AURORA: What motivated you to launch Golden Circle in 2019?
SYED HASSAN ABBAS: I had been working in advertising for about 16 years and I felt that both clients and ad agencies needed to focus more on what I call ‘modern day advertising’. This was the reason why I founded Golden Circle in 2019, despite the fact that it was a difficult year for Pakistan’s economy. The objective was to bring modern creativity to consumers and bridge the gap between the old and the new. We also noted that while the mainstream agencies were working with their global affiliates, the smaller and newer agencies did not have the capacity to manage their national or international accounts, and we saw this as an opportunity to launch in 2019.
A: Did you work on the agency or the brand side?
SHA: I began my career at Red Communication Arts. I started as an account executive and ended up as head of operations. After spending eight years with Red, I joined Synergy Advertising as Chief Operating Officer and spent another eight years there.
A: What is your definition of ‘modern day advertising’ and in what ways are the other ad agencies failing to deliver on this?
SHA: In my experience, the focus of the bigger agencies is only on ATL, while the smaller agencies only provide solutions in terms of social media, and the media agencies only focus on media buying. Modern day advertising means a one-window operation that handles ATL, social media and media buying. This kind of advertising has become essential, especially after the changes that came about as a result of the pandemic and after the emergence of tools like Zoom and new brands such as Uber, Foodpanda and Spotify. Take our Honda campaign. Before Covid, no one would have dreamt of going to a website to order a car worth three million plus rupees. Yet, in our campaign, we used only digital and social media and we achieved record-breaking sales for the brand. Modern day advertising is about providing solutions for consumers by creating the right culture and the right mindset. Modern day advertising is about leveraging the effectiveness of each medium.
A: Is TV still a powerful medium?
SHA: It is still a very powerful tool. In Pakistan, we have two kinds of people. Those who watch TV, read newspapers and listen to the radio and those who watch YouTube, listen to Spotify and go online. We have to cater to the entire spectrum and use all media effectively and efficiently.
A: Why did you name your agency Golden Circle?
SHA: Because ever since I joined advertising as an account executive, I have been working with the same team members. Now, we are working together – and for me, we have created the right circle.
A: Why the emphasis on the word circle?
SHA: Everything is a circle. When we work on different campaigns, we create a circle of creativity around them. When we talk about consumers, we put a circle of insights around them and when we talk about the team, we put the circle of family around them.
A: How big is Golden Circle in terms of people?
SHA: We have about 58 people in Lahore and 15 in Islamabad, and we are planning to open an office in Karachi in early 2024.
A: Do you outsource your projects or are they all done in-house?
SHA: I believe that the people working with us should have the authority of the work. Everything we do is done by my team and we don’t outsource.
A: Would you describe Golden Circle as a mid-sized agency or a start-up?
SHA: At the moment we are a mid-sized agency, but we are the only mid-sized agency that is competing with the leading agencies of Pakistan.
A: You have won a number of Dragon awards recently. From a creative perspective, what would be the distinguishing factor in your ads compared to other agencies?
SHA: In Pakistan, there are two types of advertising agencies. The agencies that win awards –basically for CSR campaigns – and they win all the international awards. However, from day one, our philosophy has been to win awards based on the brand’s campaign. That is success. For example, we launched a new air-conditioner for Haier and we won based on the brand’s campaign we delivered and not for their CSR activities. Brands need conversion and sales. Keeping this in mind, our work is based on consumer insights; on what consumers think and want, and to this end, we use the most effective media that will give them the best results based on their KPIs. In 2023, we won seven Dragon awards for high-quality brands. The Campaign Agency of the Year is the world’s premier agency award, and in 2021, 2022 and 2023 we won Pakistan’s Creative Agency of the Year and Pakistan’s Digital Agency of the Year awards; we are the only Pakistani agency to have won the South Asia Independent Agency Award in 2021, 2022 and 2023, as well as the South Asia Boutique Agency. And in these categories, we were competing with agencies from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. We are winning because we are producing work based on consumer insights.
A: What are the key ingredients that have helped create this success?
SHA: Advertising is a very simple thing and every agency receives the same brief and they all have creative people on their team. Our ingredients are the passion and energy we bring to advertising.
A: Is Golden Circle seeking an international affiliation?
SHA: Our objectives are to expand Golden Circle beyond Pakistan, and we are not looking at affiliations because we don’t want to depend on any other agency. In the next two to four years, we plan to open in two or three markets. We want to be the first Pakistani agency to open offices internationally. At the moment, and this is another one of our achievements, we are the only Pakistani agency managing the regional business for many international accounts; we are working as their regional agency operating from Pakistan.
A: How do you propose setting up in international markets?
SHA: Until five years ago, clients would only work with affiliated agencies, but now with social media, they are very open to this kind of arrangement because their cost structure goes down. Clients can no longer afford expensive agencies. Our first step would be to open either in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries or MENA, and move forward from there. In Pakistan, many IT houses are handling international accounts very successfully, although as far as advertising agencies are concerned, none have been successful. In that respect, we are setting a very unrealistic target for ourselves. But in the last four years we have achieved many things in Pakistan. We have won awards and signed on many international accounts, so we have the momentum and the team, and we would love to experiment with new ideas.
A: How is your current portfolio split in terms of local versus global clients?
SHA: Our portfolio is 60% national and 40% global.
A: What has your experience been in terms of working with local clients versus global clients?
SHA: I find it very interesting to work for local clients when they consider you as their consultant rather than their advertising agency. With local accounts, it is best to start by stepping in as an advertising agency that is also a partner and a consultant. In this way, clients develop trust and are willing to share their targets and KPIs. If you achieve their targets, you then have complete freedom of the work. International brands have their timelines and their priorities and we have to follow them accordingly. However, with both local and international clients, once you understand their brand and their business problem, you have more freedom to work things out your way and create successful campaigns that drive sales. With both clients, it is about understanding the problem and providing the right solution.
A: Do you find that working with international clients is more straightforward in the sense that everything is transparent?
SHA: The more straightforward things are, the more monotonous and boring they become. It is important to find the right balance between local and international clients. For sure, international brands make longer-term agreements and provide a higher revenue stream. However, to keep the passion going, it is important to keep experimenting with local brands.
A: At the moment, brands seem to be focused on Gen Z. Yet, many of them have been criticised for sticking to music and rap as a way of addressing them. What are your insights in terms of capturing this audience?
SHA: Every medium has its own strengths. If you want to advertise Spotify, then music and rap are appropriate, but if you are communicating with someone who lives in Hyderabad or Gujranwala, you have to talk to them in their own language. Advertising on TV should be neutral and address all SECs, and then use specific media. If you are targeting Gen Z, Spotify is a good platform, but if you are addressing housewives, YouTube and dramas are the right mediums. There are so many options and it is a question of creating content specific to the medium used.
A: What is your opinion about influencers?
SHA: Influencers and bloggers are very important. An average blogger on Insta has five to six million followers, and if we manage to convert 15% of that following, we are talking about 300,000 or 400,000 people.
A: What will be the impact of AI on the way advertising is done?
SHA: AI is affecting advertising in a very positive way. When computers came in, it was predicted that many advertising skills would become obsolete, yet advertising flourished. AI will be a positive and supportive tool. It will bring innovation and more value to our brands.
A: Do you think that there should be more collaboration between ad agencies?
SHA: The media has the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) as well as the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS). But there is no association for the creative agencies, and we would definitely welcome more interaction between agencies.
A: In the context of modern day advertising, what should the role of an ad agency CEO be?
SHA: In the age of social media, advertising is very much on fast forward and agency leaders must lead from the front. They have to stand shoulder to shoulder with their team, work late with them, eat with them and present with them. This is what the younger generation want and they will work even harder if you lead from the front.
A: What are your views on remote working?
SHA: Remote working can be more productive because time is saved commuting. However, in Pakistan, there are issues like internet connectivity and electricity breakdowns, and in that respect, it sometimes makes sense to come to the office.
A: How difficult is it to find talent in the market, particularly when advertising has lost much of its glamour and creatives are finding opportunities in other avenues?
SHA: The younger generation have very short attention spans. Even if they are working for a big client, they will not stay for long; they change jobs every one or two years. A lot of talent is coming from the social media side and I would say there are enough people in the market to manage the work. But yes, the glamour factor is missing and many young people don’t want to work in advertising. They find it hard; they want easy money and advertising is not easy money.
A: What would you say to inspire people to join advertising in Pakistan?
SHA: Join advertising only if you are passionate about it. If you want to create real change in people and in society and you want to learn. Otherwise, advertising is very time-consuming and hard. It is not an easy job.
A: So what are your ambitions for the next couple of years?
SHA: To spread creativity and modern advertising in Pakistan. Change the way advertising is done and create a bridge between the old and new way of advertising.
A: How will you achieve this?
SHA: By using all the tools possible. When you work as a consultant for a brand, you have the ability to experiment. Clients want ideas based on innovation and technology. The role of advertising agencies is to provide solutions packaged around technology and innovation.
A: Do you feel that the institutes of higher learning and the business schools in Pakistan are producing graduates that are fit for purpose to work in the advertising world?
SHA: When I did my MBA, we had very limited market information and not much has changed since. All the information comes from textbooks, and it is not always implementable in the local market. Institutes like Karachi University, LUMS, FAST and LSE are now inviting people from their respective fields to come and give lectures to their students. The task is to encourage experienced advertising and marketing professionals to go to these institutes and provide insights about advertising so that when graduates join the profession they are prepared and not surprised. Every month we send our creative and strategy teams to different colleges and universities, and students come to our office to experience the environment – all the agencies need to contribute to this.
A: How difficult has this year been for Golden Circle given the economic situation?
SHA: Because of the economic situation, approximately 20% to 25% of our income decreased. So we expanded our base and signed in new accounts; some small, some medium and some big. In this way, we have been able to continue to provide value to the brands we serve. Now the economy is bouncing back and brands have started spending.
Syed Hassan Abbas was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org