AURORA: What is your advertising background?
UMAR MALIK: I don’t have an agency background, and before founding Alt Story with Hasan, I worked for about 14 years on the brand side. I spent about six years with P&G in Karachi and Dubai and then I was marketing manager at Shan for a couple of years in Karachi. My last gig on the brand side was from 2017 to 2020, as the advertising lead for Coca-Cola brands. Then Covid dramatically changed the way the world worked. Because I had a history of working closely with ad agencies, not only in Pakistan but in the region, as well as an interest in creative and design (the cornerstone of my friendship with Hasan), we decided to join forces and create an agency that would be structured in the 21st century, based on an agency of the future model. We are a fully remote company and hire all across the country. Hasan leads the creative thinking and design from Amsterdam.
HASAN TAHIR: My journey has been a little different. My first job was in an agency, and although I loved the fast-paced nature of the environment, I moved to the brand side after two years.
A: Which agency did you work at?
HT: Group M. I was part of their entertainment and sports partnership wing, working on branded content. Then I moved to Shell Pakistan, and it was there that I really picked up on design and brand identity. At the time, Shell was in the process of a global brand refresh, and I was leading that project in Pakistan. Then I moved to the Netherlands and I made the shift towards growth marketing.
A: Why is your agency called Alt Story?
HT: All the work we do has an aspect of storytelling which, in our opinion, is the cornerstone of effective communication. Even design has to tell a story. Alt means alternative; meaning we want to do work that is different and fresh. Alt is not only about the things we do externally, it is about how we conduct business internally as well.
A: In concrete terms, what do you mean by being the agency of the future?
HT: In terms of how we work internally, apart from working remotely, one of the things we are proud of is the fact that we are very employee-friendly. We respect their time and have moved away from Pakistan’s agency culture of working late or over weekends, even if there are times when it has to be done.
A: How many people do you employ?
UM: About 20 people. Building on what Hasan was saying, what we mean by agency of the future is moving away from the organisational structures of legacy agencies. Alt Story was formed within the post-Covid dynamic. As a 100% remote agency, we can tap into a much broader creative pool, rather than restrict ourselves to one city. Among our 20 people, we have someone based out of Multan, a designer based out of Islamabad. One of our designers is doing her Master’s in Istanbul and she is working for us from there. All workflows, from the brief to the research, data storage and output, to the presentation, are done digitally.
A: Is your team an all-Pakistani one?
UM: At the moment yes, because until two months ago we were only registered in Pakistan, and we could only legally hire and be tax-compliant in the country we were legally operating in as a business. As of last month, we have opened a branch in Dubai and one in the Netherlands, which means that we will now be able to hire people from those two countries.
A: Do you outsource on a project basis?
HT: We have a creative panel of writers, artists, photographers and technical people. We don’t claim to be the best in everything, but we can always find the best of the best, be it in Pakistan or globally.
UM: In today’s post-digital creator economy, we need to tap into a broader creative pool. I think that in the future, agencies will have to transition into becoming creative producers. Creativity can come from anywhere and we have what is called the 1+1=11 approach. We have a core creative team as well as a panel whom we onboard project to project.
HT: This is what keeps things fresh. Our core 20 people get to learn from all the different types of flavours the people on the panel bring.
A: Are your partners 100% Pakistani?
UM: At the moment they are, but we have been very fortunate that our work has been well received and through some of our partners we were able to execute a couple of global projects. We launched 7Up strawberry lemonade in Pakistan and because they liked the work, we had the opportunity to do creative and design work for their global flavours portfolio. Similarly, we have worked on Wall’s quite a lot, and at the moment we are in talks with the global Wall’s team on a project.
A: What would be the external manifestation of ‘Alt’? What is it that you offer your partners that is so alternative?
HT: Among other things, it is the combination of Umar and myself. Umar brings a wealth of experience on the business side and I bring expertise in digital growth. In essence, our partners get a well-thought out strategic plan. We hire people who understand brand design and this provides for a very focused approach to design. Here, I want to emphasise what we call the last 10%, which is about the attention to detail that we bring to our work. Umar and I are both very stubborn and before we present anything, there are a lot of internal rounds and back and forth until we believe we have got it right, so that at the end of the process, our partners are given something that has been built, constructed and restructured multiple times.
UM: Partners can expect something different from us in terms of strategy, creative, design and digital. On strategy, given our collective 20+ years of experience on the brand and the agency side, we bring another perspective. On design, we curate teams that are trained in design thinking and who can approach all aspects, including packaging, key visuals and apps. On the creative front, we source the best writing and scripts. On digital, in addition to our digital-first approach, we bring the best-case global practices to the table.
A: Are your Pakistani partners mostly multinational companies?
UM: Most are, although we also work with start-ups because they have a similar mindset in their approach to new ideas.
A: Advertisers in Pakistan tend to be risk-averse. How do you overcome this mindset?
HT: Many of our partners are very adventurous and we are able to go all out in our creativity. However, when we make a presentation, we always have a safe route in reserve, because we know it will be the one most likely to be approved.
UM: It comes down to understanding their pain points and being able to give them a safer route as an alternative.
HT: We usually end up exciting our partners with the more adventurous route and then we find a middle ground. Having said this, we never put anything out there if we are not sure of it ourselves.
UM: When we talk about why Pakistan’s advertising ecosystem remains so nascent compared to our regional neighbours, I don’t think the fault lies with the agency or the client. Unfortunately, our academic streams are not harnessing the skills required in advertising. The talent is not subjected to sophisticated streams in, for example, creative writing or photography or the technical aspects that go into advertising. The people who come into advertising have to drive themselves and do not necessarily come from a place of academic nurturing. The consequence is that on the brand and agency side, you sometimes find people with a slightly different understanding of the principles of marketing and advertising, and do not fully appreciate the nuances that distinguish good from great work. However, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step, and in the last two-and-a-half years, we have found partners who have come to us because they like our work, and this gives me hope that there are people who want to do better work.
HT: When partners want to take the safe route, we approach it as a creative challenge; how do we convert that safer route into something that is potentially interesting?
A: What are the skills that are necessary to be good at in the creative business and are not sufficiently addressed by academia?
HT: Writing copy. There is no focus on how to get an idea across using a few simple words. For design, the art schools are doing a good job and the connection with the brand can always be learned.
UM: In terms of copywriting, there has been a decline in the Urdu language and its usage among urban audiences, which is why unfortunately, when we communicate in Urdu we use Roman script. Two broad areas are crucial and we need to work on them as an industry. Firstly, and this is equally true for brands and agencies, a lot of the people who join the profession hit the ground running and learn on the job; they are not offered any kind of robust self-development module. I was fortunate to join P&G and they sent me on so many trainings to learn about advertising; to learn how to write a brief and about what makes good advertising effective. Secondly, there is a tendency to not respect the audience’s intelligence, and work that has potential in ideation is dismissed on the grounds that the ‘masses’ will not understand it. This mindset fails to take into account the dramatic changes that have taken place in the consumer landscape and in media consumption habits. Audiences are exposed to content through YouTube, WhatsApp and memes, and their sensibilities have evolved, so that they not only understand more nuanced work, they appreciate it.
A: Many young agency people complain about the existence of a fear of failure syndrome. What are your views on this?
HT: From a growth marketing lens, everything is about running experiments and trying out different things, and if you have a fear of failure, you will not experiment. To build creativity and challenge each other, one has to have psychological safety, so that if an idea is shot down, it is not perceived as being negative.
UM: Fail fast, learn fast, is the new mantra. Art and creativity come from inspiration and all ideas are influenced by what we see and feel. First of all, we need to accept that we are not the best, and compared to what is happening globally, we have a long way to go. We have to start investing in creating a culture of learning without being defensive about it, and move away from a template-led approach, which certainly does not come from a place of originality. We need to look at how we approach disagreement; not look at it as defiance, and acknowledge the fact that there are multiple routes to how to communicate an idea, rather than insist on following a set template – which leads to a dearth of innovation. We need to encourage different points of view.
A: This year, at the Effies you were cited as one of the top five agencies in Pakistan. To what do you attribute this achievement?
HT: A lot of the time it starts by putting together a plan and then once we have a plan, we break all the components down. It is what we call the last 10%; the effort that goes into making the work stand out from the rest.
UM: You cannot do the last 10% unless you are passionate about what you are doing; otherwise, it is a job. A key ingredient of success are the details; tying the bows, dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.
HT: When we pitch an idea, we demonstrate how the idea will manifest itself and the touchpoints involved. In fact, by the time we pitch, a lot of the work has already been done.
UM: If I had to borrow words from the advertising greats, what helped Alt Story achieve this success is the fact that one day we decided to just do it. I think if you approach anything with that honesty of intent, the universe will reward you. So long as you are passionate about something you will find success. Unfortunately, what you cannot teach people is how to be passionate about something.
Umar Malik and Hasan Tahir were in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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