REVIVAL IN PROGRESS OR RIP?

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Revival

Pakistan Advertising Association (PAA) was created by advertising professionals in 1973, to act as a representative body for Pakistan’s advertising agencies. The purpose of establishing the trade association was to give a voice to its member agencies and to align industry stakeholders to effectively deal with challenges faced by the advertising industry. This way, PAA plays the role of bridging the gap between different trade bodies including the key ones – All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), which represents publications including newspapers and magazines; the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), which represents the electronic and digital media including TV channels, radio stations and online platforms; and Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS), which represents clients or advertisers.

PAA has a strong history which includes hosting the first-ever Ad Asia held in Pakistan in 1989. The association stayed inoperative for over a decade, yet the advertising fraternity revived it again in 2017. There is still a long way to go for the association, as Sarmad Ali, President – APNS and Managing Director & President – Jang Media Group & Geo News says, “I strongly feel that PAA has to establish itself effectively and it needs to evolve into a stronger organization so that it can represent the advertising industry effectually.”

Establishing PAA

To establish PAA as an effective trade organization for the advertising industry, PAA office bearers do have their priorities. The current Chairman, Jamal Mir, who is also MD & CEO – Prestige Communications, highlights a number of areas that he feels need immediate attention.

“At the PAA, need to put our own house in order first. As a priority, I feel that the PAA Secretariat needs a tremendous upgradation to enable it to become more effective. These include one, appointing an effective Secretary General, well acquainted with advertising professionals and PAA stakeholders as well as other industry associations – someone who would be able to put our issues on the table and our stake in the ground. The second priority is to develop a team that is robust, responsible and responsive: meaning, we need the right members on board; we need a diverse representation from traditional, digital, and media agencies; we need a team that can pull its weight in terms of knowledge, experience, ideas and policy proposals towards driving a larger vision for this industry. At the same time, I believe we do need to define some rules and regulations that all of us will follow in terms of our working structure, and then perhaps divide responsibilities or assign specific committees so that we can be more focused on the end output.”

Beyond these, Mir’s priorities include developing selection criteria for advertising agencies that would want to be members of PAA. Back in the heydays of PAA, an agency would be gauged for membership eligibility based on its accreditation with APNS. According to Senator (r) Javed Jabbar, this would signify minimal financial stability and credibility of the agency in question. “The experience and reputation of the proprietors or the heads of agencies, along with the perception prevalent in the industry about the agency and its services would also play a role.” According to Mir, another specific requirement that was there back then was that agencies vying for membership must have five credible clients in their portfolio.

Currently, clear guidelines and criteria need to be developed and implemented so that only those agencies that fulfill set criteria are awarded PAA membership. If we want to be taken seriously as an industry, it is important that there is clear differentiation in terms of the kind of support PAA offers its member or prospective member agencies, versus those who do not fulfill the criteria to become PAA members.

Another important part of the PAA charter is defining the structure of the industry. It is important that proper business listings and documentations be done to ensure all businesses within the industry are available on a list that can be made accessible by PAA to the industry, other associations and stakeholders. To properly document the industry, it has to be structured in terms of full-service agencies, creative hotshops, allied creative services, suppliers etc. with businesses clearly identified according to the services they are providing. Again, it needs to be clearly defined which of these businesses will come under the PAA ambit with proper criteria laid out. In this case, advertising professionals are of the opinion that since our industry is in our infancy, only those advertising agencies, media planning & buying houses and PR agencies should be allowed to become members of the association that have similar business models, mode of work, requirements, challenges, industry stakes etc.

One other particular challenge that has been on the agenda of subsequent PAA chairmen as well as association members is protecting the financial interests of advertising agencies. This challenge is extremely multi-tiered with numerous problems along the way that have to be dealt with. From delayed payments where clients keep extending the credit period to agencies being blacklisted for not paying the media on time to clients switching agencies without settling pending bills of the previous agency, the issue continuously threatens the survival of advertising agencies, and while a payment mechanism is there, there is no surety that advertising agencies will get paid. On the other hand, the electronic and print media ensure that they are paid on time by agencies using the blacklisting mode of getting payments. Yet, the mechanism very easily falls apart when it comes to payments intended to agencies, which is to be done by clients.

Even though the issue cripples agencies’ operational capacity; they are divided on their individual interests on this one, and hence no blanket mechanisms have been derived from the industry body standpoint to get stakeholders to adhere to. A number of agencies have gone out of business over the years due to spiraling media and supplier dues. Although faulty business mechanisms as well as the price-sensitivity prevalent in the industry were also to blame, it was defaulting clients that put the last nail in the coffin for such businesses.

Mir sums this up with challenges that are a part of the agency-client partnership, “or more aptly the lack of it”. He says, “Some years ago, agencies and clients enjoyed a more symbiotic and partnership-based relationship. But now there is a stark inequality in the dealings between both parties. In fact, the industry has in part allowed itself to be demoted and discounted, thus lending clients an upper hand. This has led to constant pitching, delayed payments, unsuitable pricing and commissions, inadequate briefs or clarity on projects, and an unwarranted high handedness which goes well beyond the axiom ‘the client is always right’.”

Jabbar seconds him, “In price-sensitive circumstances, like those that we are experiencing currently within our industry, better industry norms can be promoted and safeguarded if advertising agencies heads are committed to professional ethics and values. They also need to demonstrate leadership by engaging with clients with determination and confidence, while retaining their respect.”

To deal with such challenges, it is important that there are policies devised at the PAA level that give blanket approval to the association to allow agencies to negotiate as an industry.

DEVELOPING INDUSTRY HR & ALIGNING STAKEHOLDERS

Yet, leadership is a learnt trait, and our industry has a major requirement to up-skill all those who make it the robust business that it is. According to Mir, advertising is a sophisticated knowledge-based profession and human resources are its biggest asset. Also, the requirement for up-skilling is not just limited to people in advertising, rather those representing the brand side need to be educated just as much on ad agency processes. “We also need to clear misconceptions about advertising agencies that get embedded in the client-agency interface and become a mindset issue.”

Qamar Abbas, Executive Director – PAS, seconds him, “PAS and PAA need to work on areas like standardizing the pitch process, developing skillful resources and making the business equitable for all partners.”

Currently, there is a major gap in terms of exchange of learnings within the industry; there are hardly any workshops – there were a number of them being held by PAS, yet ever since COVID-19 came about such sessions have been on the halt; plus there are hardly any documented knowledge resources online that the industry can access that can provide self-paced learning opportunities – again PAS has taken the initiative to provide local and international case studies and knowledge-based articles on its website, yet it may require a lot more effort to bring the industry’s talent at par with international standards, considering that the practitioners who need to be trained and motivated are across the board, at different points in their career.

Talking about PAA’s efforts back in the day, Jabbar highlights, “A major contribution to improving industry skills was the significant increase in interaction with advertising practitioners from other Asian countries and reviewing advertising of other countries. We did this by regularly participating in events such as AdAsia every two years and by arranging for periodic reviews within Pakistan. A number of agencies had affiliations with international networks so the process of observation and skill enhancement was already taking place within those agencies and their overseas networks.”

According to Mir, “We need to have more joint workshops with other bodies or cross-functional collaborations, where there can be discussions and engagement with advertising and branding professionals, especially those who have had international exposure; to inspire and inform those new to the field and those wanting to learn more.”

Compared to the rest of the industry, PAS is actually several steps ahead. Abbas points out that the society’s major focus is on trainings, workshops and conferences. Also they have paved the way for Pakistani agencies to participate in global competitions including the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity. “This serves as a great motivator and provides an amazing learning experience. We see these awards as another strong and well-established initiative that will help raise the standard of marketing communications and its practitioners. We have been successful in showcasing our work internationally and also aide in getting people from Pakistan to enter international jury’s, which in itself is a great learning experience”, says Abbas. “However, these are the areas where PAS is working alone and PAA’s collaboration will synergize our efforts as this benefits both, the clients and the agencies. Agencies need to understand that they need to step up the game and change the way they have been operating and see trainings and learning initiatives as investments. We can encourage advertisers to play their part, but they also need to see that agencies collectively are willing to make this investment. These efforts cannot be single-sided, and agencies need to show their commitment as well. I strongly feel that PAA can partner with PAS and play a crucial role in this area.”

It’s not just PAA and PAS that industry professionals want to see aligned and working together. Rather measures to take quality-enhancing initiatives will only work if all industry stakeholders are onboard to carry these out jointly. Also, if international standards are to be implemented, then it has to be done across the board by all trade associations, be it PAA, PAS, APNS or PBA. Sarmad Ali talks about an APNS – PAA joint committee that has been functional since the 80s, even though it has not been very active lately ever since PAA became inoperative. “We have been working very closely with PAA in the last few months and it is important that the committee collaborates to ensure proper systems are in place and the interests of the advertising community are safeguarded.” He further says, “I have also proposed a joint committee of the APNS, PBA, PAA and the Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS), where they jointly address issues that are being faced by the advertising and media ecosystem.”

Abbas seconds him, “PAA is one of the most major stakeholders of the industry. If we need to raise the bar of marketing communications and focus on creativity and media innovation that leads to effectiveness, it is important that PAA and PAS work closely together. We need to firmly believe in partnerships rather than having a client-vendor relationship.”

CAN WE EXPORT OUR CREATIVE SERVICES?

Taking the discussion, a step further, since PAA, as an association representing the advertising industry has much to do to structure itself and the industry, is there any possibility that the advertising sector is represented internationally so that we can earn export earnings in the future? While this seems to be a long shot, yet there are steps that can be taken to promote our industry for the recognition that it deserves. Like Jabbar said, the interaction with advertising practitioners from other Asian countries was a major step in this direction. Yet it is important that the advertising sector is given due recognition by the Pakistani government first. He elaborates, “Advertising has a universal multimedia relevance. To give it the recognition it deserves within the government circles, it is important that it receives robust and sustained advocacy by PAA, by agency heads in their personal capacities as well as by advertisers, who have the biggest stake because it is their money and it is in their interests that advertising benefits from government policies. The media also has an obligation to promote such advocacy; rather media owners owe this to advertisers and ad agencies because they receive advertising revenue from them only.”

Talking about concrete steps that can get Pakistani advertising noticed in the international sphere, he says, “Commercial advertising has a direct connection with economic activity. Internationally, in whichever countries Pakistan’s other sectors including services, industrial or even agriculture; are already marketing their products, theoretically the opportunity is there to export the creative and professional skills of Pakistani advertising practitioners. What is important is that they should be able to maintain the level of quality and content relevance that is expected by that particular market.”

He further explains, “There are several examples of Pakistani practitioners with the capacity to create content that meets and even exceeds international standards and this has been recognized through the awards they have gotten, other successes achieved etc. So, in addition to any effort that a more empowered PAA can do, it is up to each export-oriented sector and export-oriented enterprise that has a goal to brand itself overseas, to provide the necessary opportunity and support to advertising agencies in Pakistan to produce creative content.”

A REALITY CHECK

PAA has a lot to shoulder, starting with building its own institutional capacity. Effectively safeguarding the interests of its members, aligning industry stakeholders and helping improve business volumes of advertising agencies does seem to be a rather long list of challenges that the association has to work on. In such a situation, it is on the association members to prioritize strengthening the industry over personal business interests by working collaboratively and collectively, taking constructive action and supporting shared goals which will help make the industry go a long way. A reality check by Jabbar very much summarizes what PAA and our industry is up against.

“I want to emphasize that advertising agencies are the most vulnerable part of the advertising chain since advertisers and media dominate and control that chain. It is only in long-established and stable economies that professional associations are able to sustain investment in building their own institutional capacity, and even they have their problems. Hence, during my time PAA did not – or was not able to – develop its own internal institutional and human resource capacity to be able to help improve the business practices or the business volumes of its members.”

Can the current PAA develop on learnings from the past and build itself up and the industry? Let’s wait, contribute and see.

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