Interview with Aamir Allibhoy, Regional GM, BBDO Pakistan.
- BBDO believes in developing award-winning work, yet in Pakistan, I found that even the senior creative directors I spoke to, had no exposure to this belief. The mindset and the inspiration have not been cultivated in the psychology of our industry.
- Pakistan is a little traditional when it comes to social – and the trends that take place elsewhere tend to trickle down and hit Pakistan a few years later. But considering that we are more than 200 million people, and looking at the percentage of the young, the opportunity is in social and digital. It is no longer about the traditional TVC; it is about creating compelling content and deciding which channels to use to reach your target audience and your objectives.
AURORA: Why did BBDO decide to open in Lahore in 2012?
AAMIR ALLIBHOY: PepsiCo was a global account and they requested us to come to Pakistan.
A: How long have you been with the BBDO network?
AA: Sixteen years. Although I am originally from Karachi, I had never lived in Pakistan.
A: Did you find working in Pakistan challenging?
AA: I did. We started with a team of four people, purely on client-servicing; the creative was done out of Dubai. We worked out of a hotel conference room for the first three months. Within six months, we had a team structure in place and an office; today, we have 48 people taking care of conventional as well as social.
A: Is the creative still done out of Dubai?
AA: No, it was only for the first six months when we were transitioning.
A: What were the challenges of setting up an agency in Pakistan from scratch?
AA: It was challenging on multiple levels.
A: How so?
AA: From a licensing perspective, approvals perspective and a talent perspective; our talent is screened by New York and we have very high standards. To put an office in place usually takes eight to 12 months; we did it in four to six months. What I love about Pakistan is the fact that there are so many tension points, and with tension points come a lot of rich insights which allow us to develop a lot of creative ideas and that is what we are known for – our creativity.
BBDO believes in developing award-winning work, yet in Pakistan, I found that even the senior creative directors I spoke to, had no exposure to this belief. The mindset and the inspiration have not been cultivated in the psychology of our industry.
A: Most global agencies usually set up in affiliation with a local agency. Why did BBDO not take this route?
AA: Post-2007, BBDO decided to buy out the stakes of their local partners in order to have full control, ensure that our operations are compliant in terms of financials and ethics, and that we adhere to international standards. My Chairman in New York wanted us to set up in Pakistan as an international agency based on international standards. We didn’t want any baggage; we wanted to start fresh and develop our own identity from scratch, rather than build ourselves on the back of someone else.
A: How difficult was it to put together a creative team?
AA: It was challenging because we do not compromise when it comes to creative quality. Our interview processes are very different than most other agencies. There is a one-on-one interview, an interview with our Dubai management team and multiple tests. Getting into BBDO is a very rigid process because we want the best of the best. We have a nine-point value scheme that we measure everyone against, both for interviews and appraisals.
A: What is it that is lacking in Pakistan that makes it difficult to find the right people?
AA: I think that what is lacking is self-belief. BBDO believes in developing award-winning work, yet in Pakistan, I found that even the senior creative directors I spoke to, had no exposure to this belief. The mindset and the inspiration have not been cultivated in the psychology of our industry. When someone believes they can make it happen, it makes all the difference. When I showed my team the award-winning work we have done in different parts of the world, one of them said that India was much better than Pakistan when it comes to creating such work. Why? It’s about self-belief. The self-belief is missing.
A: How does one acquire self-belief?
AA: When I talk about self-belief, it is not only on a personal level; it is on a totalitarian level. We have an entire support network in place. If someone has an idea, the idea is screened by the creative directors in Dubai, Singapore and New York. It is a collaborative process. The reason why BBDO is so successful is because it is not about an individual or a single market. It is about cultivating the idea and packaging it in the right way, and no one is ever alone when it comes to doing this.
A: Assuming that every idea is not sent for further screening, how do you judge an idea?
AA: We judge an idea based on four attributes; how creative it is, the impact it will have on society, how compelling it is and how commercially viable it is. If it ticks the four boxes, we pass the idea on for further evaluation to New York and Singapore.
A: Earlier you mentioned tension points. What did you mean by this?
AA: We are a very resilient nation and we face a lot in our daily lives, be it on a social, economic or political level. So there are a lot of rich tension points that we use as insights to creatively develop something that is beneficial, not only from a commercial perspective but from a societal and impact perspective. This is why I believe we are so successful and why we venture into award-winning work. It is not just about the creativity, it is about creativity that drives change.
A: Such tension points require ideas that have a local sensibility…
AA: Yes, they have to be locally-relevant and daring as well. When we did the Moltyfoam campaign, the underlying idea was that we are obsessed with billboard advertising, so what if billboard advertising could also do some good? With ‘Not A Bug Splat’, we were raising awareness about drone strikes in Pakistan and we did this as an American company. So there are a lot of risks. One element of being creative and succeeding is to be daring.
A: Among the many international awards you have won this year, including a Gold Clio, you won Silver at Spikes Asia for ‘Remake the Boxer’. Where did the idea come from?
AA: Apart from having been Britain’s youngest boxing Olympic medallist, Amir Khan had a number of titles under his belt. However, in the last couple of years, he has been going down; he lost a massive fight last year in Las Vegas. We thought that if Sting stands for energy and giving you what it takes to be better and stronger, why not link the brand to a high-profile boxer of Pakistani origin and try and establish his comeback. Boxers need energy, so associating him with Sting was the perfect combination. We invited him to Pakistan, turned the entire city of Lahore into his gym, and we invited Pakistanis to challenge him to prove that he is ready for a comeback. Now, he has a big match against the top Indian boxer in Dubai on December 30.
A: Will this be his fist match since being knocked out in Las Vegas?
A: Isn’t this risky, supposing he loses and doesn’t make a comeback?
AA: That is the risk we dare to take. There is no success or reward without failure and you don’t venture into such a position unless you are willing to take a risk. We will know on December 30 if we are successful or not. If he wins, we will take the campaign to stage two; if he doesn’t, it ends.
A: On the subject of awards, would you agree that the packaging and presentation of the entry requires pretty much the same effort as creating the work?
AA: Absolutely. The first thing I did in our first year here was to send my creative director and senior copywriter to Dubai Lynx to get the exposure and see how one packages a good idea successfully. We hold workshops across our network to train our creative and strategic teams on these aspects; it is something that is totally missing in Pakistan. I intend to hold workshops with my team twice a year in Karachi and Lahore, and invite creative minds to come and learn the science behind packaging potentially award-winning ideas. To be honest, there also needs to be some aspiration and desire; I have been to Cannes, Dubai Lynx and Spikes Asia (well before I came and set up in Pakistan). I have seen zero representation from Pakistan and this begs the question of whether agency owners believe in awards. That is the first step; you have to create exposure – without exposure, you can’t move forward.
Pakistan is a little traditional when it comes to social – and the trends that take place elsewhere tend to trickle down and hit Pakistan a few years later. But considering that we are more than 200 million people, and looking at the percentage of the young, the opportunity is in social and digital. It is no longer about the traditional TVC; it is about creating compelling content and deciding which channels to use to reach your target audience and your objectives.
A: Are you saying that the desire to win awards is not strong enough within Pakistani agencies?
AA: Yes, maybe because they don’t see the ROI. It’s not an easy decision; at the end of the day, our clients deal in rupees and entering Cannes costs 700 euros per entry and if you send a team to attend, it will cost 7,000 euros, plus hotels and tickets, so about 10,000 euros. You have to believe in awards in terms of merit and in terms of ROI. We measure and value ROI based on brand equity and reputation and if you have a strong equity and a strong reputation, this will translate into business – and we have seen it. I think that desire and belief is lacking at a senior level and we have to cultivate this because it is not only about winning awards. It is about putting Pakistan on the map.
A: Why hasn’t BBDO opened an office in Karachi?
AA: When we set up in Lahore, we spent the first three years focusing on the PepsiCo business; it was a commitment we made to them. We did consider Karachi in 2015, but the security situation was tense and because we are an American company, New York was reluctant to focus on Karachi. Having said this, Karachi is on our map and our objective is to set up by, or before, 2020.
A: That is quite a long way off.
AA: We want to be ready; when we come in, we will not do it piecemeal. We are not going to set up a small office with two or three people. We want to identify the right talent and the right client.
A: To what extent is it a disadvantage not to be in Karachi from a client-acquisition perspective?
AA: If you look at Lahore in isolation, you are limited in terms of international and local clients; if you look at Punjab as a whole, the picture changes. We already have Faisalabad and Multan-based clients. Islamabad is next-door and it is a telco hub. I would rather focus on winning a telco and setting up in Islamabad, before venturing into Karachi.
A: How are you positioning BBDO? Is the ambition to be among the top five advertising agencies in Pakistan in terms of business or, is being creative-driven the more important priority?
AA: From a commercial perspective, BBDO is publically listed on the New York Stock Exchange and we have very rigid targets to achieve; 17% growth year-on-year – and we are successfully doing this. However, our priority is ideation and quality and we believe that business will follow. Yes, we would like to be a ‘top five’ agency and the mandate is that by 2020, we want to be among the top five in terms of commercial business.
A: Looking to the future, what are the opportunities and challenges Pakistan offers to an agency such as BBDO?
AA: There are opportunities in social and digital and that was the reason why we set up BBDO Proximity a year and a half ago (it is the equivalent of BBDO Worldwide in terms of social and digital representation). Pakistan is a little traditional when it comes to social – and the trends that take place elsewhere tend to trickle down and hit Pakistan a few years later. But considering that we are more than 200 million people, and looking at the percentage of the young, the opportunity is in social and digital. It is no longer about the traditional TVC; it is about creating compelling content and deciding which channels to use to reach your target audience and your objectives. In terms of challenges, most agencies are very client-servicing driven, whereas BBDO is very creative-driven. Firstly, we have more creative resources than client- servicing, and this is not the case in most agencies. Secondly, we cultivate creatives so that they can reach the point of management. Our Middle East, Africa and Pakistan Chairman was Chief Creative Officer before venturing into management. Our backbone is creative because at the end of the day, clients and the outside world will judge based on the output.
A: Many Pakistani agencies contend that they are held back in their ideation because clients are not adventurous enough. Would you agree?
AA: To some extent. Clients are a little conventional and traditional in their thinking because their first priority is hard-core business and sales. But it is an evolution and doesn’t happen overnight. We had to invest time and effort to persuade our clients and partners on the benefits of creativity and how that will impact and translate into ROI for their business. It is a journey. Some clients are easier than others to persuade, but I am optimistic.
A: Traditionally in Pakistan, agency business is largely driven by relationships rather than output. How difficult was it for you to enter this market without a pre-existing backbone to build and sustain relationships?
AA: We had to work twice as hard and it wasn’t easy. I have never lived in Pakistan, so my set of contacts wasn’t as strong as it is now. It was challenging because, as you said, clients tend to believe more in relationships than in the work itself at times. But we have to shift the mindset and persuade clients that although relationships are important, you also have to scrutinise and judge the work itself. It was difficult, and it still is difficult to some extent. Being an international agency helps because clients like the fact that they are dealing with an international brand and an international network; that when they work with BBDO, they have access to BBDO Worldwide. This is something that positively resonates with clients when we meet them.
Aamir Allibhoy was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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