Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Lost and Gained

Sami Qahar looks back 25 years to ponder the gains and losses in the ad industry and concludes that the profession remains as fascinating and exciting as it ever was.
Updated 17 Jan, 2024 12:45pm

The texture of Pakistan’s advertising industry mirrors the essence of the nation itself. It weaves a narrative of ceaseless struggle, a dance of denial, and suddenly, a fleeting glimpse of individual brilliance that dissipates like a fleeting dream. This cycle, a perennial rinse and repeat, only adds to the mystique of the enduring show that must, undeniably, go on.

I have been a part of the last 25 years of advertising in Pakistan in many roles. Along with being a consumer, I was a marketing student in the early 2000s, a fresh out-of-the-oven advertising professional in the mid-2000s, among the rare ones who turned the tables and became brand managers in the late 2000s… and in the last few years as a TVC producer. Has it been a completely fulfilling experience? Probably not. Have I made billions in moolah? I wouldn’t go that far. Have I met and befriended and learned from extremely competent and genuine people? Hit and miss. Yet, the industry remains fascinating and promising even today.

Aurora completes 25 years. It’s the right time to take a pause and look back at the moments of individual brilliance that our advertising industry has produced in those years, along with the headshakes of regret or despair at the lost potential. Let’s have a look at what we lost and what we gained in the last 25 years in Pakistani advertising.

The Agencies

Lost: The giants of advertising in Pakistan. I joined Interflow in 2004, an institution of advertising par excellence. Serving clients such as Ufone, Unilever, Pepsi, BAT, UBL, PSO, etc., it was a place to be. Vibrant and demanding, yet rewarding in many ways. Fast forward 15 years, I entered the Interflow office again and it made me nostalgic yet sad. The place had lost its vibrance and accolades. Not just Interflow. Other stalwarts of that time don’t have the same spark anymore. Orient-McCann could be another name and JWT (Asiatic back then) could have been another, even though it has now been rebranded as Grey, rebuilding itself.

Gained: A lot of boutique agencies, and also several network agencies. Publicis in the form of Red Communications Arts has been doing some really good work. BBDO was barely a name in the early 2000s and now serves several big clients. Ogilvy severed its ties with Interflow and has established its roots in the industry with award-winning campaigns.

But… you know what has been constant in the last 25 years, standing strong then, standing strong now? Yep… Adcom – now Adcom Leo Burnett.

The People

Lost: I was done with my advertising career and wanted to make the coveted move to the other side of the table. I found myself interviewed by a jolly man with a plain white complexion, who exuded warmth. Weeks later, I was sharing a boardroom with Shahid Iqbal of Colgate-Palmolive. The guy responsible for creating brands such as Bonus, making it the largest-selling detergent in Pakistan and making Colgate the number one toothpaste brand of Pakistan. Brite, Express and Lemon Max were all hugely successful and the mastermind behind them was Shahid Iqbal. And then one day, a week after he sang ‘Jeena yahan marna yahan, is ke siwa jana kahan’ at a company event, he left us. 2007 saw the sad demise of one of the most courageous marketers of Pakistan. At times I wonder what crazy things he could have done in the digital marketing world.

I did not have the privilege of working with a lot of people who left us in the last 25 years. Asma Nabeel was one of them. Her name is revered in the industry for any of the roles she played, be it as a creative director at the leading agencies or as a producer in the later part of her career. Pepsi’s ‘Liter of Light’ remains one of the best campaigns of the last 25 years and one of her best works. Other honourable mentions among the people who left us in the last 25 years are Masood Hashmi, Adil K. Mirza, Masood Hamid, S.H. Hashmi and Rashid Umar Thanvi.

Gained: ChatGPT and MidJourney. Can they replace the humans who have the intellectual capacity to use these tools? Probably not. We will keep trying though, to find shortcuts in life. That’s human nature.

The Differentiation in Advertising

Lost: We can, of course, talk about this topic across categories and debate on whether the clear differentiation in advertising still exists or not. However, I firmly believe if we think execution first and concept later, advertising will keep looking the same. The ‘reference’ culture is death to creativity. Today, everyone from a director to a music producer, from an art director to a wardrobe stylist… everyone asks for a ‘reference’ instead of a brief. Almost all of us have access to the same YouTube channels and videos and we end up using the same references. So, unless someone is in the habit of digging references from onion links on the dark web, we are bound to see similar advertising across categories.

Take the telcos. Twenty years ago, the differentiation was clear. Mobilink was the premium operator, with classy communication and an upscale TG. The Mobilink star aka azaan TVC was a testimony to this. Then it was Ufone, a massy fun brand willing not to take itself seriously. In comes Warid, with a brilliant launch thematic TVC, challenging the mid-segment and Telenor, with Djuice, went to younger audiences.

Gained: Today, all telcos have the same template. Oh Gen Z, what crimes we have committed in thy name. Check Ufone’s Bilal Ashraf TVCs, Zong’s Danyal Zafar TVCs, and Jazz’s majority TVCs. Remove the brand name and it can be any telco brand. Change the category and go to food. All food brands are shooting the same table-top shots and yes there is a universal symbol of spicy food i.e., the camera going through the eyes. Prove me wrong.

Cricket Celebrities

Lost: At the end of the last century, Pakistan had a good number of sporting celebrities, primarily cricket. Imran Khan had appeared in the World Cup TVC for Pepsi in 2003 and Shahid Afridi, Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akthar were in demand. From Pepsi to banks and telcos, the choices were there for the brand to pick. As the years progressed and Pakistan cricket went through its turmoil of political crises and the aftermath of terrorism, local heroes became rarer and rarer. Sporting events and cricket celebrities became non-existent.

Gained: A sporting event that unites the whole country, the Pakistan Super League where all the advertisers come forward of their own accord. New TVCs are made, talk shows on both conventional and digital media erupt and brands are seen partnering with the teams. While the PSL has taken up the sole responsibility of being the only local sporting event worth advertising in, Babar Azam pretty much holds the responsibility of being a solo cricket, rather, sports superstar. Currently endorsing Ufone, Panther Tyres, Vivo handsets, etc., Babar is arguably the biggest superstar in the country.

This list can go on and on as we move forward into the uncharted terrain of the future. In the balance of these experiences, the wisdom of resilience and the spark of innovation converge to guide our path ahead. In the ever-shifting realm of advertising, where the only constant is change, may the lessons of the past 25 years fuel our progress and inspire us to create new stories, leaving an enduring legacy for generations to come.

Sami Qahar is CEO, Stimulus Productions.