Interview with Javed Jabbar, Honorary Chairman, AdAsia 2019.
MARIAM ALI BAIG: As Honorary Chairman AdAsia 2019 and the Chairman AdAsia ’89, how will you compare AdAsia 2019 to the 1989 edition?
JAVED JABBAR: We are looking at a very different Pakistan and a very different world. Vastly changed geo-political, economic and technological conditions; today’s democracy is different from what it was in 1989, when we were emerging from a long period of martial law. Today, we are very distant from martial law, yet we have a covert and sometimes apparent influence of the military on Pakistani political affairs, but that is internal. Globally, this is a very different world, and one would say that the relationship between advertising and marketing with the citizen/consumer has vastly changed too. The growth of income inequality in the world is so much more painful today than in 1989. Inequality may have existed then to the same degree, but it was not as apparent as it is today. That one statistic alone... that one percent of the world’s population owns over 50% of the world’s wealth is almost obscene in its implications. Our population growth has sharpened this sense of inequality, as has this relentless march towards consumerism and the disruptive and destructive development ethos we pursue. Development is judged by the number of buildings, roads and factories we build, which is all right, but I am disturbed by the damage that we are wreaking on the planet and the prospects we face because of climate change. All this casts a new light on the role of advertising and marketing. Ten years before AdAsia ’89, the theme of First Pakistan Advertising Congress was “Advertising and National Development – Challenge and Response”. Even then, one felt that advertising could not remain in this ivory tower of just selling more and more. I hope AdAsia 2019 will encourage reflection on marketing and advertising as extensions of global capitalism and on fundamental conceptual issues. I am not saying there is a need to overthrow the system, but there is a need for reform and greater sensitivity to the citizen as distinct from the consumer.
MAB: Will the programme address these issues?
JJ: The featured speakers I have seen so far are not reflective of the harsh realities I have mentioned, yet they will not be insensitive to what is happening around them. They will, I hope, in their presentations reflect the larger framework within which we are operating. They will be conscious of this fantastic new movement, where children, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s example, have been motivated to call for a strike against climate change. In answer to your question, does the programme reflect these concerns, partly they do, and I would like to listen to the presentations and then give a definitive answer.
MAB: Do you think this year’s theme – Celebrasian – reflects these concerns?
JJ: I was not party to the choice of theme, but I can begin to understand why it was selected. Pakistan is going through this pervasive sense of economic crisis and general uncertainty, despite the fact that we have held an election. There is a mood of pessimism and I think the theme has sought to address this and suggest that there are things to celebrate or acknowledge, not only in Pakistan but in Asia. We tend to underestimate those aspects we have managed to achieve. The IMF has been a dominant aspect in our economic gloom for the last one year but I take pride in the fact that, for example, a country like Argentina, which is economically bigger than Pakistan, has been going through a profound economic crisis for several years. Argentina has not only borrowed heavily from the IMF, it has defaulted on its sovereign debt six times. Pakistan has never defaulted on its loans and although we are in a grim situation, it shows that we honour our commitments – and that is worth celebrating. So perhaps Celebrasian is a way forward to maintaining our self-confidence and building on our strengths.
MAB: How relevant is AdAsia 2019 to the majority of Pakistani ad agencies? I ask this in the context of AdAsia ’89, when there was tremendous enthusiasm about the event.
I don’t sense this enthusiasm this time, particularly among younger practitioners.
JJ: Your question illustrates the fact that AdAsia ’89 came about as a result of 10 years of evolution from the First Pakistan Advertising Congress, which brought together many young people, who then brought a lot of vitality, spirit and relevance to AdAsia ’89. Unfortunately, in the last few years there has not been an institutional attempt to bring together people on a regular or even a periodic basis. If this process had been continued it would have set the stage for a much higher active engagement by young people in AdAsia 2019.
MAB: The programme has a dual purpose; to talk about advertising as well as promote the soft image of Pakistan. Is this a wise decision?
JJ: First of all I want to commend the enthusiasm, energy and commitment of Sarmad Ali and of Ali Mandviwalla and of the committee as a whole who have taken on a project that would have been very difficult to handle even in the best of circumstances – and they are doing so at a time when Pakistan has a far more negative image than in 1989. In 1989, we were in a sense emerging; the Afghan War had been concluded; martial law had ended, Zia was gone; Benazir Bhutto was elected. There was a sense of opening up. The last two to three years have been bad for Pakistan even though we have democracy. To initiate and take this project forward and hold it regardless of the prevailing conditions is an extraordinary achievement. To answer your question, this is a conceptual issue. Do we see advertising from a purely technocratic, skill-based perspective? Or do we look at a larger, more holistic perspective, whereby advertising and marketing do not exist in a vacuum. In 1989, we let the social programme project this other aspect; whether at the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore Fort, Governor House, the Alhamra or even the dance recital by Nahid Siddiqui. All that was the icing on the cake and for the cake itself, we had maestros such as Edward de Bono, who spoke about how thinking is central to creativity, advertising and marketing. I think the organisers chose a wider framework in keeping with the theme; that there is much to celebrate in terms of Asia’s cultural diversity and Pakistan’s historical civilisation.
MAB: What made AdAsia ’89 such a great success?
JJ: A combination of factors. First and foremost, the remarkable cohesion between media, advertising and the government at federal and provincial levels. The cohesion between the federal and provincial governments is particularly relevant because for the first time in Pakistan’s history we had a federal government that was in conflict with the Punjab government, and Lahore was the capital of Punjab and the seat of AdAsia. I was the Minister of State for Information in the Federal Government as well as the Chairman of AdAsia and I was from the Pakistan Peoples Party, which was in conflict with the PML led by Nawaz Sharif. It was to the credit of the federal and provincial governments that they cooperated. One incident in particular stands out. During Zia’s 11 years, no dance performance was allowed at the Alhamra and we planned to ask Nahid Siddiqui to perform. The Alhamra was controlled by the Punjab government. I called Nawaz Sharif and I acknowledged that there was political tension between our parties but I told him we were hosting an international congress and we wanted to present Nahid Siddiqui to an international audience and do away with these negative images of Pakistan, so would he allow a dance recital at the Alhamra and he agreed. This decision changed peoples’ perspective of how art and culture thrive in Pakistan. So, one of the factors that made AdAsia ’89 a success was this incredible cohesion among people working together for a common cause. Secondly, it was the first time ever that an international advertising congress was being hosted in Pakistan. Pakistani advertising, marketing and media had never put together such a congress and everything was new. Thirdly, there was a sense of pride and confidence in what we had to present. We were proud that Pakistan had entered a new era of democracy; that we could claim to have the world’s first woman Muslim prime minister. It was this ambience and spirit that made AdAsia ’89. Lastly, everything went according to schedule; we planned everything to the last detail and left nothing to chance. The weather was also on our side; cool afternoons, no rain, no excessive cold weather. It was like magic; everyone worked hard and it was marvellous.
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