This was my first visit to Pakistan. As head of a global organisation, thenetworkone, I felt a little embarrassed about that, but less embarrassed when we learned that my fellow speakers Sir Martin Sorrell, former head of WPP, the world’s largest communications agency holding company and Richard Quest, CNN’s ‘foremost international business correspondent’, were paying their first visits also.
I cannot speak for Sir Martin (who flew in overnight and did not stay at the Congress beyond the time needed for his own presentation). But I, for one, was hugely impressed and heartened by the warmth of the welcome I received throughout my three-day stay and by the unique mix of energy, optimism and thoughtful analysis I found among the Pakistan business community, at all levels.
The AdAsia Congress, which rotates between different Asian cities every two years, was returning to Pakistan – and to Lahore – for the first time in 30 years. And to the same venue: the Alhamra Arts Council, whose tradition and atmosphere more than compensated for any lack of cutting edge technology and sophistication.
Naturally, it was an emotional occasion. The great and the good of the Pakistan advertising community, who had attended the previous event three decades ago, offered warm greetings and personal reminiscences. A special word here for Sarmad Ali, who somehow managed to combine a crucial ceremonial role with an extraordinarily generous attention to detail in terms of every speaker’s and delegate’s scheduling and general welfare.
Evenings combined history and culture. Celebrations of Sufi mysticism, centuries-old poets, culture, history, the gastronomic exuberance of ‘Food Street,’ some deafening rock bands and enthusiastic dancing ensured we were never at a loss for entertainment. It was also a salutary reminder (for a westerner like me) that advertising parties don’t need alcohol to be fun. Arguably, they are more fun without it – and produce better memories! But of course, we were not only here to party. We were also here to learn and to share experiences. And to catch the cultural current, the zeitgeist if you like, of an industry and a country which are changing very rapidly.
So here is my personal take.
Across the world, businesses and societies are moving from a focus on shareholder value (the ability of a company to deliver financial returns to its investors) to stakeholder value: the ability of a company, or any organisation to enhance the interests and well-being of everyone it touches. Investors, yes of course but also employees, customers, people involved in supply chains and the broad mix of people who are touched by the company’s activities directly through its products and services, and indirectly through its influence on the environment, national and local economies, fair trade, gender equality and community responsibility. Companies (and corporate brands)used to seek respect. Now they need to seek and demonstrate emotional empathy across a much broader business and social ecosystem.
In my own presentation, I looked at how traditional advertising holding companies, still run as exclusive ‘walled gardens’ by men in suits with their eyes on Wall Street, are losing ground. The two largest, WPP and Publicis, have seen their stock prices fall by more than 30% at a time when the Dow Jones index has risen by a similar amount.
I also looked at how successful tech companies like IBM, Accenture and Alibaba (increasingly often run by female CEOs) use their public appearances to admit vulnerabilities and challenges, talk about overcoming challenges (not dismissing them) and working as partners with other companies. I showed a video from this year’s Vivatech conference where IBM’s CEO, Ginny Rometty, used her platform to announce partnerships with other companies – helping disadvantaged children to learn how to code and government agencies and NGOs to combat people trafficking.
We heard none of this in Sir Martin Sorrell’s interview with Richard Quest. At one point, Mr Quest accused Sir Martin of ‘sneering’ at his competitors and at the new management team which had replaced him at WPP. Sir Martin denied this, but it was an unedifying moment.
By contrast, we also heard many instances of a much more positive mindset, addressing the need for changing social attitudes.
Atifa Silk, Brand Director, of Campaign Asia, led an inspirational panel called ‘Woman Power’, featuring successful businesswomen like Dr Zeelaf Munir, MD & CEO of English Biscuit Manufacturers and others. This was great: plenty of research has identified the importance of successful female role models in encouraging young women to enter business and succeed.
Ali Rez, Regional ECD, Impact BBDO Middle East & Pakistan, presented a fascinating and moving talk on ‘Driving Social Change Through Advertising’ – supported by examples of his agency’s award-winning creative work.
And in a memorable climax, AdAsia welcomed Dr Arif Alvi, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Presidents of nation states are busy people and we would all have forgiven him if he had talked in the general terms that statesmen often use at conferences. But he did not. He gave a sincere, thoughtful, engaging and heartfelt address to all the assembled delegates on the responsibility that we have, as communicators, to use our talents for the good of society.
But perhaps, of all the speeches – two or three moments stand out for me.
I have to mention Ed Pank of WARC – already struggling with sound and technical issues which were not of his making, when his talk was unceremoniously interrupted by the news that the President was on his way. The audience rose as one to Ed’s defence: they wanted to hear the rest of his speech! And Dr Arif Alvi rose to the occasion, and at whatever cost to the timing plan, Ed was brought back after the President had left and completed his presentation to rapturous applause. Democracy in action indeed – and saying much about the spirit of Pakistani people.
The other is a more professional note, about two strong presentations on similar themes – both related to sports marketing.
The first was from Vange Kourentis, former Commercial Director and Head of Marketing for Manchester United. Vange talked about how the financial investment of Sky TV into the English Premier League had transformed the sport. Not just by attracting the world’s top players but also by transforming the standard of TV broadcasting through a huge increase in the number and quality of cameras and (correspondingly) camera angles.
Today, we live the moment and every player’s experience is up close and personal. This is why it is so compelling and so financially lucrative. An interesting perspective on the relationship between business and sport. But at the end of the day really,just another business presentation, coldly delivered and without emotion.
The second was from Wasim Khan, MBE and CEO of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Mr Khan talked first about disappointment: the sadness of a cricket-loving nation at the relocation of Pakistan’s international tournaments and matches to Dubai because of the widely publicised security issues. Then he talked with pride, about the country now being ready to bring the matches back to Pakistan. We were with him all the way. Most importantly, he talked about how the sport had taken the opportunity to launch a brand new PSL (Pakistan Super League) with teams selected from all regions of the country to make sure the new tournament would be driven by a spirit of social inclusion and not simply the opportunity to maximise someone’s financial gain.
This, for me, is my enduring image of AdAsia and my first visit to Lahore and to Pakistan.
A society and an industry (modernising to be sure) but in a way that contributes to the building a positive, inclusive social ecosystem, driving change in a positive, pragmatic and sustainable way.
Lahore Lahore aye!.
Julian Boulding is President, thenetworkone. email@example.com