Published in Nov-Dec 2021
Silver linings (defined as a positive aspect in an otherwise negative situation), are derived from a refracted light that edges dark clouds. Whether or not the silver lining is in actuality a good or bad portent of an incoming weather system is not clear, suffice it to say that the metaphor, possibly inspired by the English poet John Milton, denotes optimism.
In the context of the advertising industry, this metaphor has been used several times in the course of this magazine’s 23-year run to denote a particular state of affairs. We use it again at the end of 2021 in the context of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The silver lining here is the fact that this pandemic has been an accelerant in forcing the industry into taking the required action on several issues that have been dogging it for far too long. For sure, the goalposts (to introduce yet another metaphor), once so firmly rooted in a set modus operandi have been in a state of constant flux; moving this way and that and not always in a logical direction. Yet, the need for change has been looming for a long time. Technology has steadily advanced, permeating almost every aspect of consumer lifestyles – especially those that constitute the core audiences of the major advertisers.
Technology has forever altered the ways companies transact their business at both the consumer-facing end as well as the operational end. Technology has collapsed the intervals between successive generations, and the big marker in this respect is between digital natives (Millennials and Gen Z) and the preceding ones; they are intrinsically different in the way they respond to the messaging. Technology has also given rise to the emergence of big tech giants, and consequently, the social media and big data revolutions changing the ways we as consumers interact with events and the way advertisers reach out to their consumer segments.
As a result, businesses are dealing with unprecedented disruption – all the while contending with broader economic and political issues, and now climate change. Brands have metamorphosed from being products people buy to satisfy a need or as a kind of lifestyle affirmation to becoming symbols of purpose. Brands that aspire for market leadership are now required to stand for something higher than their functionality or aspirational value, thereby making traditional marketing and advertising largely obsolete. In a world that prizes engagement above all else, the traditional armoury of communication tools does not cut it anymore and even the global network agencies, once believed to be impregnable are having a hard time surviving in a world where change is so rapid that the word viral has entered the marketing lexicon and experience almost doesn’t count, because nothing can be fully mastered before it veers off in an altogether different direction. The reality is that advertising as we know it has been split wide open, creating spaces for new concepts, tools and players to find a place.
None of this is a bad thing. It is part of the process of adaptation to the age of big technology. It is also a global phenomenon. Pakistan with its minnow economy has been slower to react to the impact of these changes because the consumer base itself is less exposed to technology. However, inevitably, the effects have begun to take hold – and the pandemic has accelerated the process by taking digital adaptation out of the optional box and making it mandatory.
Given this state of flux, it’s little wonder that clients are no longer willing to be in thrall to their agency partners – their brand custodians – who, like them, are navigating unchartered waters, and in this new equation, compensation models are the first to be put under pressure. Adaptation requires flexibility and implied in this is the ability to go beyond the traditional structure and look elsewhere for solutions. The time lag between executions has shortened and new ideas and approaches are almost a weekly requirement. The patterns, pace and rhythms of delivery have changed. So, if agencies are feeling besieged, who can blame them? In many ways, they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Their revenue streams are under pressure, their solutions under scrutiny and their place at the client top table challenged. Indeed, advertising agencies are being squeezed and perhaps unfairly. Yet, the big squeeze they are experiencing may be just the required formula to drive the changes they have so far resisted, as well as create the space for a new dialogue with their clients – a dialogue that will set new terms of engagement modelled on the altered expectations of both their clients and their target audience.