"Agencies are conditioned to think inside the box, which is why they come back with the same ideas again and again"
Published in Nov-Dec 2021
AURORA: After a long and successful career across different marketing functions, you are now involved in TV commercials and video production. What was the trajectory that led you to
SAMI QAHAR: What I am doing now has always been a passion project, although I did not plan it that way. I started my career in advertising in 2004 with Ogilvy Pakistan. I have loved advertising since I was a child, but I realised that in Pakistan, advertising has its limits as a career in terms of how far one can go. So I moved to Tang-Mondelez as brand manager and then to Nestlé. Then I worked abroad for Henkel; I spent 21 months in marketing and then moved to sales for about six years. I then did my Master’s in Business Psychology. It was a leap of faith; I quit work and I went to the UK to study psychology. I graduated in December 2019 and came back to Pakistan to carry out the research part of my Master’s and worked for Haleeb. Once I completed my degree, I met Faisal (Hashmi) and this is how I now find myself in this office.
A: Given the length of your experiences in marketing communications, would you say that advertising as a career choice is losing its lustre?
SQ: From a career choice point of view, advertising was never the first choice for business graduates. Now there are many other options in the shape of start-ups and tech companies. Plus, there is the fact that advertising is not as financially rewarding as it used to be. A lot of funding is going to start-ups from venture capitalists – $85 million to Airlift, eight million to Bagallery; advertising will never gain you five million dollars’ worth of funding from anywhere. However, from a creative point of view, the lustre has increased. In fact, the stories have gone and lustre and glamour have taken over. TVCs have become grandiose films, beautifully shot with great camerawork, lots of gloss and attractive looking men and women. But there are no real stories. The reason we remember Indian ads is because they are story-based; in Pakistan, 90% of the time, there are none. There are either dances or celebrities talking to the camera or glamorous visual montages with voiceovers. How can people be expected to remember a voiceover monologue?
A: The absence of storytelling is cited by almost everyone in the industry. What I fail to understand is why, if it is such a problem, nothing is changing in this respect?
SQ: Because hiring and shooting beautiful visuals is easier. Stories need thought. There is a misconception among the agency and brand people that visual montages with voiceovers are actually concepts. Yet, to make people laugh or cry requires a lot of thought; you have to hire people who can act out and translate those emotions. The other limitation is the fact that a storyteller does not necessarily have to be a copywriter. Earlier, the copywriter and the creative director were different functions, now the same person does both jobs; writing the copy as well as the concept. We need creative people whose job is to concentrate on writing stories. Then, of course, brands are risk averse. Stories always have an inherent risk. A visual montage cannot fail; beautiful visuals and a voiceover – what can go wrong? They are safe and everyone is happy.
A: These montages must work; otherwise clients would not be investing their production budgets on them.
SQ: It depends on the definition of ‘work’. ‘Worked’ in the sense they were a hit in the boardroom? It does not necessarily mean they did wonders for the brand or for sales. When it comes to brand health results, we don’t know, because brands do not share this information. From a top of mind perspective, people still remember Ufone’s humour based ads released in the nineties. If you ask people about a Ufone ad that ran two years ago, they will not remember it, but they will remember the ads that ran 20 years ago. For me, they ‘worked’. At that time, Ufone were the second largest telecom brand in Pakistan and growing. Today, Ufone are nowhere, it is all about Jazz, Telenor and Zong. The shift in their communication platform did not work for them.
A: Why did they move away from a winning formula?
SQ: Very often brands try to do something different even when it is not needed. Ufone’s ads were popular, the problem was that the perception was that Ufone was a very mass brand – for the chaiwalas and street vendors – and in fact, they were Ufone customers and the ads were targeting them. Then the management changed and they decided they wanted to go premium and compete in the post-paid market, so they wanted to project a more sophisticated image of the brand. They tried to fix something that was probably not broken. They lost their target audience and could not compete in other segments. This often happens. New management comes in and they want to change the strategy and the communication. Consistency is the key. Surf Excel’s ‘Daagh Tou Achay Hote Hain’ was developed in 1998 in Brazil, and became the modern parenting platform, based on the idea that children should be allowed to go out to play and if they get dirty, Surf will take care of the stains. This platform is still going strong, and although sometimes the ads seem a little repetitive, Surf have consistently built the brand around this platform. If you don’t have a reason to change, don’t. Generally, in Pakistan, especially among the local companies, when new management comes in, they want to change things and change can go both ways – fail completely or work wonderfully. Some brands have benefited by changing their positioning and others have lost share because of it.
A: Is this an issue in Pakistan, the fact that when the marketing director changes, the communication strategy tends to change as well?
SQ: There are two types of companies in Pakistan. The local companies – the seth companies – and the multinational companies. Both have their own set of problems. The multinationals are more consistent from a strategic point of view. Their strategy is usually the global one and is based on a five to 10-year plan. The disadvantage is that multinationals work on an assignment rotation basis. Their people stay in a function for 24 to 36 months and then move to another and this limits their thinking. They think in terms of just two campaigns, and their objectives are to do those campaigns and get good results and the long-term thinking is compromised, especially in terms of any creative vision. With local companies, everything depends on the seth’s mood and this can lead to some really strange product launches at times.
A: How do you respond to the notion that the creative space, traditionally considered to be the domain of the creative agencies, is increasingly encroached upon by other advertising services providers?
SQ: I don’t agree with this. A good marketing director needs three attributes. Creativity, business acumen and operational control. Creativity’s part in this equation is 20%; business acumen accounts for 40% and operational control for another 40%. So, when we talk about creativity, we are in the 20% domain and it is not necessary for a marketing director to get involved in that 20% and this is why he hires an agency to take care of the 20%. Furthermore, creativity can be in anyone’s hands. Today I can come up with a great idea, tomorrow you can – it is not in anyone’s control. If a brand manager comes up with a good suggestion which improves the creative idea, you cannot call that encroachment. However, when egos are fragile and if someone does not like others coming into what they perceive to be their exclusive domain, that is a different matter. In the accepted sequence of who does what within the marketing communications matrix, the brand comes first, the agency second and then the production house. Technically, the production house has no say, except to shoot the film. However, we try to add value when necessary. For example, agencies usually do not have lyricists – people who write the words of a jingle. In Pakistan, jingles are usually written by the copywriter. As I said earlier, one person does everything; writing the jingle, the concept and the copy. But being a lyricist involves specific skills. Lyricists write songs based on a tune or a musical score and if they don’t, the result can be weird; no rhythm, no meter... Yet, if I want to fix this problem, others will not allow it. That is how it is. Creative agencies do not want to let you into their area and I don’t know who defined that this is their area. The problem is that people are less concerned about improving the output of a creative idea and more about not letting anyone get involved in their area. Similarly, in terms of the brand, the agency develops the concept and because the clients fund it, they have every right to make changes. Creative accounts for 20% of a marketing director’s responsibilities and if he wants to make changes, that is also his job. The fact is that there are no boundaries in creative.
A: Yes, but someone has to be responsible and accountable for taking the lead and isn’t that the role of the creative agency?
SQ: Not if the agency is unable to give the marketing director what he wants. The brand team’s job is to provide the brief and it is the responsibility of the agencies to understand that brief. They can come up with an excellent creative concept, but if it doesn’t fit the brief, it will be rejected, and if at the third or fourth round of presentations they still cannot nail the brief, the marketing director will tell them what to do and take the lead. I have sat at the other side of the table and seen it happen. Many times I have asked my agency to think out of the box and take a risk. Yet, in the end, they come back with a risk averse option. Agencies are conditioned to think inside the box, which is why they come back with the same ideas again and again. Everything is a process and when a brand is involved, the brief has to be respected and if the agency is not following the brief, then everyone working on the project has the right to encroach. There will always be arguments. It is a matter of convincing or being convinced and if at the end of the day, the brand team decides this is the way they want to do it, then we have to do it their way, because they are the clients.
A: Do brand managers in Pakistan know how to write a proper brief?
SQ: This is a valid point. When I started my career, briefs were written by brand managers in Pakistan. Today, over half of the multinationals don’t write the brief; it comes from the regional hub and brand managers no longer know how to write them. Another issue is that our briefs are based on obsolete templates; in Pakistan we are still following templates set 15 years ago. Clients are using old methodologies based on SEC and target markets – and when you define a target market based on this method, you end up with, for example, a 25 to 35-year-old female belonging to SEC A. Nestlé defined the target market for Maggie noodles as urban samurai; it does not specify age, gender or income. You and I can be urban samurais; an ‘urban samurai’ is anyone who lives in a city, wakes up in the morning and needs to prepare food in two minutes. It means they are a samurai (a warrior) as well as urban, and they will do whatever it takes to get that food ready in two minutes – that is their definition of their target audience. Such briefs force agencies to think very differently in conceptual terms compared to what they would if the audience was defined as ‘25 to 35-year-old females’. Nespresso defined their target audience as women “looking for selfish adult sensations”. They did not specify age, income or geography. These are the briefs that inspire agencies to create great advertising.
A: To what extent is consistency compromised by the increasing trend to appoint agencies on a project basis?
SQ: Consistency is only possible when you appoint agencies on a long-term basis. However, due to Covid-19, clients have moved away from the retainer model because the volume of work has decreased and business is slow.
A: Will this process reverse if and when business picks up?
SQ: It depends. I have worked with almost all the agencies in Pakistan and they are pretty much the same. Brands keep changing agencies, because the first year is good, the second year brings problems and in the third year there is a change in agency. This process of shuffling agencies has been going on for a long time because creative-wise, these agencies are pretty much the same.
A: Do you think the issue of transparency in the advertising business is improving?
SQ: It is not improving. The reason is that all sides are involved. The production houses, the agencies and the clients. As a result, advertising is becoming more and more expensive to execute. You can shoot a three-hour film within a budget of Rs 30 million, yet shooting a 30-second video will cost Rs 50 million. The situation could end today if everyone were prepared to do something about it, but it is too widespread and to think it will improve or disappear altogether is unlikely.
Sami Qahar was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org