The article was first published in November-December 2005
Seema Taher Khan, co-Founder, Interflow Communications speaks on what it takes to create big ideas.
AURORA: How much has technology helped the creative process?
SEEMA TAHER KHAN: Technology has changed the basic set up, but technology alone is not enough to change the complexion. Technology has eased a few things; it has expedited and transformed the texture of creativity but it hasn’t helped develop creative content. As far as Pakistan is concerned, most people would say we have come a long way. External influences are playing a bigger role in our lives and in our mindset. Being westernised, trying to ape the advertising of the West or of our neighbouring country, doesn’t mean you have evolved. At times, I feel our ideas have become less of a ‘big idea’ than they used to be, because we are letting gimmicks, technology and special effects take over, while in essence we are still where we were. Creativity is not just being able to sketch or take a good photograph. The big idea comes from understanding brands, from consumer insights, and understanding the strength of the competition. Exposure and technology may have improved the overall picture, but big ideas are ideas that can be carried through to a sequel. It is an idea that works for all times and for all people. You don’t see too many big ideas.
A: Do you think that in evolving the creative process, brand managers interfere too much?
STK: To an extent. Today’s young marketing savvy brand managers who come out of business schools have a lot of say in the construction of a communication. One school of thought believes that an ad should be functional and direct, while another believes that an attractive ad can do the job. I don’t want to generalise, but the trend is to say too many things in a communication. At times, brand managers tend to be short-sighted, they are not looking at the essence but at the functional aspect of the brand; they are looking at achieving the maximum amount of communication within a short period of time, and that can kill an idea. It is for the agency and the brand team to find the creative germ in an idea, develop it and have the courage, conviction and self-confidence to create a unique piece of communication; a larger than life ad.
A: Does it frustrate you that, when it comes to the creative, a lot of multinationals in Pakistan prefer to adapt their international campaign?
STK: Multinationals follow an international strategy; they don’t have the freedom to create their own ads. They adapt and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as they understand the psyche of the consumer. However, there are times when an adaptation doesn’t work; it may prove alien to the lifestyle, mindset and behaviour of the consumer. I was talking to a regional brand head about India, and he pointed out that the mindset of the Indian consumer is very different from the mindset of the Pakistani consumer. The Indian consumer is not as big a spender as we are, he doesn’t indulge; he believes in the necessities of life. Pakistan is an indulgent nation. So the brand promise in these two markets has to be different. Take tea, Indians go for value for money, we believe in flavour and taste, before considering price. So, although there are synergies for many brands, when there aren’t any, we have to create our own advertising. For any communication to be effective, you must first understand the essence of the brand and the consumer. Any brand that does that successfully, no matter how simple and basic the communication or how structured it is towards the functionality aspect, can still be a brilliant piece of advertising. Successful advertising is when you give the brand promise rather than the brand benefit.
A: Would you agree that India seems to have evolved a kind of advertising that has a cogency of its own, while in contrast our advertising seems a bit all over the place?
STK: We are a conservative nation; we tend to be uptight about our values, our morals, our social norms. We have not learnt to make fun of ourselves. We may do that as individuals and as communities, but when it comes to developing a communication for television, we are very reluctant to do this. India has deliberately crafted itself into a very vibrant outgoing, extroverted community. You see this in the people you meet. Firstly, they are India-proud, secondly they make a special effort to appear India-proud, thirdly, they make a special effort to appear broadminded, relaxed and liberated. So their media is all about giggles, laughter, comedy and tongue-in-cheek humour, and by practicing this over the years, they have relaxed minds. Creatives over there work with very relaxed minds. They don’t have any paranoia, phobias, restrictions; they are not disallowed to treat the product with irreverence. They have fun while creating the communication. We are not having fun while creating the communication. We are stressed out; we have dictates coming from clients, from society. You can’t do this and you can’t do that. You can stand out and be effective if you are relaxed and can create ads that bring a smile.
A: Can we change the mindset?
STK: Unfortunately the influences we are absorbing seem to be taking us into a land of hedonism. We have learned to dance at weddings, to dress outrageously, to speak to the dukandaar in English… But what we have not yet learnt is to develop our minds, to read and be informed. One can only laugh or afford to be humorous when one is sufficiently informed. We need to use the information we are exposed to positively.
A: Is creativity in Pakistan given the importance it is due by the agencies and the clients?
STK: Have creatives ever tried to make themselves known? Have the creatives in this country ever synergised? Is there a fraternity? Look at other countries. In KL (Kuala Lumpur) there is a street where agency creatives gather in the evenings to exchange ideas, talk about what they are doing, without any paranoia that someone might steal an idea. Ideas come from the mind, and one idea stolen is not the end of the world. You can come up with another, even better idea. There should be interaction, a fraternity between creatives. What is Cannes all about? What is the World Festival all about? What are all these awards about? They are about meeting, interacting and sharing ideas.
A: So why don’t creatives interact in Pakistan? And it’s pointless looking at the PAA (Pakistan Advertising Association) for help as some industry people have suggested.
STK: All the associations are caught up in their own struggle for power. We are a 58 year old country, yet there is still no institute for excellence; no school of communication, no institute where creatives can come together. Art schools are not the answer, nor is the IBA (Institute of Business Administration) nor are the management schools. There is no institute of liberal arts here.
A: Who exactly should be taking the initiative?
STK: The initiative should be taken by those people who fight for power and come into positions of power.
A: Going by their track record, they are unlikely to do that?
STK: Should they be elected or allowed to stand then? Why aren’t younger people coming forward?
A: You are talking about the associations?
STK: Yes. Why is the power in the hands of a few who keep coming back? Why aren’t younger people coming in and saying okay, I am taking charge. I am a doer and I am going to build something? A café, a club, somewhere people can meet? Somebody should take the initiative, but we are all so caught up in our own lives and money making mechanics that we aren’t doing this and by not doing so, we are depriving ourselves of great minds and great ideas.
A: What needs to be done to overcome the present talent crunch?
STK: Educational institutions can play a great role here. The business management and art schools should be more proactive. There is no postgraduate degree in communications. There are no technical training facilities. There is no school for teaching film; okay the Indus Valley has a set-up, but it is too small. Internationally, it is the multinationals that take on this sort of thing. They invest in production facilities; they put people on contracts, so that after two years of training, they are tied by the contract to join that multinational or agency for a certain period. We can’t expect anything to happen on a government level; the government has bigger problems. The stakeholders should be more proactive. Why does Unilever, Nestlé, Pepsi or whoever, allow their commercials to be made abroad? Because they want good production values. Because the basics required for good production are not available here; no one has invested in them. Some visionary has to look into this and invest. If you look at the average number of films made for multinationals, the production costs go into millions. If an investment was made and those machines were set up here, we would save foreign exchange and time. I was interested in setting up a training institute for film, performing arts and liberal arts, but I did not have any backing or any support. I am still interested in doing this.
A: Do you think that the seth factor within certain ad agencies is stymieing creativity?
STK: I disagree. The largest companies in America are mostly family-run, going from father to son. But the son must be up to the challenge; he should have the merit and calibre to take over. There are agencies here, where the son has taken over and is doing a sterling job. But the son, or daughter, must be a visionary; they must carry the passion within them.
A: What are the limitations and the opportunities that confront a creative director in Pakistan?
STK: I haven’t looked at it as limitations and challenges. I have just been doing a job for the last 23 years. Every time I do a job and someone asks me if I am excited it has been a success, to me it is just another job done. I prefer to look at what was weak, what wasn’t done right. So far, I have never been 100% happy with anything I have done. The challenge for creatives is not to be complacent or over-confident, but to strive for better work. I don’t consider a brilliant idea well executed as a milestone. It can be done even better the next time; that is the challenge.
A: Of the many campaigns you have worked on, which one has been the most exciting or most satisfying to work on?
STK: Not yet done.
Seema Taher Khan was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig