If only ‘ad agencies’ in Pakistan were a little more action-oriented, you would see some of us burning tyres on the road, shouting slogans of inqilab (change) on D-chowk. Our protest pickets would feature logos of media behemoths, such as GroupM, consultants like McKinsey and Accenture, production houses like SeeMe and Stimulus, tech heavyweights like VentureDive and Creative Chaos, OOH stalwarts like RedTape and Adsells, platforms like YouTube and Meta and a consortium of content creators big and small. Being muqamis (natives) of this business, we would be up in arms against these intruding entities that are stepping up on our turf and shaving off slices of our pie.
To whomever would give us the time of day, we would present a litany of instances where these companies have undercut our relationships with brands, something we hold very, very sacred. We feel very much like that cancelled guy from the “friendship is over” meme. We were supposed to be the gatekeepers, curatorial and advisory specialists to our clients in our carefully crafted marketing plans. As for the others? We call them ‘vendors’, which is pretty much a gaali (insult) in our world. How dare these newbies find the cajones to become ‘direct’ with clients. OUR clients?!
Let me play the riot police in this train of thought.
First and foremost, we have to change from this fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Sounds like motivational guru spiel, but in this case, it is the cold hard truth. Industries change in line with customer expectations all the time. There is a reason why Mad Men is an entertainment piece, not a how-to guide. The ‘good ol days’ of advertising, as in good ol’ days of pretty much everything, are long gone. We need to accept that we will have to pivot and redefine our expectations. Caution, it is easier said than done. At Ishtehari we have pivoted our agency business three times in the last decade, and every time it was a tough, humbling experience.
So, if and when we come to terms with this fact, it is a matter of finding the right value proposition to retrofit our relationship with our clients. My hypothesis is that the best route to take for ‘creative’ agencies (as opposed to specialist hot shops) is to cement our reputation as external ideation partners for the brands we service. Going one step further, we should pick a focus area and stick to it.
Competition from Other Verticals: This is the age of collaboration and the first realisation agencies need to come to terms with is that the marketing world is not a zero-sum game. Neither the pie, nor the turf, is finite to begin with. This means that while you may feel threatened by a big tech company or a consulting firm becoming a competitor for your services, it is not necessarily a death sentence. The reason why brands induct these specialist businesses into their workflows is because they bring a certain value to the equation. In our experience, if you approach the situation with a degree of trust and an eagerness to learn what they bring to the table, you can learn not only to coexist, but to thrive.
For one of our flagship clients, Munchies, we were lucky to have a firm like VentureDive bring deep tech knowhow into the brand’s marketing process. At the other end, we were lucky to have front row seats at AltAnalytica’s precision marketing and optimisation experiments. Had we looked at them as competitors rather than collaborators, we would not have been able to bring the Munchies brand to the stage it is right now. In the case of Cleanipedia (a Unilever content platform we launched in Pakistan), close coordination with Mindshare’s programmatic chops and Shortlyst (a shoppable tech platform), helped us achieve a level of growth for the brand that would not have been possible had we tried to take everything under our wing. For Abbott Nutrition, our campaigns would have been a shot in the dark were it not for the research support by Kantar.
Resist the urge to consider yourself the gatekeeper for everything marketing. Stop thinking of other vertical service providers as mere vendors.
Pressure from Upstarts: The barriers to entry for any specialist marketing service are becoming lower and lower as internet-based education (think Skillshare or Airschool) coupled with experience generating platforms like Upwork are leveraged by a pool of highly-talented upstarts. There will always be a ‘3-laptop agency’ that will do what you are doing faster and cheaper. Sure, they won’t have your credentials, but they won’t have any industry baggage either.
Don’t fall into the ego trap. Given the right opportunity, these upstarts will find a way to counterbalance your client relationship cache and get that one chance to prove themselves, after which they will climb up the ladder until they reach your level of complacency. We have done that ourselves, so we know it is definitely possible and more than likely.
Lest you decide to bring a gun to a knife fight and try to nip this in the bud, here is another solution. Think of other marketing service providers as collaborators, not competitors. The idea is to absorb this talent within your organisation and give them enough autonomy to grow from the inside.
Pressure from Internal Teams: If you look at brands operating in the tech space, you may feel threatened by the brand’s internal creative team. Because these start-up-like setups move at a pace usually faster than that of agencies, they build in-house capabilities to tackle stuff as it comes along. This means that there is a parallel strategy, design, copy, and placement function sitting inside the client’s premises that will mirror the resources that you have put on the account.
Once again, the trick is not to be threatened. Internal teams are not your competition, because you bring to the table something they structurally cannot; an outsider’s lens. Saying no to a boss is tougher than saying no to a client. Therefore, agencies can always showcase their value to their clients by virtue of lateral thinking that will be difficult to replicate in-house.
That said, don’t treat these internal marketing setups as lesser mortals either. They often have a better pulse on the brand’s ethos and community than you will, even if you have dedicated teams assigned to the account. The goal is to work in tandem; you bring the ‘that’s-not-how-we-typically-do-things-around-here’ thinking and then fine-tune the thought process to integrate it with their ground realities. We have seen this at play for the work we have done for Changan and I am happy to report first hand that it works beautifully.
In a nutshell, agencies need to stop crying wolf every time some other entity comes in to the RFP process. Organising into bodies and unions will not work either. In this world, you either deliver value or you are thrown out. Your legacy, I am afraid, is not going to save your skin. Instead of looking at every other person (tech partners, production studios, media houses) in that meeting as a trespasser, learn to look at them as people who can contribute to the process. As long as your role is well-defined as the ideation partner and the brand respects you for delivering on that promise, I think you will be just fine. Instead of defiantly defending your space on the turf, move out of your comfort zone to expand on the larger marketing landscape.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.