Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Much Done, More Still to Do

Published in Mar-Apr 2021

Transformations in the marketing communications industry require further institutional strengthening of the profession.

Advertising is quite a unifier. The process brings together industries and service providers by transcending sectors, locations, scales and customers. Be it textiles, toothpaste or telecommunication, whether located in SITE, Karachi or in Kot Lakhpat, Lahore, be it a modest-sized unit or a huge multinational, whether focusing on the middle class mass or the high-spending elite, advertising converges these diverse and disparate features into the single, broadly shared channel of commercial communication aimed at the generic species of consumers.

As a fairly accurate (though not necessarily a comprehensive) mirror, advertising is also one of the barometers of a country’s economy. The qualification of ‘one of’ instead of ‘the principal’ is pertinent just as the Pakistan Stock Exchange may make news every day with its hyper nervous up-and-down swings. But in real terms the Exchange represents a very small number of citizens – and is only a limited reflector of Pakistan’s total economy. Yet, just as the economy can have a pervasive impact on virtually all aspects of a country, advertising in Pakistan can be seen and heard across the land and in all media. There may be wheat and flour shortages, or the price of sugar may go from sweet to sour. However, we can be sure that the advertising of biscuits and chocolates increases the media’s cholesterol every day.

Despite sharing the need for commercial communication, it took advertisers in Pakistan over 50 years to come together on a sustained organisational basis in order to form and operate their own representative body.

From 1979 to 1996: The 25th anniversary in 2021 of the formation of the Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS) should first be viewed briefly from a point in time 17 years earlier. About 42 years ago, at the First Pakistan Advertising Congress held in Karachi on September 3-5, 1979 (of which this writer was the Secretary-General), one of the major study groups we convened was on the role of advertisers. What made this significant was the fact that the Congress was the first time ever when all six sectors relevant to the advertising process came together to share experiences and discuss their respective viewpoints on issues.

The six sectors were/are: advertisers, advertising agencies, media, production services, consumers/citizens and the government. Instead of focusing only on boosting brands, the Congress theme sought to stress the sector’s linkage with hard reality through the words: Advertising and National Development – Challenge and Response. To rub in the message, lunch on the first day was limited to “daal and roti” – at a four-star hotel!

The Study Group on Advertisers comprised eminent leaders of corporations, marketing, advertising agencies and academia. Chairman, Mr Zawwar Hassan, GM Public Affairs, PIA. Alternate Chairman, Mr Khawar Masood Butt, GM, EBM. Members (1) Mr Mahmood Ali, Past President, Marketing Association of Pakistan & Director, Beecham (Pakistan). (2) Mr. A. Shahbaz Khan, GM, Pakistan Burmah Shell. (3) Mr. Wajid Mirza, MD, DJ Keymer & Co. (Pakistan). (4) Mr. A.G. Saeed, Assistant Professor, Institute of Business Administration.

The frame of reference for the Study Group on Advertisers in 1979 was:

Quotation Begins: “I. In the specific economic conditions of today, do advertisers demonstrate adequate commitment to social responsibility? (a) For example, there is a point at which competitiveness between different brands of the same product becomes wasteful duplication.(b) Further, the headlong rush of certain entrepreneurs into ‘boom’ fields, such as the importation of milk powder, creates a disproportionately large and bewildering range of brands. (c) In the peculiar mixed economy of Pakistan, are advertisers in their capacity as developers of industrial, agricultural and commercial projects taking a positive approach to investment?

II. In conducting advertising campaigns, do advertisers ensure accuracy of information conveyed and claims made on behalf of products and services?

The general view is that advertisers in Pakistan are prone to exaggerate in varying degrees so that the affect is to mislead the consumers.

Problems and Recommendations Made in 1979:

(1). In view of the sizeable annual investment in advertising in Pakistan by advertisers i.e. about Rs 20 crores or about $20 million. (Writer’s note: In 2021: while ad expenditure has substantially increased, the rupee-dollar value has sharply declined against the rupee; i.e. total ad spend is currently estimated at about Rs 60 billion or about $380 million). Do advertisers exercise proportionate influence on the terms and conditions of media advertising in terms of cost of media usage, availability or lack of research data, etc.

(2) Unlike other Asian countries, there has been no systematic coordination between advertisers in Pakistan. It was only in November 1978 that about 40 advertisers agreed to establish the Pakistan Society of Advertisers Limited. (Writer’s note: This initiative sadly declined over the next 17 years).

(3) Advertisers should refrain from entering the professional area of advertising agencies. In recent years, a growing number of advertisers have established their own advertising units to create and place advertising in media or have set up ostensibly independent advertising agencies which are, in fact, controlled by advertisers. By doing so, advertisers threaten the employment and security of hundreds of full-time, full-fledged advertising practitioners and dozens of advertising entrepreneurs who have devoted their only asset to this profession – their creative talent. In a national perspective, such encroachment by advertisers gives them an unhealthy control of advertising and media.

Need for a Resolution to Discourage Such Practices:

(4) Even some major advertisers have not recruited, trained and specialised executives/managers to shape and supervise their advertising policy. By ignoring this vital aspect of their operations, advertisers have themselves been responsible for inaccurate, improper and ineffective advertising. This has often placed an unfair burden on advertising agencies. On the positive side, certain advertisers have played a decisive and dynamic role in encouraging advertising not only to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful,” but also inventive and memorable.

(5) Are advertisers sufficiently aware of their moral and financial obligations to advertising agencies in respect of prompt settlement of liabilities?” Quote Ends.

If we use the preceding text from 1979 to assess the institutional development of advertisers since the formation of PAS in 1996, substantive, purposeful progress has been achieved through this collective forum. And within their respective organisations, advertisers have enhanced professional capabilities in marketing and advertising — while some important issues linger and new problems have emerged. But, the good news first.

The informative and well-designed PAS website conveys the eight principal areas of PAS’s activity; the role of advocacy, self-regulation, dispute resolution and arbitration, promoting marketing excellence, conducting research, creating knowledge enrichment hubs, facilitating the convening of Members’ Forums on germane issues and a Help Desk. The fact that PAS introduced a well-prepared Annual PAS Excellence Awards programme does not find prominent space on the homepage though it deserves to be there. There are details available in other sections.

An Executive Council elected every two years, comprising several senior corporate leaders and professional specialists also reflects a reasonable (though not ideal!) gender balance. In addition, there are working groups on subjects ranging from relations with media to relations with government. The credibility of PAS is strengthened by its claim to represent 85% of regular advertisers in the country.

New Distortions: Operated on a day-to-day basis by a competent, dedicated, full-time team, PAS also faces (but does not necessarily address) the new issues of dominance and asymmetry as, for instance in the concentration of a large part of advertising placements into one or two major media buying houses. Other issues include the failure of a dominant TV audience rating system to satisfy citizens’ expectations and preferences for media content even though it meets technical criteria and is accepted by advertisers. Or the growing intrusion of advertising content into programming content. Imbalances of any kind are undesirable. There are also disturbing reports about corrupt practices and unethical transactions, both by individuals and by organisations. Clearly, far more scrutiny and corrective actions are required.

Nevertheless, in the absence of a long overdue, officially legislated multi-sectoral Advertising Council, PAS enables coherent interaction with other representative forums such as the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Pakistan Broadcasters’ Association. Although it was forums initiated by advertising agencies (the most vulnerable segment compared to advertisers and media) – such as the Pakistan Advertising Association in the late seventies, eighties, early nineties – that set the pace for the institutional development of representative bodies in the total advertising sector, today in 2021, the role of the Advertising Agencies’ Association of Pakistan has reportedly weakened. Perhaps this is one of the fallouts from the radical shifts that have occurred in the advertising sector as a whole.

Even as change intensifies across the world and in Pakistan, and basic alterations take place through new technologies, new convergences, the changed role of advertising agencies, the ascent of digital media and the decline of print media, PAS appears to advance, with capability and commitment, the capacity of its members to meet the new challenges.

Javed Jabbar is an author, former Senator and Federal Minister, and the recipient of the first Lifetime Achievement Award by the Pakistan Advertisers’ Society in 2017.