Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

No Dictation Please

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Kamran Sarfaraz, COO, Arey Wah, speaks to Aurora about his agency’s business model and what lies behind the success of his campaigns.

AURORA: What prompted you to open your agency?

KAMRAN SARFARAZ: Previously, I had worked for several advertising agencies. I started with Orient, then worked at Evernew Concepts, RED Communications and others. My last job was at Ogilvy, where I was the business director for Warid’s account. In 2014, I quit and planned to set up my agency, although at the time it was very difficult for creative houses to survive in Pakistan. Most close within two to three years – so a long-term vision was going to be difficult to achieve.

A: Yet, survive you did. To what do you attribute this?
KS: We adopted a very different model; one that is not based on keeping people on a payroll. I hire people on a project-to-project basis. I develop the creative strategy and then hire creatives for the execution. I usually work with Zaheeruddin Ahmed at iDcreations, and they provide me with the creative resources I need. They direct our TV commercials, do the post-production and provide other creative backups as and when required. My core idea was to establish a creative house. I don’t do media or provide any other service. When we started, our first client was Kenwood. We developed a campaign for them and it won five PAS awards – including the Campaign of the Year award. This success had a big impact on the industry and it also made things a lot easier for us and we acquired more clients. As I said, our model is different and we do not just work with any client; we work only with those who give us creative freedom. We are also different from other agencies in that they do not charge for their creative work, but we do. We charge a handsome amount. We have our terms and conditions and our clients understand that we do things differently. If they want different work, they come to us. At present, we have about seven clients. We don’t chase after clients and we do not do pitches at all.

A: How receptive are clients to this model? Clients are not used to paying for creative work.
KS: I reckon that the main reason we do not produce good work in Pakistan is that we do not respect creatives and do not pay them well. Agencies do not invest in their creatives and the result is work that is at best mediocre. There are so many song and dance routines in our commercials, and the reason is that we do not invest in our creative talent; we do not work hard on their behalf. Yes, there was resistance to our charging for creative work, because clients are not used to it; they are used to getting their creative free of charge and just paying for the production. However, they now understand that if they spend money on the concept, their production costs will be cheaper. They do not have to fly to Thailand or Europe to produce their TVCs. We do not focus on glamour; we focus on creative strategy. Our concepts are solid and our clients are okay with this. We now work with larger companies, for example, Unilever Pakistan – and all our clients agree to our business terms and pay for the concepts.

A: Do you source your creative talent exclusively from iD?
KS: No. Again, it is a different model here as well. Sometimes we hire people who are unrelated to advertising, such as script and story writers. We explain the strategy to them and we provide them guidance in terms of how to frame their work in an advertising context. This is why you find a different flavour in our work compared to the usual creative director’s input. The problem is that usually a creative agency hires so many people and then the pressure forces them to produce mediocre work. They have to pay salaries and then they are forced to compromise with the client over quality and accept everything that is asked. I do not have any pressure from overheads, so I do not have to compromise on the creative input. If we do not get the creative freedom we require, we do not go any further. We are not dictated to by the client.

A: Essentially you are tapping into the same creative pool available to other agencies. To what do you ascribe the fact that you can produce better work than most of them?
KS: The difference is the strategy; we work very hard on strategy. We take about a month before presenting a concept to a client, and we do not give options. During that month, I give complete creative freedom to the creative people to think out of the box. There is no pressure and they know I will sell what they come up with. That is the key. They are not asked to produce something within hours or a day. You cannot produce a good concept in a day or two, unless you have done the background research, understand the market and have worked out the strategy. I take time to work on the strategy and then provide a solid brief to the creatives – and then give them the freedom to produce a concept.

A: Strategy depends largely on the insights. Given how small your team is, how do you find these insights?
KS: There are two methods to it. One is research, but unfortunately in Pakistan, we do not invest much in research. Most clients think of it as a burden, and only multinational companies spend on research. Most of the clients I work with are local and they do not want to spend on a structured research process. So the second method, which is what I do, is mostly consumer based. I go to stores, I speak to the retailers, I check out how consumers behave, what they purchase, what they think about a product, the price and the quality. I listen to what they say and the words they use. I put together my strategy directly from the consumers. We also keep things simple; we keep it understandable for consumers. We use their day-to-day language. We do not go for strong Urdu or sentences with cliched idioms. We keep the communication simple and insights-based because 99% of the time we do not have the research. Most clients in Pakistan usually operate on gut feeling.

A: That must put a lot of pressure on you.
KS: In Pakistan, we consider advertising an expense and not an investment. Clients do not do data or research, and if they have the data, they will not share it because of confidentiality issues. So most campaigns are produced on gut feel. I have taken this a step forward by going to the market and talking to people directly and getting first-hand experience of what consumers are thinking – and this is reflected in our communication.

A: What made you believe that you could pull off an agency based on the model you have just described?
KS: To be honest, the confidence came from that first Kenwood campaign. When the campaign broke it received very positive reviews. We then worked with Kingtox and the TV commercial we made for them went viral; it was the most viral TVC of that year. Then we worked with Amreli Steels and our work there was also appreciated. So, the confidence started building and has kept me going.

A: How much do you interact with mainstream advertising agencies?
KS: I don’t interact with them a lot. My clients come to me mainly because of the work we put out there. As I said, I do not go for pitches. We are a new concept for Pakistan. I am based in Lahore, although most of my clients are Karachi based. We use Zoom for our meetings – we have been doing so since 2014, although nobody did Zoom until the pandemic changed everything. In the early days, it was something new for Pakistani clients to work with an agency that did not have a functional office in Karachi. Yet, it worked out.

A: Within Arey Wah, how small is the team?
KS: You could say I am a one-man army.

A: Do you eventually plan to open an office or continue in the same way?
KS: A lot of my clients want me to open a full-fledged agency, but I don’t want to. I do not want to become another advertising factory, making 30 TVCs a month and compromising on the quality. I want to take Arey Wah forward as it is. I do not have the ambition to have three offices in Pakistan. All I want to do is produce quality work which is different. My business model has supported me well and I think it is the future. Because of the pressures agencies face in terms of overheads, they are reluctant to innovate. I am planning to eventually develop another outfit, mainly for digital advertising. However, I may execute this in a year or two, because the market is not ready for this yet. The work that is produced for digital is even worse than what is produced for mainstream advertising.

A: Are most of your clients mid-sized?
KS: They are a mixed bag. We work for Unilever Pakistan, Amreli Steels, Homage and Kenwood. We have created a niche for ourselves and for clients who want a different quality of work. I get about 10 offers and I choose just the one project where I think I will be given the creative freedom to do what I want. It is a simple filtration criterion. If you give us the creative freedom we ask for, we will work with you; otherwise bye, bye.

A: What happens if a client wants to roll out a campaign across different media?
KS: We will put together a team to provide those services. We hire art directors, graphic designers and so on, and supervise the process. Otherwise, clients have their agencies or other arrangements. For example, Unilever haave their set up for these other services. They hire us for the strategy and the main creative and then they adapt it.

A: What about the question of creative ownership of the idea?
KS: We take ownership by supervising all the processes, even if they have their designers or digital agency. We meet them and discuss the way forward and give the final approval.

A: That cannot be easy. A digital agency is not going to say come and tell us what to do.
KS: Sometimes there is resistance but that is when clients have to play their role; at the end of the day they are the owner of the campaign.

A: Your advertising tends to be recognisable as made by Arey Wah. Do you think there is a danger of becoming repetitive?
KS:It was mainly because of the Kenwood campaigns because they look similar to each other. The Knorr campaign which is currently on air – the grumpy cat campaign – is completely different from our Kenwood work. So was our Kingtox campaign. We are going forward with different execution styles. The issue is that clients come to us and say they want an ad like the Kenwood campaign.

A: Do you think digital has had a positive impact on smaller advertisers, in the sense that because the spend is considerably less, they are more inclined to advertise?
KS: Digital has made a big difference. Smaller clients were reluctant to advertise because of the huge costs involved when it comes to TV advertising. Now, new avenues have opened up – Facebook, YouTube, and so on. With Kingtox, we produced a film that went viral, and as a result, they never had to go on TV; they never spent a single penny on airing that ad. If you make good content and if it goes viral then you get free media exposure. So yes, smaller clients are finding digital transformation very interesting.

A: Would you recommend that anyone else follow your model?
KS: Definitely. This is the future. Many clients are tired of the bigger agencies and the quality of work they produce. Bigger clients are also looking for creative houses that produce good work and this trend will increase. The key is always the quality of the work. You have to create a niche. That is very important. Have a speciality. I cannot concentrate on everything. For me, the core area is creativity. And I think only creativity can save things now. Agencies have become very predictable; they apply the same creative template to all their clients, so the work becomes very run-of-the-mill.

A: Your ads have been talked about for their creativity and they have also won awards, but are they effective? Is that important to you?
KS: We do the post-analysis and encourage our clients to share their post-campaign numbers, and we are very satisfied with them. With Kenwood, their market share increased by more than 30% after the first communication. People used to go to a dealership and say: “Nawazuddin wala AC de den.” Same thing for our recent Knorr campaign. Unilever shared their results and there was a huge increase in market share. We do this constantly; the idea is not to make a beautiful ad; the idea is to sell the product.

A: When you were in advertising, which departments did you work in?
KS: Mainly in client services.

A: Is it not unusual for someone with a client services background to set up an agency that has creativity as its single focus?
KS: That is a problem in our advertising structure. In Pakistan, we have client services-driven agencies, but not creative-driven agencies – which is why I was keen to start a creative-based agency. In my opinion, the main product of any agency is its creative output, but we do not approach it like that. We think about the numbers and not about the quality of the work. Yet, we have to respect creatives, we have to pay and train them well. Only then will we get good creative campaigns and results.

Kamran Sarfaraz was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: