Published in Nov-Dec 2022
It’s Friday afternoon and the little clock on the corner of your laptop’s screen blinks 4:15 p.m. Were this any other week, you would have mentally checked out by now and probably be fine-tuning your moment of departure from the office to avoid the rush hour.
But today is different. Today, you have to make a choice.
The worst-kept secret of the agency world is that we are, at any given time, stretched very thin with our finite resources. So when, on this particular Friday, there are two business prospects on the horizon and you have only one team available, you know they will need to be coaxed to sacrifice their weekend and make the Monday deadline. But first, you have to decide which lead is to be selected; the new brand that a local industrialist is launching, or the Request for Question that has been sent over from the brand manager at a multinational FMCG.
The choice is deceptive in its simplicity. There is no default side to pick in this desi vs vilayati situation. Will you opt for the ‘Made in Pakistan’ client or the imported brief? Both have their pros and cons, both have massive potential and both can make or break your agency’s future business streams. While we are in limbo, let us weigh the options.
Lure of the Local Brand
Most agency folk would jump at the opportunity to work on Unilever’s Lux vs Golden Pearl’s local equivalent. But you have to understand that these streamlined, polished organisations and brands started in the same way in their early days. When they launched their first soap, William and James Lever were no-name businessmen too. There is a chance that they were uninspiring, disorganised or haphazard in their briefs to their original advertising agencies, just as today, we dread local brands to be.
Being an agency serving a local brand means that you mentally prepare yourself for a usually flatter power and approval structure. Sure, there are often talented marketers and managers in the ranks, but there will come a time when a decision is run through the founder/owner. Contrary to popular belief, this is not always a bad situation. For starters, it is understandable that the head of an organisation will want to pay close attention to the marketing and branding activities of their business. We would do the same were the roles reversed. However, the relationship becomes a little trickier depending on the management style of this person. In the worst-case scenario, the power dynamic is such that they do not respect experts altogether or they do not consider you to be an expert. This is when you see them nitpicking your creative, strategy or execution. This is super frustrating for agency partners because their experience and expertise are being questioned by someone who is not quite at the same level. If, as an agency, you are stuck in this rut with a local brand, you may need to rethink your positioning strategy. Don’t just be service providers, be subject matter experts.
You can resist and reposition, but at some point, you will run into a formidable wall of argument. It will be something along the lines of “this is our business and we know our customer better than you” – a sword of Damocles to justify changes to your creative or strategy. Unless your agency has a host of winning case studies for a very similar product, there is no real response to this. The best way is to drop the ‘us vs them’ mentality and try to look at the problem statement from their point of view.
However, on the flip side, you will see an upside in terms of quicker and bolder decision-making that cannot be matched by the bureaucratic systems of global brand management structures. I have seen local organisations make large bets on marketing, and seal massive deals during a 30-minute session over chai and a handshake. It is important to understand that these decision-makers are basically entrepreneurs, not technocrats or managers, and therefore have a higher risk tolerance for making big bets.
This opens up a very interesting aspect of an agency’s relationship with a local brand vs a multinational counterpart. Local brands are massive growth machines waiting for the right catalyst. If served right, an agency’s contribution to the marketing of these brands can allow them to expand exponentially far faster than their international counterparts. So don’t look at these business partners for the short term only. Focus on what you can do to energise their business to grow by leaps and bounds. Stop counting the margins on your retainer and artificially inflating your production budgets. Think of how the relationship can progress were you to sincerely move the needle on their business. If you can convince the management that you are on the same team as they are, instead of a ‘necessary expense’, you will grow together.
Glamour of the Global Brand
On the other side of the ring, you have your standard-issue multinational corporation, with their coterie of instantlyrecognisable brand names. Although you will find the same kind of management structure here as you would in a local brand, the way agency partners are approached and dealt with is quite different.
For starters, impressing the bigwig at the top is not enough to get in. Registering with the likes of Unilever or Telenor is a cumbersome, long-drawn process. Be prepared to fill out reams of paperwork, offer forensic access to the inner workings of your business and collate a series of recommendations and certifications to even be considered a part of the agency panel. Of course, it also serves as a moat. There is little room for the three laptop ‘agencies’ that you otherwise find saturating the market. From the get-go, you are considered with a sense of seriousness and respect that is lacking in their local counterparts.
Another added advantage of working for a multinational organisation is that most such clients have different lines of business units or brands working under their umbrella. This means that if you manage to do a great job, you will experience positive spillover in terms of briefs and work from the other units. The same logic works the other way. One mess-up and you are likely to be labelled a pariah by the other brand teams. The extended version of this is that the multinational can also open up international avenues. If you manage to do an exceptional innovative or super-successful campaign in Pakistan, it can be extended on a global scale – and there is no better compliment for a Pakistani agency than to be appreciated and given a global mandate.
A further aspect to consider (especially given the title of this issue), is that eventually, you will want to expand your agency’s footprints to other markets. This is where that multinational brand portfolio comes in handy. At our agency, the smallest projects for Meta or Abbott impress international prospects more than the massive campaigns we have executed for local stalwarts. In an ideal world, this should not matter – but global brands do have a reputation about them – and help attract other global brands. If your agency’s goal is to land more international projects, focusing on the local wings of multinationals will yield better dividends.
So what to do when faced with the choice between dedicating a finite resource to capture an international brand as a client vs a local one? Does one bank on the legacy effects of a local brand going to great heights? Or should we give in to the gloss and glamour of working on a global brand?
As a typical ad-man, I would be confounded by this choice and probably stuck inside a paralysisanalysis loop until both opportunities expired. But my agency is a local, ‘Made in Pakistan’ entity and I am tempted to ask the team to work on both avenues and perhaps compensate or incentivise them to pursue success on both fronts.
Where there is a will there is a way and after all, I am a desi seth too.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.