AURORA: What motivated you to establish Ishtehari in 2011?
UMAIR KAZI: I am not classically trained in advertising. I am an Econ-Pol major from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). I graduated in 2009, a time when a worldwide recession was going on, although compared to today it seems like child’s play. I was not exactly the sharpest kid at college and I did not have a stellar GPA that would get me automatically into a bank or a multinational. It was only in the last quarter of my time at LUMS that I took a course in marketing and it was probably the only course where I had perfect attendance. After that, I interned with a couple of big banks and I found it insanely boring. I then decided to apply to five or six agencies and the only person to respond was Shoaib Qureshy (Bulls Eye DDB). He asked me to come and have a chat. I went there without any expectations, but it was pretty cool. I found Shoaib really interesting and very upright. He offered me a job and asked me what I wanted to do; I replied I had no idea, but maybe he could put me in client servicing. Within a couple of months, we all realised that I was not a client services person and that I was bringing more value to the creative and strategic process and I was made strategic planner. I spent almost two years with Shoaib and have very fond memories of him.
A: Was that when you decided to set up your own agency?
UK: Yes. I was almost 25 and about to get married and I thought this was the time to take the risks I needed to, and if it didn’t work out, I could find something else to do. Nevertheless, it was a difficult decision to sell to my family and friends who thought I should gain five or six more years’ further experience. The issue was that I would pitch these crazy ideas and if they were accepted by the time they reached the execution phase, they were mere shells of the original idea. Every time this would happen I thought it was a cop out and if I were the decision maker I would not take on a project if the client didn’t do it our way. I had these high ideals and when I quit I thought I was going to give Shoaib a run for his money. So we started Ishtehari and my partner Iftikhar Alam joined a little later as creative director.
A: Why did you name your agency Ishtehari?
UK: Most people think Ishtehari has something to do with ishtehars – as in advertisements, but it has more to do with ishtehari mujrim – as in runaways, rebels, renegades – it reflected our mindset.
A: Did you have any clients when you started?
UK: We did. Iftikhar is very resourceful and our first client was Dawlance.
A: Pretty good as a first client.
UK: Yes. Of course, the projects we did initially weren’t exactly the most important ones, but it got us a cheque. We worked from home and later we moved to a very small office.
A: You have been in the business for almost 10 years. At what point did you realise the risk you took had paid off?
UK: We are still small; there are no two ways about it. What I like about us is that we have managed to reach the 10 year mark without relying on outside investment or capital. We had to earn our money and plough it back into the agency. To be honest, I still have fears and worries; it’s not as if I can take a year off and the agency will run itself. We still don’t feel like we can chill; it continues to be an uphill task.
A: How do you position your agency?
UK: We started in the glory days of activation, so most of our initial projects were in that area. Today, we are increasingly positioning ourselves as an ideas agency and as a result many clients call upon us to pitch as a wild card that may present a lateral solution to a problem.
A: How does that work?
UK: When we go in with an idea, our spiel is that it can be executed in any form and format. Our pitch is that in the age of specialisation, clients need people like us who are able to present a concept and even if we execute it only in parts (for example: they handle the TVC, we do the digital and the activation goes to someone else) that is fine by us – we just want the idea placed.
A: By giving up doing most of the execution, aren’t you in danger of losing ownership of your idea and giving it to another agency?
UK: It has happened. No one in Pakistan wants to pay for an idea, so all the costs are built into the execution. When we go in with a production quote, the client says it is twice as much as what they have been quoted by someone else and they can’t justify this to procurement. The point is that our quote includes a fee for the idea and the time we spent shaping it into a workable concept. In such cases, they ask us to charge them for the idea and we are fine with that. At times this is frustrating but I have learnt to live with it; however, it is very much the nuclear option. At one point we were doing some TV production work for a client and they later appointed an agency of record (AOR). However, they continued to use us as a wild card. They would send us a parallel brief to test the waters. The client eventually selected two of our concepts and one of the AORs. The problem was that the AOR was legally hired by them, so in the end they paid us for the concept and asked us to manage the creative stewardship to ensure our vision was executed. We have been operating on this model until now and only recently I am beginning to think that perhaps we need to specialise more, not because of a lack of opportunities, but rather because I think it will bring scalability to the business.
A: How would this differ from what you are doing now?
UK: Rather than present ourselves as an overall creative or digital agency, we would provide digital and social solutions for app based clients or start-ups or for a particular vertical.
A: What are advantages of doing this?
UK: It will compound our learnings over time. All clients have a similar business value for us in terms of money, but the issue is that they are completely different businesses and we are not necessarily able to replicate those learnings with other clients. What I would like to do – and this is still something I am thinking about – is to pick a single client focus. However, the disadvantage is that focusing only on one type of client means having to say no to all other types of clients and this is not part of any advertising agency’s rule book, especially in Pakistan and especially not for people like me who say yes to everything, even if it’s a small project where we will not be earning much; we will still do it, hoping the client keeps us in mind for a bigger project.
A: At the moment are the solutions you provide mostly digital?
UK: They are. We started off with activation, mainly because all big brands have AORs and activations don’t necessarily fall within their scope. In the first couple of years, 50% of our business came from activation; later, we were able to progress to being the creative agency and we did a few experiments in digital, but it was only in the past year that we are concentrating on digital.
A: A lot of premium is put on digital, but isn’t it a reality that most consumers of
mass products are not really into digital?
UK: A lot of brands do digital for vanity purposes; it is ticking a box. Brands may acquire the bulk of their sales elsewhere but they want a digital presence. Of course, they eventually want some sort of conversion; they want to know at what point their digital efforts convert into sales. This is becoming a difficult conversation because it is a tough nut to crack and we are working on that.
A: Isn’t digital supposed to be the most measurable of all media channels?
UK: It is difficult when the product is sold mainly in-store; it becomes difficult to determine how many people who saw an ad online actually included the brand in their monthly grocery basket.
A: Since you founded Ishtehari, what changes have you experienced in terms of how advertising is approached?
UK: It is difficult for me to separate this from my own evolution in the business because I had no experience before; so I don’t have a control group. Until recently, had someone asked me how to make a TVC, I would say it should be like a story. There should be curiosity, a point of decision, a conversion (to the brand) – and it all should make sense. Yet, when it comes to digital… I recently attended a training session on Facebook and the speaker said you need to get your logo out there in the first three frames – and I have been arguing with clients against placing their logo in the first frame, because consumers get turned off. But Facebook has data that shows that you have to establish your brand from the first frame. So a lot of things are changing and we have to take data at its face value; there are no two ways about it.
A: Has Covid-19 had a positive impact on digital platforms across the board?
UK: I would say so. Last week, we analysed the impact of Covid-19 on Ishtehari and, as we stand today (it is a very volatile thing), it was pretty good for us. We picked up a lot of digital work, including for Facebook and a couple of Unilever projects. It seems that brands, while the world is not able to meet face to face, are turning their attention to digital channels, even if they can’t make immediate ROI sense of them, and this has created opportunities for us as well as other agencies. Agencies are expanding their digital teams so that even though they may not rely on these efforts for one-on-one sales, they are building up that asset and if one day they have to make the shift, they can do so.
A: Apart from increased business in digital, what other impact has Covid-19 had on Ishtehari?
UK: Internally the best thing to have come out of it has been working from home (WFH). My goal has always been to have the ability to go and chill on an island in Thailand, but to realise that ambition I need to be able to work remotely. I want to create a system that runs on its own. Right now a lot of clients call me rather than Ishtehari and I don’t want it to be like that.
A: Working remotely is a way of solving this conundrum?
UK: I hire mostly young people and although they are said to have all the issues we keep reading about – they are fickle; their expiry date is six months and they move to another job – the data suggests they like flexibility and are goal rather than time driven. My experience is that if you give them a clear set of goals, they usually achieve them. Since Covid-19, I have realised that although going to the office can be fun; you dress up and it fulfils the human need for physical interaction, by and large, we can probably do away with a physical space, added to which there are a bunch of tools we can use online. The struggle I am facing is that nobody wants to go fully remote. The team still wants an office where they can go from time to time. In an ideal world, I would probably give them the money I save on rent and when they feel the need for a physical space they can rent a co-working space. I would give them the money I save on electricity to buy a UPS so they can deal with power outages.
A: That seems a good plan.
UK: It remains to be seen whether it’s workable but I am very gung-ho about making it work, because I want to be able to detach myself physically from my work and for this to happen, I need my team to do that as well.
A: This doesn’t solve the problem about clients wanting to deal directly with you rather than Ishtehari.
UK: This is where specialisation comes in. If I decide to specialise and out of our existing client portfolio, I choose to work for app based clients only (they are fun, they allow me to experiment and they have more potential in the future because they are bound to grow), the agency’s experience will be compounded and I will then be able to implement best practices, because my in-house expertise will increase. So, when I hire new people I can ask them to rigorously apply the learnings we have acquired so they don’t make the same mistakes. The net result will be that the agency will be based on learnings and procedures rather than individual rock stars, be they members of the team or myself. Ishtehari will be known as the best in the game and clients will be more likely to trust our brand rather than thinking about calling Umair. In this way, the entire team can come and go, myself included. Nobody is indispensable but the learnings remain. I have been thinking about this for about a year, I just need to have the balls to say no to a client that is outside of my specialisation range.
Umair Kazi was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: email@example.com