Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Everyone Wants to Be a Creative

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Sheikh Adil Hussain retraces the steps that have led to the current ‘creative free for all’ in advertising.

Just as I was sitting down to write this article, I came across The Elephant in the Room by Sami Qahar published in the Sep-Oct 2021 Aurora edition. As I tried to navigate my way around the huge metaphorical elephant, I couldn’t help but think that the article actually cut right to the issue at hand. The very human feeling of ‘insecurity’, and the fact that there were no clear lines defining the boundaries for myriad different players who have sprung up in the business of conceptualising, making and airing TV ads. 

Yes, there was a time when advertising agencies did everything in-house. Conceptualising, creating mock-ups, printing, production and media buying, the whole shebang. This was already an evolution from the time when clients used to carry out most of these functions in-house, including consumer research, creative and media buying. 

Slowly but surely, things started to change and the era of specialists arrived. Media buying was the first to go, with the advent of media houses that specialised in buying and airing space/inventory in bulk for their clients – at usually lower than the prevalent rates offered by the TV channels, radio stations and outdoor sites. This was followed by the arrival of the production houses, specialising in the actual making of concepts. The creative agencies were now left with the sole function of being communication designers and strategists. This space, too, was slightly curtailed when digital reared its head, and after spending enough time not being able to understand it, we spun that off as well to specialist digital agencies.  This new ecosystem carried on for a while in relative harmony, but then it started itching again. It is difficult to determine where and when the proverbial itch started, but global trends provide some clues. All of a sudden, media houses had creative, digital and activation departments springing up with fancy names, and ideas related to brand communication started finding their way in their annual media strategy/review presentations. This was mimicking the various WPP agencies across the world, where Sir Martin Sorrel’s consolidation revolution was taking hold. This led to the rise of the ‘creative turf wars’ in Pakistan and elsewhere. 

Traditionally, the pairing consisting of the lead creative and the assistant brand manager formed a partnership and were deemed to be the custodians of the brand’s communication. The pair were expected to stay together for years, both progressing up their respective corporate ladders, resulting in consistent (and hopefully) effective application/evolution of the communication. 

However, this relationship started to come under pressure when the changes mentioned above started to take effect, as evidenced by the sporadic cold calls from the media agency, a random producer or a digital agency reaching out with “I have an idea that will be great for your brand”. Usually, these overtures were shut down almost immediately, as the well-trained assistant brand managers had already invested some years in a relationship with their lead creatives and were extremely reluctant to go another way. There was absolutely no incentive to look elsewhere; the current solution was yielding ‘success’ and the risk appetite was low due to the involvement of regional and global teams and strong internal benchmarks. Brand teams found comfort in creative partners who had invested the required time in understanding the brand and the various stakeholders associated with it, both domestic and foreign. One-off ideas from unknown or non-traditional sources were not welcome. 

All this changed, when along with everyone else wanting to be a creative, entered the notion of short-termism. Almost overnight, most multinational structures moved to consolidate their processes centrally, resulting in most of the decision-making being taken out of the hands of the local teams. Now, almost all campaigns started coming in the shape of complete knockdown kits that simply required to be assembled (adapted) to local tastes. 

The result was that creativity went out the window. Most of the great talent on the client side had moved to other pastures, mostly abroad and for those who remained, their tenures became shorter and shorter. As a result, ‘survival mode’ kicked in. If you wanted to make your mark, you had to pull off something big and visible in terms of a campaign. Both creatives and brand custodians wanted big, easy and flashy wins. Suddenly no one had the time to invest in understanding the brand and spending time with the target audience; it was neither required nor celebrated, so why would you? Suddenly one-off ideas from unknown sources and cold calls started to appear more palatable. 

At about the same time, local companies started flexing their muscles and coming up with big production feats. Tarang was at the vanguard of this movement with its grand and ostentatious sets that put the multinationals to shame. In-house production executives from creative agencies started venturing out on their own, initially as ‘briefcase producers’, then evolving into big production houses. Since they had been in the game long enough, they knew how to talk the talk and were able to attract established and upcoming creatives to carry out freelance work on the side for their big local clients. 

We now arrive at the present, a time that can be characterised as a creative free for all, also known as “everyone’s a creative. Most purists, of course, detest this and secretly curse the events that have led us to this point. However, there is absolutely no collective drive to push ourselves or challenge the status quo, because of the current systems’ self-serving nature. Everyone pats each other on the back and sings each other’s praises to keep the wheels of ‘business’ turning. Brand custodians are now shoppers in a mall full of shopkeepers selling their creative wares. They take pride in asking the digital agency and the creative agency to engage in a bidding war to see who can offer the latest creative at the lowest price, and then go off and develop the campaign with an independent producer who puts a nice spin on the original idea.  Another small, yet significant, undercurrent that has fed into this state of affairs is the obsession brand custodians have with rubbing shoulders with celebrities. Be it big-name directors, actors, DOPs, art stylists, music producers or makeup artists. Sometimes, I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment when this fascination began, leading most brand custodians to lose sight of the fact that this is simply the execution of one tiny part of the entire brand building and marketing exercise they are responsible for – and switch it off. 

However, all is not lost. The purists grew in number and were able to recruit a small majority to their side. Some of the old-timers moved back and are now starting to challenge the status quo and going back to the basics. Merging the good points of the current and the past, they are trying to forge a new path that unlocks great creative work once again. 

It will, however, take time. It will require painstaking efforts to implement processes once again. Spending time understanding consumer behaviour, carefully defining what brands stand for and then consistently applying it year on year. We do, however, have to guard against the latest potential danger of the ‘awards’ phenomenon. But let’s leave that discussion for another time. g

Sheikh Adil Hussain is CMO, Tapal Tea and a member of the PAS’ Executive Council.