Published in Mar-Apr 2023
History, it is said, is made up of hundreds of different narratives. Which one of these we choose to tell depends on who is telling it, and to whom we are telling it. We have not captured history well when it comes to advertising and media in Pakistan. The range of narratives in Pakistan’s advertising history is not only wide – it is mostly a function of our collective or individual memories.
Let me present a short appraisal of the ad industry over the past 70 years, with some attempt at foresight. What follows is simplistic in some cases, descriptive in some, and in others, a mere opinion.
The evolution of the media has triggered growth in ad spend:
Growth in ad spend is a function of factors such as the strength of the economy, belief in the effectiveness of advertising, and the cost of media. Progressive developments in media tend to drive the cost of media up. Pakistan spends relatively less per capita on advertising than most markets. It is also one of the cheapest markets in the world to buy media by CPM comparisons. The size of Pakistan’s ad industry is about $700 million. It has grown consistently and there is still room for growth, which will be a combination of the factors mentioned above. Increases in advertising expenditure have mostly been a function of developments in the media landscape. Launches of cinemas and TV in the sixties, colour TV in the seventies, reputable print publications (Herald in the late sixties and fashion magazines later), satellite channels in the nineties, NTM and then the private TV channels. These developments provided new ways of reaching consumers and drew more investment from brands. Digital media channels have driven the growth of the industry recently and will continue to do so. Digital CPMs are higher than traditional media CPMs so there will be inflation in the cost of media. Estimates say that Pakistan’s ad spend will grow by seven to eight percent over the next few years – making the size of the industry comparable to some emerging markets and greater than some others.
Demand on talent will become even tougher:
Pakistan’s ad industry has mostly been driven by legacy (and legendary) entrepreneurs. Prince Abbas Mirza (D.J. Keymer and of pre-Partition heritage), Anwar Rammal, Shaukat Fancy, Naseer Haider, Javed Jabbar, the Thavers, S.H. Hashmi, C.A. Rauf, Bashir Khan and countless others. Later, Taher A. Khan, Shahnoor Ahmed, Jawaid Iqbal and Imran Mir built great advertising businesses. Most of these people transferred the management of their agencies to their children or trusted seconds-in-command. The objective of this transfer in management was to ensure that businesses and their reputations remained intact. During most of our history, the advertising profession has never been the first choice of career for most professionals. It is no surprise then that agency owners had no option but to transfer power to ‘familiar people’ because there were few ‘people of skills’ available. In the late nineties, international networks started to invest in Pakistani agencies. WPP were the first with Mindshare. The challenge then arose of developing professional managers who did not necessarily come from the families of agency owners. The industry had the arduous task of building a talent pipeline. At that time, Pakistan went through its share of political and social turmoil. Consequently, there was a massive brain drain. People such as Karim Rammal to amazing talents such as Qaiser Bachani, Wahab Ghaznavi, Yasir Riaz and Cyma Zulfiqar left the country to pursue international careers. Others decided to pursue other careers or start their own companies. Sarmad Ali decided to join the Jang Group, Imran Irshad went abroad and then returned to open his own agency, as did Shoaib Qureshy; Raihan Merchant made a fortune by going solo early in his career. A few good leaders emerged in the 2000s – among them Starcom, Ogilvy, JWT and BBDO. The industry is going to put greater demands on talent and there is a need to build different areas of expertise. The skill profile of the ad person of the future will be vastly different from what it is today. New expertise, such as experience design, data management and technology are becoming central to the profession. Academic or vocational training for such skills is presently non-existent in Pakistan.
Stagnation in ‘commercial design’ sense:
Educational institutions have had a substantial impact on our fine arts and textile design. But how much have they influenced Pakistan’s collective ‘commercial design’ output? Drive from Sindhi Muslim Society through to Tariq Road and on to Bahadurabad in Karachi to get a feel of our design sense. This stretch is packed with retail outlets. The shop signs are a visual cacophony. Go to Zamzama in Karachi, Mall Road in Lahore or Murree Road in Rawalpindi, and the experience is similar. Our design schools have had virtually no grassroots impact on the ‘visual health’ of Pakistan. Part of the reason is the lack of design literacy among business owners. However, not all our design work has been in vain. Take Imran Mir. His rebranding of Muslim Commercial Bank in the late nineties, followed by a change of signage for their 1,400 branches nationwide, was perhaps the most refreshing design upgrade the streets of Pakistan have seen. Mir came from the heritage of Creative Unit at Dawn where Tannaz Minwalla and Mannan Hatim Ali were doing their bit in promoting brilliant design. At the same time, A.G. Khaled was redefining the art of publication design at The News. A young man named Akmal Cheema was winning international design awards for his work for Libas. Shahzad Nawaz had come in with One:2:One and introduced an offbeat design genre. At Asiatic/JWT, two young Indus graduates, Shahbaz and Murtaza, were setting new standards in advertising. They later went on to make their careers with IPG, Fallon, Razorfish, Digitas and Under Armour. Rohail Hayat sharpened his tools at Pyramid Productions, pushing the envelope in product design and animation. Those were perhaps the best commercial design days Pakistani advertising has ever seen. The trend did not carry on.
Memorable advertising has been archetypical and not easy to find: There is a class of Pakistani advertising that has proven unforgettable and which we have grown up humming. Naurus, Binaca, Dentonic, Rhythm of Unity, State Life, Brooke Bond Supreme, Shan, Ciba Geigy Polytrin C, Dollar Ink, Mohammad Farooq Textiles, Gillette Blue II and Ufone are a few examples. This class of advertising is culturally iconic, fundamentally ‘Pakistani’ – and archetypical. It is driven by cultural insights and is not given the ‘aspirational’ makeover much of our advertising seems to have. You can recognise it miles away. This work stands as a contrast to most of the advertising that shies away from embracing our culture. When I worked in advertising in Pakistan, creative concepts were written and presented in English and then translated into Urdu for execution. Urdu copywriters were a rare breed and often not at the top of the food chain. Quite a lot of our great advertising ideas have thus been lost in translation. Reactions to advertising concepts in the boardrooms have far too often been mistaken for the presumed reaction consumers would have to our advertising. If we look at India, this has not been the case; the Indian advertising that inspires us is embedded in the language of the streets. Ironically, some of Pakistan’s recent advertising work which is archetypical has been written by Indians. There could be deeper reasons for this, but we will never have creative excellence without mass cultural insights. The work people like Ali Rez are doing (which is winning international recognition) has this phenomenon at its heart and needs to become an everyday practice. It will not, unless ad practitioners restore their pride in their own culture.
First published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017) on March 31, 2018.
Asad-ur-Rehman is a Dubai-based marketing/communications consultant.