As we gradually draw to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, we can see that the evolution of advertising in Pakistan has been marked by pretty much a status quo. Since the launch of Aurora 25 years ago, not much has changed apart from the move from traditional media to digital and the arrival of the media buying agencies. This status quo is a result of one big undercurrent, the dependence of ad agencies on government and public sector advertising and the lack of dialogue around the subject.
The Pakistan Advertising Association boasts 138 members on their website, creating advertising for a population of 250 to 300 million people, while the members of its Indian counterpart, the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), which creates advertising for over a billion people, has only 76 members.
A substantial portion of these 138 Pakistani ad agencies have sustained themselves through government and public sector contracts. In a recent news item published in September 2023, the Information Secretary informed a Senate committee that a significant sum of Rs 9.6 billion had been disbursed to various media outlets in the last year and a half. This allocation was broken down as follows: Rs 3.5 billion for print media, Rs 4.79 billion for electronic media and Rs 1.23 billion for digital media. The bulk of the money was spent on media buying, but a significant amount was also paid to the agencies creating these ads, and I don’t recall a single memorable, let alone award-winning campaign, released by the government or a public sector entity. With an election year coming up, we will witness advertising spend rise exponentially and along with it the rise of mediocre and banal output devoid of any creativity.
This dependence on government and public sector budgets raises concerns about ethical practices and transparency. Agencies find themselves walking a tightrope, as success often requires navigating a landscape where connections and compliance with questionable practices can overshadow creative ability. The exclusion of successful agencies from government pitches due to their commitment to ethical standards is a challenge faced uniquely in Pakistan, setting it apart from international norms.
Scrutinising the past 25 years reveals instances of dubious practices in the advertising sector. The intersection of political influence and agency selection has led to cases where contracts are awarded based on favouritism alone. The stipulated process of selection for government or public sector advertising contracts has played a pivotal role in steering them towards preferred agencies, often to the exclusion of reputable entities that refuse to engage in corrupt practices. Exemplifying this, instances abound where agencies with strong political affiliations receive preferential treatment, further fuelling concerns about the fairness of the process. This symbiotic relationship, often shrouded in secrecy, demands scrutiny for its continued impact on creative output, fair competition and industry integrity.
The murky waters of questionable practices veiled in opacity have led to a complete disregard for the most important KPI of advertising – advertising effectiveness. Analysing the ROI of various campaigns funded by the government and public sector entities will shine an undeniable light on the lack of impact of these campaigns. An examination of the effectiveness of these campaigns in achieving their objectives will provide an insight into the societal impact and the significant financial investments made by the government.
Moving forward, a critical re-evaluation of practices, drawn from international models and a commitment to ethical standards can pave the way for a more transparent and thriving advertising landscape in Pakistan.
It is high time that the process of change be initiated, and key stakeholders brought on board to find a new way forward. Government and public sector professionals must embrace modern practices and learn from the private sector. It is important for the government to define clear and measurable objectives for each campaign and tailor the metrics accordingly. Regular monitoring, analysis and adjustments based on campaign performance will contribute to enhancing the effectiveness of government advertising initiatives and ensure a positive ROI. Media and creative agencies should be recognised for their different skill sets and capabilities. Ad agencies should focus on creative output and be remunerated for the idea and not the media spend. Creating one ad and then running it for over a year and earning commissions on it, is not the most efficient use of taxpayers’ money.
The role of the Press Information Department (PID) in awarding contracts to ad agencies needs to be rethought. The PID requirement that an ad agency has an office in Islamabad* puts many creative agencies at a disadvantage in participating in a government pitch. For perspective, if one were to analyse the number of awards won for effectiveness and creativity on a city-wide basis, Karachi and Lahore agencies rule with only three Islamabad agencies winning at the PAS Effie awards in the last three years. So why this discrimination against agencies which may not choose to operate from Islamabad? Similarly, the requirement that ad agencies are mandated to share their balance sheets and audited accounts with PID* is unreasonable, as is the requirement that if an agency fails to participate in six consecutive pitches they will be deemed inactive.
In conclusion, as we reflect on advertising’s trajectory in Pakistan over the past 25 years, it is clear that the industry is tethered to a status quo, largely driven by a heavy reliance on government and public sector advertising to sustain the high number of ad agencies which represent excess supply; a dependency that has unfortunately failed to foster an environment of creativity, fair competition or ethical practices within the advertising sector.
*Press Information Department (PID) Terms of Reference (TOR) 2022
Syed Ahmed works for an advertising agency in Pakistan.