As originally published in Synergyzer Annual 2019

Numan Nabi, CEO – The Brand Partnership & Vice Chairman PAA

How have the past few years been for the industry?

I would prefer classifying the industry into basic components because when you use the word ‘industry’ it takes into account not just advertising but other important stakeholders also who play a significant role along with us.

Firstly, I will elaborate on the ‘Industry’ component. The overall industry has grown for the past few years and all the stakeholders have benefitted from this. The most important contributing factor to this “growth” which I would say is not simply growth, which is generally reflected in numbers, but an “evolutionary growth” where evolution also is visible, has been the boom in the media sector. Second is the ‘media’. As mentioned above, the media boomed in the mid-2000 and since then there has been no stopping this. It can be gauged through the number of TV channels operating in Pakistan with genre classifications amongst channels being clearly visible along with the growth in ad revenue especially on television and on digital, creation of new media avenues and opportunities, improved salaries and benefits being offered to the HR in the media industry. And lastly, the interest of business houses in this sector by way of developing content and investment in technology etc. Thirdly, advertising. This sector also showed vast improvement over the past few years not only in terms of the creative output produced by ad agencies but also by way of training and specialization of HR, use of modern tools for planning and research which resulted in higher standard of professionalism. The advertising sector has been very active in acquiring knowledge and business practices from global groups thus adding value to the services provided to the advertisers in Pakistan. Advertising agencies have also kept pace with times and have offered more specialized services to advertisers in terms of the service bouquet they offer, which is an important need of advertisers today. Agencies are more focused on strategic direction without which goals can neither be set nor can ROI be measured. Fourthly, advertisers. Although today’s advertisers do consist of a vast majority of businesses who are still discount-focused, they are also open to strategic input from ad agencies and they do realize the significance of quality. This is mainly due to consumerism in Pakistan making the market shift from sellers to buyers, forcing the advertisers to look beyond just concepts or creatives to strategic concepts and creatives. However, the advertiser unfortunately still has to accept advertising as an investment rather than an expense, and once this mindset changes, we will see positive signs in the industry.

Coming to 2018, the ad spends reduced by an estimated 20 to 25% primarily due to US Dollar exchange rate, and no government advertising since July 2018. This did have an adverse impact on all stakeholders.

Media planning and buying has become a concentrated function dominated by some industry players, making it difficult for other agencies to establish themselves. What are your thoughts on this?

I was asked a similar question by Dawn newspaper’s Aurora magazine in August 2001 when the media buying industry was in its initial phases in Pakistan, and the two big boys of the industry had just established themselves. My reply and what it meant was that since media planning and buying is an international practice and the global FMCG companies operating here are major spenders on advertising, they will implement their practices in Pakistan. Hence, both the media buying houses had two of the largest advertisers behind them, which was a major advantage over the rest of the industry. Such muscle behind a business is not just financial; it keeps it abreast of international practices and provides systems and procedures and all advertisers working with such groups anywhere are made to work with local counterparts adding more weight. While our market stayed away from introducing any regulations and became discount-oriented, both media buying companies capitalized on their edge of servicing MNC’s. All these factors combined to create the situation where the two are now controlling the market.

Here I should clarify that I do not disapprove of any companies exerting control over the market. In fact, this is how it happens globally and there are large, medium and small sized entities everywhere. Unfortunately in Pakistan, like the rest of our society where we see a diminishing middle-class, this control has resulted in ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in the media industry.

If people realize the value of service and quality, then quantity becomes secondary, but in our case, quantity is still a priority. Internationally, media buying is actually called ‘Strategic Media Planning and Buying’ as planning is a strong component to the process, however regrettably, buying still takes the front seat in Pakistan. Had those involved understood the dynamics of the system and how it works, this lopsided status quo would not exist today and all the stake holders would have flourished even more.

Back then and even now, the industry needs regulations and guidelines, but nobody attempted to work on them. When there are no frameworks, nothing can be deemed fair or unfair; it is a matter of subjective judgment.

Hence, instead of media planning and buying becoming a blessing, the electronic media houses feel it’s a curse. But then all of us who failed to perform our duty by bringing in rules and regulations are responsible and will suffer in one way or the other.

All in all, as an industry stakeholder, what is your view on the current situation of the advertising industry?

Honestly I am very unhappy with the current situation because I foresee deterioration, and if corrective action on immediate basis is not taken the industry will suffer further in more than one ways.

Let me start by saying that people fail to realize the fact that advertising agencies are specialists in creating strategies, creative campaigns and media planning and buying. We have built global brands including political figures as well as consumer brands. Look at Marlboro, Liril, Pepsi etc. in the world market and similar examples in Pakistan like Peek Freans, National Foods, TJ’s, Rose Petal, Dentonic, Kolson, Milkpak etc. Ad people helped build these brands to change lifestyles, but the fact is hardly recognized.

Having said this, I would say that every one of us forgot our key role and in recent times of growth, all the stakeholders took a myopic view of the situation and did not look beyond today. All jumped the bandwagon and everybody who had the opportunity to pillage the industry, did so and used short cuts in order to gain benefits. And this has created a sorry state of affairs in which mainly the advertising industry is being held responsible for malpractices in handling of government media business, while the truth is that the agency has nothing to do with the rates for government advertising in the media as this is an arrangement between the government and the respective media. The agreed rates are circulated to agencies and they release accordingly, but once an objection is raised to these rates the blame is shifted to the agency and everyone is made to believe that it is our doing. How strange, that the buyer and seller make a deal and the middleman is accused for charging the price. And then hype is given to it resulting in blames put upon the agencies; further holding payments due to them etc., causing hurdles in managing business and financial losses.

Will the revival of PAA help in any way?

Interestingly, I started my career with PAA in 1983. Back then, PAA was an active and vibrant organization even though electronic media only comprised of PTV and Radio Pakistan, and there were a few publications represented by APNS (All Pakistan Newspapers Society). Here I should mention that the then members of PAA and APNS are the founding fathers of today’s media and advertising industry, who would make it a priority to stay continuously engaged in dialogue about industry affairs. They understood that the focus has to be on the growth of the industry; hence fight for business never took precedence over larger industry issues. But eventually, PAA diminished, and the people who came forward did not understand the difference between industry and business. Business can only thrive and flourish if all entities concerned concentrate on the development of the industry. If there is no industry, there is no business. Then two years ago people recognized that the advertising fraternity needed a representative body since they were facing a vacuum due to lack of representation. Yet five critical years had already lapsed, during which the media industry was booming, and had grown to get more powerful than before. And in the process, media bodies representing electronic and print media had laid down supervisory frameworks and enforced them by creating structures and mandates that were primarily beneficial for their businesses. This created a situation which the advertising fraternity sees as an imbalance in the industry. Had the PAA been present and active, the advertising fraternity could have established regulatory frameworks and also taken care of its interests by working closely with the media bodies and presenting its case making everyone understand its issues.

Now, with the litigation case around media government dues payable to the agencies pending in the Supreme Court and the government’s recently announced media policy, there is dialogue again and suddenly everyone including PAS, APNS, PBA and PAA is realizing that we are all stakeholders since everybody needs everybody. I may be saying this sarcastically, but this situation did give more legitimacy to PAA, and I hope that now, with all the industry stakeholders on one page, we can work towards creating a system that will help this industry.

PAA has also taken initiatives for HR development in the industry and is now working towards the organization of ADASIA 2019 at Lahore which will showcase Pakistan to the world. We are also working on reforms to help provide platforms to people associated with the advertising fraternity.

As the Vice Chairman of PAA, how are you making sure of this?

As I mentioned earlier, PAA has become an important organization due to the issues the media industry is currently facing.

I am working closely with Ali Mandviwala, the Chairman of PAA and its CEC in resolving them as a part of the body. Through PAA’s platform, we have been firefighting for the past two years running from pillar to post; creating documents outlining the industry situation and offering solutions. We have also been meeting government ministers, officials and departments to brief them of the reality thus changing their perception of the Pakistani advertising industry. Our efforts in many areas have borne fruit and we are hopeful that things will improve.

We are working with PAS, PBA and APNS to formulate a practical policy and reach a consensus amongst all stakeholders to regulate the media industry and improve business practices and facilitate each other in making the industry grow on professional lines.

What do you mean by practical policy?

In today’s cut and paste world, you can pick up anything from anywhere around the world, whichever country you wish to, but it may not be practical in Pakistan because ours is a different society and culture. This is where you think globally and act locally.

Practical policy application is that you get or acquire an idea from anywhere in the world; learn from it, bring it back, adapt it according to local conditions, and then start building upon it. By doing so you create a policy which is meant to suit you and not disturb your systems.

You also hold sales and marketing rights to Cartoon Network in Pakistan. What challenges do you face when selling airtime to advertisers?

The biggest challenge is the unfounded thought that CN is a kids channel. Actually it is a top 10 channel in Pakistan with excellent reach and penetration. Its ratings amongst adults are as good as kids, but it is wrongly categorized. An important fact is that the ratings should be looked at from the perspective that almost 70% TV homes in the country are single TV homes thus making CN a very strong player. Similarly, in case the mother is not watching CN tuned for the child, she is attentive to where the child is sitting or playing and hence hearing ads playing on the channel. To her CN is radio and the ad message is reaching her. But this challenge remains because we are a nation dependent on status quos. So we keep fighting this.

When we started working with Cartoon Network, the team from the region told us that the channel is competing against the top four entertainment TV channels. Hence, we devised our strategy to cater our programming to a wide array of target age groups. As a result, Cartoon Network achieved a place amongst the top ten channels. Plus, comedy and children’s entertainment is ageless. Who does not enjoy watching Tom and Jerry, Mr. Bean or Charlie Chaplin? By doing this we ensured that the channel stayed relevant and attracted high viewership.

Entering 2019, what challenges and opportunities do you expect to find within the media industry?

We do hope that the ad spend be at least equal to, if not more than what it was in 2017. This will affect the whole media cycle: TV channels, media planning and buying agencies as well as advertising agencies and all those entities related to us. One challenge, however, is that the PSL and ICC Cricket Tournaments this year will take away an estimated Rs. 7 billion of revenue from TV channels.

Additionally, there will be a 33-35% growth in digital. Yet, here I will say what I have always said; digital has to be meaningful otherwise it does not give the desired Return on Investment. Recently, this view was reiterated by a key international television executive who is into the acquisition of global networks in one of his interviews that one of the major global FMCG companies, also present in Pakistan, is cutting down on its digital spend and shifting the money back to conventional media as the company felt that the spend on digital was not giving them the desired ROI’s. What we need to understand is that these are fads and trends. People follow fads as they are fashionable and exciting. But fads die, trends live.

Still, budgets are increasingly including digital, and capital flight is towards it from the electronic medium. Thus, we know that digital is going to grow but what is the scope for it in Pakistan? We do not have proper OTT (over-the-top) content platforms and there are no IPTV (internet protocol TV) platforms. For us, digital is mainly using WhatsApp.

Yet we do have such international OTT platforms like Netflix giving services in Pakistan. What impact will they have on television viewership?

See, content is king and television is a medium that carries it. The impact of such platforms on TV viewership is already there. Netflix, Iflix are there along with other such digital platforms and illegal DTH (Direct-to-Home) television, which itself has approximately 4 million subscribers in Pakistan and because of these, the viewership for the English film and Music genres has almost died on television.

Due to these services available locally, people have access to fresh content and they do not have to wait for a considerable amount of time to watch new films on TV. Even if I want to bring in an English film channel, it will not feature new content and will hardly be able to generate viewership. While, the industry has invested in HBO, Warner Movies and AXN, the revenue being generated from these channels has reduced significantly. Therefore, this genre as a source of revenue has died and it is pointless to introduce new TV channels in this genre.

The dust on TV screen viewership is yet to settle because of technological advancements and influx of options to view content. But TV as an industry will grow as its screen will shift to OTT, IPTV, web etc.