Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

“We Need To Future-Proof Our Brands”

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Muhammad Sarwar Khan, Director & CEO, IG Square, speaks to Aurora about why brands need to re-engineer their marketing landscape
Photo: Arif Ali/White Star
Photo: Arif Ali/White Star

AURORA: What prompted you to set up IG Square and what makes it different from the other media buying agencies in Pakistan?
MUHAMMAD SARWAR KHAN: IG Square is an acronym for Imagine Growth Globally. We set up in September 2020, right in the middle of Covid-19 when it was already clear that the market was changing drastically and it was becoming necessary to re-evaluate the way we did things. Our main purpose is to change the conversation. I have been in the advertising and media industry for a long time, and we have become used to doing things in a certain way, a way that in my opinion, is no longer relevant in a post-Covid-19 world. We need to re-image and broaden our canvas. Specifically, at IG Square we focus on three pillars: Data, content and technology; three pillars that will redefine the future. It is no longer about the cheapest ad spot; something we have been focused on for years and years. The cheapest spot is not the solution, because audiences are now so fragmented. The focus has to be on data; on how we collect and curate data and make it meaningful. We live in a data-driven, agile world and everything we do, especially media marketing, must reflect this. Creativity for the sake of creativity doesn’t mean anything. To achieve growth for brands we need defined growth matrices. It is not about sales jumping from one point to another. It is about the way consumers are evolving and how the macroeconomic indicators are changing, not only in Pakistan but globally. With the right growth matrices in place, we can look at all the factors that affect a business and set the direction for the right creative strategy and then look at expansion. A big problem with our businesses is their fear of expanding. If a business is doing well, they are content with that and we are trying to address this mindset. We want to educate local businesses about the importance of expanding – and even going global. We are about reengineering the media landscape.

A: How is the microeconomic scenario changing?
MSK: For most FMCG brands, the bullseye is typically a 20- or 21-year-old; a person who today is about 16 – and name me one 16- year-old who watches TV today? (you don’t need data to tell you this). If 16-year-olds are not watching TV today, how will you force them to do so five years from now? The journey has to start today because there are so many different factors at play. Internet penetration is set to reach 75%, data and devices are becoming cheaper and platforms are evolving (a recent example is Netflix starting to take advertising). What is clear is that audiences are now exposed to the world, yet our media and marketing plans are too TV-specific. I am not saying that TV is redundant, but TV has become a connecting device through which audiences can log on and explore multiple platforms. We need to keep pace with audiences and this is why data is important – how do we collect and then curate data? Because in the next couple of years data will be hard to collect due to privacy concerns. We need a data strategy to address this and most clients do not have one. They are living in the moment and not planning for the future. Yet, they need to futureproof themselves against all the changes that are happening. We are not doing enough to evolve ourselves as an industry; our consumers continue to be exposed to multiple platforms but our media advertising strategies are lopsided.

A: How easy is it going to be to convince advertisers to change strategy, especially given the uncertainty of the economic environment?
MSK: We are a two-year-old company and our numbers have doubled every year. Brands are not shying away from investing in advertising but the question is, are they making the right investments; are they investing in the future? This is why we need to change the conversation. Fifteen or 20 years ago, a TVC was produced, advertisers got the results they hoped for, job done. Today, we live in a different world and we have to change the mix. The global tech platforms are evolving very rapidly; this year they will be spending close to $18 billion on content – content that our consumers have access to through multiple devices. These platforms have both massive and aggressive plans for this region – how will our media industry compete with them? Consumers have options and you cannot force them to watch something they do not want to on local media. Yet, a major chunk of the advertising is going in that direction. The changes I am talking about may not affect us today, but they will five years from now, and five years is nothing in a brand’s life. We need to start that journey today. We need to future-proof our brands. Why is it that the solution to every brand problem is a TVC? When clients ask for a media strategy, their brief always includes a 30-second TVC and a list of channels they want to run it on. So how can I give them a media strategy when they are asking for a TV spot list? And then there is this whole discussion about what discounts we can get – and this has affected the TV networks. Their only source of revenue comes from advertisements because they don’t get subscriptions. So when it is a question of the cheapest spot, the networks do not earn enough and the result is that they do not invest in either content or people – and this is a vicious cycle. When audiences are not served the right content, they start exploring other platforms. We have to accept this reality and be bold enough to change the conversation. If we are to grow as an industry, we need to grow together and not at the expense of each other – which was the case earlier; everyone trying to extract the maximum from the other party. The result was a zerosum game. We need to move forward and grow together and to make this happen, we need to start to ask the right questions and start becoming relevant to our audiences.

A: What is your solution? What alternatives are you proposing?
MSK: What I normally recommend to clients is that they do not have to abandon what they are doing now, but in parallel, they need to start to plan for the future. At this point, it is not about replacing one medium with another. It is about having a five-year plan. There has to be a data strategy. Google has announced that by the end of next year, they will do away with cookies; we are essentially talking about a cookie-less world and when this happens, digital advertisers will no longer be able to track their consumers’ journey. This is why a data strategy is so important. Gathering data is a lengthy process and then one needs to curate it to make it meaningful. This is why it is so important that clients should, in parallel with their conventional planning, formulate a data strategy. Secondly, they need a content strategy. Because of the different available platforms, clients need to move from a generic content approach to a personalised one, based on the target audience’s interests. Thirdly, blockchain, AI and other technological innovations will play a significant part in the way we market, and we need to figure out how to use these tools to make our marketing more efficient. All this requires a strategy because once you have it, you have a clear pathway to future-proofing your brands. A lot of headwinds are coming from the big tech platforms and they are aggressively trying to engage everybody.

A: Do we even have the HR expertise to gather and curate data into meaningful action points?
MSK: So, the next step is to get our talent right and, unfortunately, as an industry, we have not invested enough in our HR. Advertising and the media are not the first choices for students coming out of top-tier institutions. We need to make our industry attractive to talented data scientists and we have to pay them well because we can have the strategies but someone has to know how to execute them. We also need to figure out how to collaborate with the start-ups out there; rather than reinventing the wheel, it is about finding the right partners. The same goes for the content space. We need to find partners who know how to use technology and can develop personalised content for different audiences.

A: How much of the total media spend does TV account for?
MSK: Seventy to 80%.

A: So still quite considerable?
MSK: It absolutely is. As of today, 65 to 70% of my agency’s investment goes to TV, but will that be the case five years down the line? I seriously doubt it.

A: What about digital?
MSK: About 15%, but growing rapidly. To reach the same number of people we were reaching through TV five or 10 years ago, we have to invest almost double the amount. TV has an ageing population, although people in the TV world will not agree. People in the 35+ age bracket are still relevant to TV, but as for anyone in the 16-year-old bracket, in a few years, it will be very difficult to target them through TV. We say we need to catch them young, but the younger lot are not watching TV.

A: What is the ratio between your local and international clients?
MSK: Our clients are predominantly local. However, through our affiliation with Universal McCann we recently launched Spotify in Pakistan and they are a global client and we also recently acquired Emirates. Both clients account for close to one third of our billings.

A: Isn’t there a new breed of local advertisers who tend to prefer digital because it is more cost effective?
MSK: The preferred advertising platform for most new advertisers is digital, although because we cannot track digital advertising in Pakistan, we don’t know the true volumes. At the moment, we are talking to at least four to five potential clients and they are going to be digital first, because given the kind of business they are in, digital suits them best. With TV, there is always the chance that there will be some wastage, especially if the product or service is not available nationwide, and some of the clients we are talking to are starting small. Having said this, they are ambitious young entrepreneurs who believe in advertising and marketing, and digital gives them the advantage of being very specific and targeted. So absolutely, the new breed of advertisers out there are very open to being digital first. However, unfortunately, because we cannot track digital, we don’t know the total volume of what is happening out there.

A: Isn’t digital supposed to be the most measurable medium?
MSK: For TV we have third party companies that track spots. We subscribe to their data and this enables us to make certain assumptions and come up with a number in terms of a particular brand’s spend. With digital, although globally there are third-party companies that track digital advertising, in Pakistan we don’t. So, if I am working on a brand and I want to know how much the competition has spent on digital, I don’t have access to the data I need. Then there is the fact that the Googles and Metas of this world are talking to advertisers directly and the result is that there are now two streams of business. One that goes through the agencies and the one that goes through the tech companies, and I believe that their volume of advertising is as big or even bigger than what is going through the agencies. Unless we have third-party tracking, we cannot really know what the total volume of digital spend is.

A: What does future-proofing mean in concrete terms?
MSK: It is about first understanding that given the pace of change, something that is relevant today may not be tomorrow, so if your plans are based on what is relevant today, the chances are that they will be disrupted. To future-proof brands, we have identified three key areas of focus. Firstly, culture. How can a brand become part of the culture? This is about creating awareness through the right mix of earned media. Secondly, community. How do you win hearts? This means getting closer to the community and creating memorable experiences, and where activations come in. Third, commercial. How do you win wallets? To future-proof your brand, you need to have a strategy for all three – and there are different layers here. You need the data strategy, the content strategy and the tech strategy (identifying the platform you want to engage with). When you have all three pieces of the jigsaw coming together, you start to see a plan that is much more than a mere TV spot plan. You have a plan that will help get closer to your consumers and create meaningful relationships that will ultimately future-proof your brand. We may not have all the answers right now, but the idea is to change the conversation and start that journey. We know that change is happening and unless we keep up with it, it will be too late.

Muhammad Sarwar Khan was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: