Pakistan advertising regularly sees breakthrough concepts used to advertise one brand, replicated to the extent that they become irrelevant, yet are not phased out even then. Competitors, who need to stand out with unique brand essences, fail to communicate their differentiation, rather end up taking the exact same route taken by other brands in the same category relieving themselves of any distinct positioning that should have been theirs to cherish. At times, there is a strong disconnect between the brand’s positioning as communicated through the product and packaging, and the one communicated through its advertisements. Jingles, coupled with dancing, are the order of the day (read: ad), a number of times defeating all sense of aesthetic value.

What is lacking in brand building in Pakistan? Why is communication lacking diversity? What is holding back our creative output? I decided to find out reasons from professionals in our creative and marketing industry, and they had a lot to say.

Syed Muhammad Shuja, Creative Director, Synergy Dentsu, says not many clients are willing to experiment. “We take inspiration from Indian advertising and try creating something similar, but since we have to keep our cultural values in consideration when we try replicating, we end up with campaigns that are generic and lack insights. We do not realize that what makes good Indian commercials click, is the use of insights. They take one insight, related to the psyche of the target audience, sync the brand idea to it and make the whole commercial around it.”

Is it important to have a high budget, I ask. Syed Zaheer Uddin, Director/Executive Producer, iDcreations, explains, “A good commercial can be simply shot in one room with only two people having an engaging concept and story, for instance see the Cadbury Dairy Milk India ads. They give importance to insights that viewers can relate to. There does not need to be elaborate scenery or settings that require a high budget.” Then why is it that a number of marketers cite production values as a key to good commercials and insist budgetary spending on it, roping in expensive directors? “Production values can only deliver gloss to a commercial; grand sets, beautiful locations, celebrity faces etc. Our major weakness is our content. We hardly have any. How many ads or movies have you seen in the past three years that you find memorable, with dialogues or situations that you want to listen to or watch again for their depth and understanding of the human psyche?”

Zaheer Uddin is known for carrying out insightful and out-of-the-box projects, including the Kenwood Appliances TV ads and the multi episode commercials for Dostea, as well as the recent Telenor sponsored movie made for the digital medium, ‘Oye Kuch Kar Guzar’. “A good director can make actors deliver, only if the idea allows for the script to be executed in such a way. We have very good actors in Pakistan and I have shot many acting based commercials with them, which are flawless. The problem is that our scripts are not close to real life. Actors can’t do anything if the script is not doing justice. Our ads are too glossy and beautiful, but with weak concepts.”

While on the subject, he elaborated on the quality of production in the country, “Our production values are actually comparable to international standards. We have reasonable production equipment and post-production facilities, which are seeing a continuous upgrade since the past four years. 80% of post-production, including visual effects are done in Pakistan. All our feature films are now being edited and graded locally. The area that needs improvement is the expertise of the technical resources deployed on these facilities, and even they are improving ever since our cinema got a new lifeline. I expect a comprehensively sound technical infrastructure in the next five years as more and more people get trained. Yes, there are producers and directors who go abroad, but that is usually since they prefer expertise in certain areas like finalizing, sound mixing etc.”

Senior professionals from the industry provide overarching yet coinciding views. Qashif Effendi, now CEO, Reem Rice Mills, previously Marketing Manager (Beverages), Unilever Pakistan and concept creator for ‘Supreme Ishq’, the 2-part branded song series, says from experience, “An ad is effective if it accomplishes the objectives of the brand, and I blame our lackluster ads on clients. Most ads are clichéd since clients are unaware of the deep consumer insights that should drive concepts and ads. Also, competitive differentiation is missing in most categories and the brand in the ad can easily be replaced by its competitive brand and the commercial would still make sense. Some ads are so generic that you can replace the entire category and the ad would make sense. Most edible oil, detergents and tea ads support this conclusion. For multinationals, getting a global ad and localizing it means they have their hands tied and are simply executing a global ad.”

“Sadly Pakistan has seen a lot of brain drain in the last decade and this reflects in the quality of work being produced by agencies. Mediocre clients equal mediocre advertising, no matter how good an agency is. For experimentation, you have to bet on the right horse and have some creative license by your bosses. I was fortunate that Supreme Tea was a local archetype brand and hence had minimum dictates by the region and global bosses. Also, the local Unilever management was supportive of out-of-the-box initiatives which led to ground breaking work like Supreme Ishq.”

Ali Raza Merchant, a veteran marketing professional who has seen both sides of the brand and creative divide, does not blame clients solely for the monotony that Pakistani advertising can’t seem to come out of. “Good or bad concepts is not the issue. To me the issue is whether we understand the role of ‘Brand Positioning’ and ‘The Big Idea’. I can guarantee that most brand managers in Pakistan cannot give you the positioning statement of their brand and even if they can, they cannot visualize how to apply it in width and depth in idea building and execution/application. On the other hand, most creative managers in Pakistan do not have the training or understanding of how to create a big idea based on the brand positioning. To me this is a lethal combination that produces mediocre concepts and ideas. Most concepts are based on how well they can be executed instead of whether they have any relevance to the brand positioning (if it is clearly defined).”

Qamar Abbas, Executive Director, Pakistan Advertisers Society, asserts a similar argument, “Clients and in certain cases, agencies fear to experiment, hence are not able to produce ground breaking communication. Obviously, it goes without saying that for experimentation, all the right ingredients like in-depth understanding of the industry, deep consumer insight, identifying the right challenge, setting clear objectives and working on every detail of the campaign are essential.”

So what is it that is contributing to a lack of creative drive? Qamar Abbas raises a few questions in answer. “Do professionals of our industry really yearn for learning? How much do we invest? Yes, internet tells us what is happening around the world, gives us access to all the great ideas and campaigns, but with this knowledge, have we developed real understanding?”

Are social norms a problem, since as a society we are getting more and more cautious of inciting religious backlash? “Some local companies are wary of showing females in ads due to religious beliefs so it gives an added challenge to creatives. All brands trying to appear cool have to show ‘friendship’ between a boy and girl usually in a campus setting, which most beverage brands fall prey to. I feel Indian clients such as Fevicol, Amul Butter etc. are more daring in pushing the envelop and challenge their agencies to come up with unique ideas. In our case, we like to copy whatever is the flavor of the day and are risk averse to changes or new ideas”, opines Qashif Effendi.

Ali Raza Merchant differs, “I don’t believe that social norms have any real bearing on the quality of advertising in Pakistan. I also don’t think that if Indian advertising is better than ours, it is because they deal with social taboos better. I’ll support this with the example of Iranian cinema, which has time and again proven that you do not need glamour, high budgets, sex appeal and controversy to make an idea successful rather it is due to well-researched and well-scripted stories that are truly reflective of the Iranian culture and lifestyle. Interestingly, their stories appeal to worldwide audiences, including western societies who have a totally different lifestyle. It is not the execution, but the human connection and response of people in the stories, which are universal and viewers can relate to. Unless we understand and interweave big ideas into concepts that relates to people (who are also consumers), concepts will never be creative. Creativity does not come out of a vacuum; it is the outcome of multiple thought processes, which fit like a glove when applied in the advertising context.”

Moving towards a conclusion, I ask what measures need to be taken to encourage more insightful campaigns. Has introducing a platform like PAS Awards aided Pakistani advertising? Answers Qamar Abbas, “Globally, you will see that awards are contributing towards strategizing and executing winning marketing and advertising efforts that have great ideas at their heart. This, directly and indirectly, has an effect on the quality of communication being produced. The acknowledgement also benefits agencies as they get recognized for their work, which becomes part of their credentials providing another reason for producing great work. I firmly believe that PAS Awards, as a platform, has the same effect. It has and will, make our communications more creative and effective; two qualities the program focuses a lot on. Looking at the last 6 years, I have seen a lot of clients and agencies now crave for the award. I have also seen clients now subtly questioning agencies on the effectiveness of a campaign if it did not qualify in the awards. I also see agencies demanding clients for being more adventurous; moving away from the usual mold for creating something ground breaking. This has slightly but definitely resulted in better campaigns. Although, we are still not there yet, but I feel PAS awards will give an extra impetus to move in that direction. We also plan to expand the award program out to other countries in the region and I feel that the increased competition will give a further boost to our industry in producing great work.”

“There are two more benefits that we see coming out of the award program. One, making clients and agencies more research oriented. As ‘results’ is a major part of evaluation, we encourage both to focus on the ROI of their campaigns and back them with numbers i.e. having measurable KPI’s in place when objectives are set. The second benefit that we want to drive is encouraging true partnership between clients and agencies, as I believe that only a winning partnership can create winning communication.”

Ali Raza Merchant gives a coinciding opinion, “The good or bad quality of advertising has a lot to do with the fact that advertising is a process and it can only be creative if the process is followed in true spirit. Having first-hand experience of marketing and advertising in Pakistan, it is obvious that we do not respect or follow the steps required to arrive at the right advertising solutions. In Pakistan, the control of creative direction and execution is hugely dependent on marketing proficiencies of brand managers. This is perhaps due to the fact that brand managers do not trust advertising agencies and treats them as extended employees who need to be subservient to their wishes as they are footing the bill. They need to understand that it’s the agencies who are experts on the subject matter of ideas and concepts.”

“The situation will turn on its head if marketing professionals make advertising agencies partners to the process. The word ‘partner’ needs to be understood, as it is a two-way process which assigns responsibility to each expert in their respective fields. This also means that remuneration must also be based on results i.e. bonuses should be given to the Advertising Partner if they exceed clearly identified goals for campaigns. I believe that the lack of such a relationship is the main reason that Pakistani advertising is so run of the mill, barring exceptions. If clients continue playing safe, results will be no different from the past. This is why Pakistan has not been successful in developing a Regional or Global Brand. This requires a lot of courage, which includes the courage to fail before succeeding.”

Qamar Abbas further addresses the need for collaboration in the industry. “PAS Awards is one platform encouraging excellence in advertising, but there is more to be done. To raise the standard of advertising in Pakistan, industry bodies like PAA, APNS and PBA, also have to play a collective role. In addition to looking after our own areas of working, there is a dire need to collaborate on initiatives that benefit the industry and its professional at large. We firmly need to believe that we will only grow, as individuals and as companies, if the industry grows and therefore we need to collaborate and work towards a common goal.”