Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

WHEN SUPERMAN CAME TO TOWN

Updated 03 Apr, 2018 03:24pm
A PROLOGUE....

AS THE ADVERTISING PROFESSION MARKS 70 YEARS OF EXISTENCE, MARIAM ALI BAIG HIGHLIGHTS MAJOR THEMES THAT INFLUENCED ITS TRAJECTORY FROM 1947 TO THE PRESENT DAY MILLENNIAL AGE.

There is something unique in the telling of the story of advertising in Pakistan. Consider how it started.

A group of men independently travelled to Karachi from near and from far... from Bhopal, Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Lahore, Lucknow... and many other cities in India. Others were Karachi born and bred. They were poets, artists, art collectors, merchants, bon viveurs, writers, civil servants, musicians, raconteurs, bankers, philanthropists and gentlemen farmers; one was even a prince.

In Karachi, they set up offices that were cramped and sparsely furnished: oddly-assorted tables and chairs, a few pens and pencils. A peon to make the tea – the extent of their staff. They set up in Karachi, eager to be part of the great nation-building effort that Pakistan awaited. Their resources were limited, but their enthusiasm was boundless. These extraordinary men were the founding fathers of Pakistan’s advertising profession. The industry’s first superheroes.

Looking back 70 years, it is hard to encompass the scale of their achievement. Karachi in 1947 was an outpost far from British India’s centres of commerce and advertising which were located in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. Business had be to drummed-up, staff found, hired and trained, products and services marketed, brands built and customers wooed. Those among them who were transferred to Karachi from their agency headquarters in India were marginally better equipped; at least they had experience of the business and a client base on which to build. The others had to start from scratch, set up their own agency and hope for the best. Yet, they ploughed on and laid the foundations of the profession.

So that when television came upon Pakistan’s advertising scene in 1964, a new generation of superheroes was ready to take on the mantle – and they did so, with a burst of original creative executions which remain the envy of today’s generation of practitioners. The profession had found its foothold and if this was a period of buoyant creativity, it was also a time of consolidation. Functions and systems were in place, women were hired (albeit, almost entirely in the creative departments), the terms of engagement with the media were set and the building of some of our best loved brands had begun. The culmination of this second phase in Pakistan’s advertising history was marked by the AdAsia 89 advertising congress, which was held in Lahore, in February 1989. Under the chairmanship of Javed Jabbar, the entire industry, including the media, coalesced together (in a way never seen before or since) to present a programme that included a roster of stellar speakers drawn from the international world of advertising. AsiaAsia 89 put Pakistani advertising on the global map.

If so far the story of Pakistani advertising has been linear, what follows is a marked change in tempo. The world was going global and Pakistani advertising was about to shed its insularity. The global paradigm that governed the rules of engagement between advertising agencies and their clients shifted. Marketing assumed a central position within client companies and CEOs were hired on the basis of their ability to drive brand sales. The client was now in the driver’s seat.

In Pakistan, this change in paradigm found concrete expression in the emergence of the affiliated agency and the entry of the media buying houses. Formerly, clients appointed a single agency to handle their entire brand portfolio. Now, the portfolios were split among agencies and the brand became the sole client. Then, as the media buying houses consolidated their presence in an increasingly competitive media environment, the media function moved from the agency and became a separate, specialist function. The established model of agency commission was compromised and new business models were introduced.


If the past can point to the future, then we know that we are dealing with a fundamentally resilient profession. One that re-imagines itself with every successive change; builds solid brands, provides employment to Pakistan’s most talented young people, is now bringing home top international awards, and on a good day, delivers magic and delight to our homes.


In the midst of these shifts came the internet which rewrote all the rules. Time compressed, the media fragmented, brands proliferated, consumers demanded and lifestyles went into transformation. As a result, Pakistani advertising agencies were forced to reinvent themselves again and again; from full-service, to specialisation, to hybrids; from independent to partial affiliates to full-equity buyouts to whatever else worked in between. Along with adapting to global influences, the advertising profession had to withstand the peculiarities of Pakistan’s own trajectory; the periods of economic boom and bust, the cycles of instability and the systemic uncertainties that suppress an innate optimism to do and think big. After all, it took an American-owned agency to instil in its people the belief that they could, and in so believing, they brought back to Pakistan, a Clio and a Cannes Lion. Yet, if the proof is to be found in the pudding, consider that ad spend in Pakistan went from zero in 1947 to approximately four million rupees in 1966 (Gallup Pakistan). In 1983, it touched Rs 423 million (Marketing Review) and by the end of 2017, the figure amounted to Rs 87.7 billion (Aurora Fact File), representing a staggering increase of 20,632% since 1983. Superheroes indeed!

What will happen next is anyone’s guess. Fast paced advancement in technology is the only continuum that can be predicted. The traditional agency model remains under threat and the fact that it continues to exist in a recognisable form is because nobody has figured out what the alternative should be – yet. However, if the past can point to the future, then we know that we are dealing with a fundamentally resilient profession. One that re-imagines itself with every successive change; builds solid brands, provides employment to Pakistan’s most talented young people, is now bringing home top international awards, and on a good day, delivers magic and delight to our homes.

For all of this and much more, we have to thank our superhero pioneers who wrote the first chapters of the story of Pakistan’s advertising. The next chapters in the Book of Advertising now belong to yet another generation of advertising superheroes. 

Mariam Ali Baig is Editor, Aurora. aurora@dawn.com

First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.