Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Fear and Mediocrity

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Ruled by fear, agency people opt for the mediocre.

Our founding fathers made an excellent case for a separate homeland for Muslims almost a century ago. The case appealed to one of the most powerful human emotions – fear. Fear of being left out, of being subjected to cruelty, of being ruled by a community that was in majority, of losing your identity… and most importantly, of being killed eventually.

It was a powerful case, so powerful that it convinced millions of people to leave everything they had and move to a newly created state where the grass would be greener, the sun brighter and the milk whiter. The narrative worked and the case (built on fear) became a success story.

If you’re thinking about what any of this has to do with advertising, calm down. Everything is connected to politics after all.

Okay. So where were we… oh yeah… Partition…

So that fear became the foundation of our separate homeland – Pakistan. All threats of suppression and exploitation by goras and Hindus were gone.

That fear should have died down, but it happened very slowly. Then in the fifties, the establishment realised that fear was the only motivation this oddly bonded nation had that could be used to control, rule and keep us united.

What this establishment did next was devastating. They retained the narrative of fear and replaced old villains with new ones. The apparatus of hatred between Hindus and Muslims was now used to instil insecurity between Mohajirs and Pakhtuns, Shias and Sunnis, Bengalis and West Pakistanis, Baloch and Punjabis, Communism and Islam, Good Taliban and Bad Taliban.

A few decades down the line, we eventually morphed into a ‘nation’ of people who prefer working in silos rather than collaborating, because we are always scared of the “other” group; be it a community, province, language, sect, political party, organisation or company.

This renewed, or perhaps reincarnated, feeling of insecurity gave us the ultimate ethnocentric template to use in defence of our tribal ways of operating throughout all ecosystems, including politics, economics, pop culture, arts and even advertising.

The generation that enjoyed their prime in the eighties ground their own axe. They kept their knowledge to themselves and did not share skills, learnings, and resources with their peers, out of fear that they may outgrow them.

This insecurity explains the way the majority of our gurus in media, marketing, advertising and filmmaking built empires of their own, focusing on their personal growth while deliberately avoiding developing talent and entities that could grow bigger than themselves. Making an insane amount of money through work is not a crime, but not feeding the chicken that lays the golden egg for you every day – your employees, talent and younger people – is cruel.

One can spot a similar version of this insecurity and fear trickling down into the work culture of any brand or agency in Pakistan. Instead of mentoring talent, heads of marketing confuse their brand managers by giving them irrational tasks at critical times during a campaign rollout and distracting them from asking the right questions. Because if they do, they will have to empower them with insights, methods and wisdom (if they have any) and, of course, nobody wants to be challenged.

To please these corporate pharaohs, brand managers begin to doubt themselves and start relaying every directive like postmen to every team member of their agency, including the tea boy.

Inside these advertising agencies, scared creative heads (especially those working with single-brand agencies) work day-to-day to fit the bill by compromising their creativity and in some cases their self-respect. Because if they don’t... the pharaoh may get “bored” of them. One of the biggest advertising agencies in Pakistan had to bid farewell to six ECDs during their six-year relationship with a telco because the head of marketing “stopped liking their ideas.” These insecure corporate pharaohs wait and let Mojo Jojo destroy the city so that they can “once again save the day” and take the credit. In the meantime, the saddest part is that the rest of the people stop caring about ideas, solutions, creativity and feelings. Nobody takes ownership, nobody wins and nobody loses. Nothing good happens.

The most devastating aftermath of this tragedy is the death of excellence because the prime focus of the talents shifts from producing something great to ‘doing things that can secure his job for the next six months’.

This is the stage where conceiving an idea and nurturing its ability to be effective takes a backseat. Instead, everyone starts working around the preferences of their bosses.

Scan any advertising medium, and you will see a festival of mediocrity; TV commercials look castrated because they are not made to sell something to people, but to please the manufacturers. Radio spots are afterthoughts. And don’t even try to visit their Facebook page, because after that you may develop a soft corner for the cleanliness situation of public washrooms at our railway stations.

I have produced some of these horrific creative outputs, so I am not excluding myself in any way.

Enough of the apocalypse. Here is a one-liner solution. Stop normalising mediocrity.

Your audience has evolved. They don’t compare your ad with your direct competitors; they compare it with the best ad they have seen, regardless of the industry. One mundane ad encourages the risk-averse, misleads the consumer and misrepresents the country’s intelligence quotient.

Yet, a single brave/experimental ad inspires everyone, encourages brand custodians to be creative, and most importantly, paints an accurate picture of Pakistanis who are not idiotic as a lot of research agencies infer – because they do not have smart moderators who can ask the right questions.

Talking about asking questions. One should never hesitate to do so. Dig out the answers before going on the ideation expedition. A good brief is a blessing but that doesn’t mean you should accept a bad one without a fight. More than half of the ambiguity is resolved when stakeholders put everything on paper.

The key to eradicating mediocrity is to kill the fear that fuels it. Be honest with your craft and with yourself. If you end up rocking a few boats in the boardroom, don’t worry about getting fired. The person who will replace you will end up creating an endless trail of vacancies in the ecosystem – which eventually will accommodate you.

Fahad Bombaywala is Regional Creative Director, M&C Saatchi Worldwide.