Interview with Seema Jaffer, CEO and Creative Director, Bond Advertising
First published in November-December 2009
AURORA: When was Bond Advertising established?
SEEMA JAFFER: My father (Jamshed Qureshi) started Bond in 1967. That was really an exciting time for advertising; in fact, when you look back at some of the advertising done in those days, it’s amazing how much cultural norms have changed, and creatively there was some really good stuff coming out. Bond was responsible for training a lot of people then. In those days there were very few training institutes, so the agencies served as training grounds for a lot of young ad people.
A: Was it always on the card that you would run the agency?
SJ: It kind of happened. I was going to work for the agency for only a year and then go abroad again, but then things changed. I took up certain responsibilities at the agency, then I met my husband and got married. Now, however, I have reached a point in my life where I can put a lot more into the agency.
A: Is running an advertising agency in Pakistan a good place to be?
SJ: I love the work and I love coming to work. I love being able to do different things and not be stuck with just one kind of product. But advertising is also very demanding.
A: What do you least like about your job?
SJ: Being told what to do with my design (laughs), because I feel if I have the expertise and I am working with a professional team and I put something on the table, then there should at least be a discussion. If you hire a lawyer or a chartered accountant, you don’t tell him or her what to do, so agencies have to take a little stand on what they are presenting, because if we are delivering, then I think there should be that respect. Agencies deliver ideas that are executable and there are very few organisations that do that. Of course, over the years your confidence increases, and if you believe in what you are selling you can convince your client.
A: Are you looking for an affiliation?
SJ: Yes, because it gives you business to begin with, and it also gives a sharing of ideas. However, there should not be an affiliation just for the sake of an affiliation; there has to be a sharing of ideas. I don’t want to be a post box, where we just convert an idea into Urdu and that sort of thing.
A: Presumably an affiliation would also be beneficial in terms of training?
SJ: Yes, an affiliation would be beneficial to the people who work at the agency, beneficial to the business and to the brands we handle.
A: Are there still any international affiliations available to work with?
SJ: There are, but they are totally client-driven. They are driven by the need of the client to be in Pakistan, which is when they start looking for a local affiliate. So unless their client is interested in the region, it is very hard to capture their interest, especially now with the present economic downturn. However, apart from agency affiliations there are a lot of other specialised opportunities that are opening up, and those are areas I would like to look into. To give you just one example, there is a total vacuum in terms of brand consultancies. Internationally, there are a lot of areas that become so specialised that they turn into agencies, but in Pakistan it is all under one big hatch.
A: How does a mid-sized agency pitch itself to a client?
SJ: Clients are looking for expertise in their domain. They are looking to see whether you are capable of thinking innovatively and then implement and deliver those ideas. The way I present Bond is that we have the expertise, we have the team, we have the level of professionalism and there is a lot of integrity in the work that we do and how we do it. Clients also look at things like size; for example, if you are a multinational they may want to have a regional outreach. But apart from all that, they are looking at the creative idea, which is why many of the small and mid-sized agencies have a lot to say for themselves. I have worked with large multinational, as well as local companies, and there are many local clients who, although they may not be equal in size to a Unilever, want the same kind of service; there is enough business out there for them to want to make an impact in the market.
A: Flipping to the other side, how does a mid-sized agency attract good people to work for it?
SJ: Obviously we need to pay well, and we need to look after them. I think what people do get here, especially on the creative side, is a much more hands-on experience. We are a very tightly knit team. We are not at all bureaucratic; it’s very much an open door environment. There are a lot of young people who want this kind of exposure. Sometimes working in other agencies, they are soon bored out of their minds because by the time they get to a level where they have some kind of authority over their work… well it takes forever.
A: How are clients reacting to the prevailing economic situation?
SJ: Most clients are a lot more prudent now. However, if you can convince them of your strategy and you believe in the power of advertising, there will be an opportunity in every company. Take these telecom wars that are going on, and then you get something like the Ufone ads. I find them very clever; I may not like every ad they produce, but they have managed to cut through the clutter just by being so different compared to the competition. Similarly, there has been a shift away from consumerism. Before, all the banks were pushing various loans and credit cards, but now that more and more people cannot afford to make the repayments, there has been a total shift. When we began working with Bank Al Habib, we saw that there was a need to shift from a ‘spend’ mindset to a ‘save’ one; that there was a need to talk about savings and the benefits they bring over the long term. So a lot of values are changing, and if we position those properly, we can strike out.
A: Speaking of Bank Al Habib, how did a bank that hardly used to advertise make a 360 degree turn?
SJ: It was very interesting. When we went in there, we started off by studying the culture. They were very traditional. There was a legacy there and they were very inward looking and not into advertising at all. It was literally a weaning process. But what happened was that the campaign we presented to them was honest to whom they were. We did not try to impose an image or go for the hype that they were an exciting new bank. The campaign was very rooted in their culture, which is what made them take those first steps into advertising. It was about understanding the client, their culture, their target audience, and once they started taking those steps it became easier and easier. Bank Al Habib has a number of niche products; one aimed at children, called Young Savers, and another aimed at pensioners, called Bank Al Habib Senior, and both did very well, because the campaigns were rooted in their culture. It was very exciting to do something like this, especially when the results came in, because the numbers spoke for themselves.
A: So you have now sold them on advertising?
SJ: Yes, (laughs). I think the trick was having taken the trouble to understand where they were coming from; had we tried to do something that was contrary to their culture, it would not have worked.
A: How woman friendly is the advertising profession?
SJ: A particular issue for women in advertising are the late hours.
A: Is this due to family pressures or security concerns?
SJ: Security is a fairly recent concern. I would say it has mainly to do with family pressure. But whenever we do hire, and we have a lot of women working here, I do expect that when push comes to shove and there are things that need to be done, that they pull their weight on this as well. But other than that, advertising is a very exciting area for women to be in. Women used to be mostly found in the creative departments but now I see women hitting the media as well, which is very exciting.
A: How do you respond to the fact that many graduates coming out from the business or art schools join the profession with expectations that do not match the reality of the job?
SJ: Their expectations in terms of what they are required to do should be made clear. The new generation expects things to come much quicker. They are a lot more aggressive, and maybe that is a good thing. So yes, their expectations are very high. A lot of them don’t want to do things that they consider to be ‘menial work’; like making a mock-up or a dummy. They only want to get into the ‘glitter’ and the ‘glamour’.
A: Then should not these schools be bridging this gap between the expectation and the reality?
SJ: Yes, there needs to be a lot more bridging of the gap, because the reality is quite different. The reality is a lot of hard work, sometimes even menial work and sometimes work that you just don’t enjoy doing. It’s not always about going to a shoot or taking glamour photos. It’s about having to redo things again and again. Often there also is a gap in basic technical knowledge and process know-how, and even if they don’t need to do some of the stuff themselves, they should know the process.
A: What are your ambitions for Bond?
SJ: There is a legacy here. There is a brand here that everyone knows; when you say Bond, you never have to explain what it is that you do. There is good team here and a lot of integrity. I am pretty clear in my mind about the direction in which I want to take Bond. I would like to see Bond as a place where people fit in comfortably; a place where they love to come to work every day. I also see Bond at a scale where it becomes a place where ground breaking ideas are developed, because ideas are really the backbone of an agency. I want Bond to be even more focused on the creative side, doing different and more cutting-edge creative work.