Hameed Haroon, CEO, The Dawn Media Group, reflects on the achievements of PAS and the critical areas that still need addressing.
MARIAM ALI BAIG: From a print media owner perspective, what is your assessment on what PAS has achieved in the last 25 years?
HAMEED HAROON: From the perspective of a print media publisher – the varied visions of PAS are distinct, depending upon which media and its relations with PAS you look at. PAS started as an elite club of advertisers focused mainly on TV. This focus has now been enlarged to somewhat include digital media. However, this does not mean that the various advertising streams, as prioritised by PAS, correspond to the realities as they exist in Pakistan’s advertising sector – it simply means that PAS has unwittingly promoted uneven development in its relations with a very large print medium, thus failing in certain central things and keeping the structure of other advertising streams intact and progressing.
MAB: Failure in what sense?
HH: It is difficult to achieve advertising transformation based only on a collection of upper-crust clients and without the participation of the ad agencies, the media buying houses and the media itself. The ground for a grand tripartite dialogue has never been adequately explored by PAS and this is the fundamental reason why PAS has not been able to generate an industry-wide momentum in transformation. PAS’s growth has taken place against a backdrop of ad agencies plummeting in terms of their creativity, marketing skills and their ability to discern accurate media choices. This blurs the picture when one analyses PAS’s achievements. What is remarkable is how much PAS has been able to accomplish despite the odds. The present dispensation of PAS has been far more successful and inclusive than its earlier vision as an elite multinational club. But PAS continues to be helpless, because the transformation of the industry cannot be undertaken by one institution alone. There are so many conflicting vested interests pulling in different directions. Ad agencies in terms of their original goals and perspectives on creativity, marketing and integrity, are virtually in collapse.
MAB: Can you define what you call a collapse?
HH: I define a collapse as something which is inherently unstable and demonstrates hugely variant patterns of advertising expenditure, thus acting as an obstacle to advertising stability and growth. PAS represents the advertisers, but it cannot be viewed as a sole proxy for advertising behaviour since the government is the largest advertiser in the country – and the government is not in PAS. The government has purposely excluded PAS from their dialogue on media and advertising and keeps, on an ad hoc basis, making up random rules to restructure advertising through centralised schemes that have damaged the functioning of the advertising sector. Under these circumstances, how much can you expect PAS to accomplish in terms of stabilising the advertising sector and wildly fluctuating advertising expenditures? Had all other cross media bodies worked with the government with a measure of integrity and vision, the success of advertising communications would have been considerably different from what it is today. The very least one can say about PAS is that it has, during this period of turmoil, kept all the right flags flying.
MAB: Could you elaborate on what you mean by hugely variant patterns of advertising expenditure?
HH: The government accounts for a major component of the overall ad expenditure. Today, it is an even larger component than it was two years ago, because of the prolonged recession in the private sector. In Pakistan, whenever a deep recession sets in, the bigger advertising decision making blocks are the first to stumble. This constant upping and downing prevents any kind of sustained media and advertising agency development – and which is necessary for the sustenance of such large advertising large blocks. Many would believe that such blocks are targeted by the government in an effort to more effectively control the tone and texture of the media and its major sources of revenue, which guarantee a measure of editorial independence. These wildly fluctuating advertising expenditures prevent industry associations from adhering to rules and ethics, creating a vortex and a downward plunge which undermines the stable growth of advertising. What the government has done with the advertising sector in terms of repositioning commission structures and uprooting the existing pattern of advertising recoveries are not minor policy measures and have resulted in a collapse of large sub-sectors within advertising. To be fair, the government is not the only unstable advertiser that has contributed to this vortex. Vast sections of advertisers in the private sector have accentuated this instability. To make matters worse, massive bankruptcies have resulted from the non bona fide behaviour of some such clients. Pakistan must be one of the few countries in the world where you can advertise to the tune of dozens of millions of rupees without a bank guarantee and without paying a portion of the initial outlay to the agencies in advance.
MAB: You mentioned that despite this PAS has all the right flags flying; these are?
HH: Look at how negatively advertising creativity has been viewed by other industry bodies. This is clear with respect to how advertising volume takes strong precedence over creativity in advertising awards... How the role of creative personnel is largely overlooked by inter-industry professionals compared to the accolades that are heaped on their bosses. PAS is the only organisation that has worked to interact with advertising professionals in different organisations at junior and mid-levels. The idea of an industry wide organisation that works intimately with the creativity of experts and workers is a goal which has been lost in other industry bodies – but not on PAS, and this is why I say PAS has many of the right flags flying already.
MAB: Which are the major areas in need of change within the advertising sector?
HH: Any advertising industry needs a minimal level of regulation to govern ethics and behaviour within accepted industry norms. It also needs large areas of non-regulation designed to encourage growth, when coupled with the minimum dose of ethics; the overregulation of advertising goes hand in glove with the overregulation of media. Some of it has to do with the envy with which advertising professionals in the information ministries across the country view the near abysmal performance of their own advertising budgets. This envy is reflected in an entirely negative desire by political decision makers to strengthen an ongoing spurt of taxes on advertising.
MAB: How does the government’s attitude to the media impact the performance of PAS?
HH: The bottom-line for PAS is to protect the momentum of rational and ethically sound advertising expenditures. PAS needs to ensure that its members are not taken for a ride by any of the other actors within the industry. There are thus strong elements of contradiction between advertiser efficacy and media independence on one hand and government intervention in this sector on the other. PAS seeks to improve advertising standards, but it can hardly take upon itself the task of restructuring the industry. It is not clear to me that anyone can save the ad agencies in the long run. The malpractices that ensue upon a supposedly slim margin of commissions and production costs are only part of the story; dysfunctional behaviour from advertisers has had an adverse impact on the development of an ethical and relatively autonomous advertising sector.
MAB: Yet, it is difficult to deny that good advertising has emerged from the agencies, if not enough of it.
HH: Where have they progressed? Compare it to what they produced 30 years ago. Today, there is a lot of glitter and gloss, most of which is imported from foreign ads. The creative giants of Pakistani advertising history existed several decades ago and not today. Give younger professionals a chance – both on the agency and advertiser side – and you will be able to witness an explosion in advertising creativity in Pakistan once again. There is a room for a proactive policy here from PAS.
MAB: Where can solutions be found?
HH: The rules and procedures governing advertising have to be transformed. Unless society, government and the electorate work together in a democracy to transform themselves, there is not going to be the societal change the advertising sector requires. There is a need for heavy doses of education, awareness, freedom of expression and of association. In a society like Pakistan that is in chaotic transformation and in which there is no legal basis for the dissemination of information in an independent form; in which there is no consistent linear development of institutions in any sector… under those circumstances, the shortcomings the advertising sector faces are inevitable. In that context, PAS over the last several years has done well. PAS needs to understand the advertising sector more accurately and dispassionately question the strengths and weaknesses of different media. PAS needs to evolve a multipronged strategy to combat a total collapse of the advertising sector. Is PAS up to it? I think so.
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