Robert Redford was once a poor art student in Italy, when during a winter break, he decided to hitch-hike to France. A truck dropped him off in Cannes, where he spent the night on the beach huddled under a boardwalk, listening to the crowds party and drink it up above on the Croisette, wishing he could also join them. Many years later, Redford returned to Cannes, but this time as a famous actor, who had just released a spectacular film and this time he was on the boardwalk partying and drinking it up.
This incredible story changed my life when I heard Redford tell it during a talk at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. It is the singular moment I can recall that inspired me to not be pushed down by losses and to not give up on dreams.
It was a simple talk. But it was powerful. And that is what powerful, simple talks do: they change lives by giving them a much-needed dose of inspiration.
Thirty years ago, my father, who was also in the marketing industry, brought home a poster for me. It was a beautifully designed cross-section panel of Mughal architecture, with gorgeous colour bands like fancy draped curtains on the building. A simple and elegantly-crafted typographic line running horizontally stated: “Herald and AdAsia. Extending the frontiers of mass communications. Lahore 1989.” One typeface, no elaborate logo, running exquisitely through the poster. It was so well designed, we framed it and it still hangs in our living room 30 years later. As a child, I wanted to design like that. As an adult, I still do.
The best industry gatherings manifest in a lifetime’s worth of inspiration, whether that comes from an actor speaking on a stage, or a poster for a conference that a child didn’t even attend.
The Pakistani advertising and marketing industry is at a pivotal point. After a spectacular start in the fifties and sixties, when Pakistani copywriters and art directors were at par with Madison Avenue genius, all the way into the eighties when content was written intelligently, we are slowly emerging out of a decade or so of work which had left Pakistan years behind the global scale.
Until five years ago, Pakistan had never featured at an international award show of any worth. Today, Pakistan has won 11 Cannes Lions, and this year was ranked by the WARC Report to be among the Top 40 Creative Countries in the World. The Cannes Lions Global Creativity Index in 2019 has placed a Pakistani agency ahead of any other in South Asia, beating several mega-offices in India that have dominated the region for years. We could not have picked a better year to bring AdAsia to Pakistan.
The shift into the digital world is now demanding better content: just take a look at the Pakistani meme-making talent, it is wildly imaginative, incredibly topical, surprisingly rapid, and (to be honest) some of the finest creativity being churned out in the country. It makes commercial work look tone-deaf and stuck in the mindset of the previous decade. A consumer brand’s competition is no longer their competitor brand, it is Netflix, CNN, TikTok and that T20 game that you are trying to interrupt and getting hated for it.
In the midst of all this comes AdAsia with its powerhouse of speakers and topics. And not a moment too soon. This is a collection of inspirational speakers that is sure to provide the much needed introspection and acceleration that will – in the words of a poster done 30 years ago – “extend the frontiers of mass communication” in this country. It will force us to look back at our work and take stock of where we stand in the global community and how to better ourselves.
A couple of years ago, I heard Fernando Machado speak at Cannes. Fortunately for all of us, he is speaking at AdAsia. His talk title at Cannes was: “How to suck less as a client.” Mind you, Machado is a client himself. He is the super genius behind turning the work (and fortunes) for Burger King around and has won more trophies than anybody has time to count. He is bold, brash, honest, and holds no punches. Here’s one of his gems: “A good client is a client that acts as a partner of the creative agencies instead of simply acting as a ‘client’. Client implies an unbalanced relationship. A relationship in which one side is always right, a relationship that is transactional. From experience, the best results usually come when client and agency act together as one brand team.”
Beyond agency-client relationships, speakers like Yasaharu Sasaki and Tay Guan Hin will force you to step into the digital world. You will most likely stop thinking of frames in horizontal terms anymore. Sasaki is obsessed with transforming digital data into beautiful content that is incredibly immersive and engaging.
There are heavyweights such as Sir Martin Sorrell and Peter Draper, who bring a wealth of personal experience as inspirational tools. Zainab Salbi, a brave fighter on the frontline of the war for gender equality, is sure to move you. The Pakistani speakers list is incredibly strong: Hameed Haroon, Musharaf Hai, Dr Zeelaf Munir, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, and of course the man without whom no Pakistani advertising seminar is complete: Javed Jabbar. Throw in a bit of sports (Wasim Akram) and politics (Sir William Hague), and practically every topic is covered.
Lahore has just been named by UNESCO as a City of Literature, almost as if perfectly timing it as an antidote to the fiasco at the Karachi Biennale. This will help shape an entire generation of writers that will bring forth beautiful content in the field of literature. AdAsia is poised to do the same for content creators and communication leaders: it will be the much-needed steroid shot for the industry to bring it up to par with global advertising.
Ali Rez is Regional ECD for Middle East & Pakistan, Impact BBDO. He is an 11-time Cannes Lions winner.