify the process at the agency end for a start.

Not enough guidance

Creatives are hired with the expectation that they will hit the ground running. They learn on the job, scrambling together whatever bits of experience and knowledge they can, often relying on Bollywood and Indian digital videos for inspiration. Asad-ul-Haq, a former agency exec-turned-ad-filmmaker, reiterates this: “Creatives need to be taught global practices, the art of thinking and, most importantly, how to think out-of-the-box, which sadly not many are doing.” I like to think we are pretty good at this. So, not surprising that putting the IAL name on a résume makes you a shoo-in. Very flattering, but my message to other agency creative heads is this – do your job or give us a finder’s fee.


Advertising is globally a high-stress environment. I don’t actually know of any creative in the network who has easy working hours. You will never go home at 5 p.m. That’s a fact. And when there is a big project in the works or a pitch, you will burn the midnight oil. The ideal creative has to be someone who gets a kick or an adrenaline rush out of the process. And there are ways to show them that you value them to make the hours worthwhile.


Better options are available

Working as a freelancer allows them to pitch an idea directly to a client. Working in digital means pushing the limits because the medium does not have the constraints that TV poses. Faster executions and faster approvals mean you are constantly stimulated. How to conquer this? Every once in a while, go beyond the brief or better still, don’t wait for a brief. Pick a brand and go pitch what may seem like a crazy idea to the client. Go old school. Begin thinking like the start-up you once were.

Kiran Murad, ECD, at MullenLowe Rauf, added to this saying “across-the-board, there is no work-life balance; your family life suffers and you are burnt out. We need to manage work within reasonable hours so creative output is at an optimum.” I understand and sympathise. We are constantly trying to improve this. The catch here is that advertising is globally a high-stress environment. I don’t actually know of any creative in the network who has easy working hours. You will never go home at 5 p.m. That’s a fact. And when there is a big project in the works or a pitch, you will burn the midnight oil. The ideal creative has to be someone who gets a kick or an adrenaline rush out of the process. And there are ways to show them that you value them to make the hours worthwhile.

An office car for the safe transport of women, 12 weeks paid maternity leave, the option to take an unpaid sabbatical knowing your job is safe, part-time contractual work for a valued employee who may need to spend time at home, health insurance – these are just some of the benefits that should be commonplace. Give them a work-from-home day after days of late-nighters.

Arrange talks and off-sites to stimulate the mind and encourage teamwork. If there is an awards event or workshop, send your team members even if you think the events are not worth it. They probably aren’t and your creatives probably know it – but it gives them bragging rights and Instagram posts, so well-worth it. Surprise the really good ones with the occasional spa day or Mango gift card or movie tickets. Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter. And let them put the music on. The playlists may pleasantly surprise you. While you are at it, put in that table-tennis table and football machine; bring in the board games and the dartboard; give them space to blow off some steam.

Trust me it works.


Rashna Abdi is,Chief Creative Officer, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi.