adnan-saeed adcom leo burnett

As originally published in Synergyzer Annual 2018


Adnan Syed, CIO – Adcom Leo Burnett

Through The Green Man’s Ark, Adcom implemented a collaborative consulting business model. How applicable did you find it in the Pakistani advertising industry context?

Someone in the industry had thoughtfully and consciously said to us – it wasn’t a random remark – that Green Man’s Ark (GMA) was at least three years ahead of the time and the market wasn’t ready for what we intended to put out. And this person was right.

You see, at the end of the day, we are a brand offering a certain service, and there was a need to diversify our product offering. GMA was an opportunity to explore a different way of planning and managing the whole challenge of communicating with an audience.

There used to be a time when advertising was a form of entertainment in itself and people followed the trends it set. Now it’s the opposite. Due to social media, higher mobility, and internet penetration, consumers are setting their own trajectory. It is the ad industry that is now trying to catch up. And one vision behind GMA was to bridge this gap.

At the time we came about, ad agencies, digital agencies, and social media companies were all working in silos. Through GMA we tried to bring all our services together as a collaborative offering under one roof to approach communication in a holistic manner, but not many brands understood or were able to appreciate that. One senior person at a multinational actually said that he recognized what we were trying to do, but as an organization, in Pakistan, they were simply not geared to deal with us. It wasn’t sarcasm; it was an honest statement. He understood that Pakistan was not quite ready for what was happening globally. Our integrated approach to communication required an integrated approach to dealing with it, so basically we were too early.

GMA is still around. But would you consider it an experiment that failed?

Let me explain this through another example. I attended a workshop by John Hegarty, one of the founders of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) where he told of a BBH sister concern called Zag, an incubation cell which was later absorbed into the overall structure of BBH itself. This was because according to Hegarty, Zag had served its purpose of a live laboratory to test new ideas, methodologies, and approach that BBH was unable to do within its structural limitations. After a few years, when the overall culture and ethos was translated, there was no need for a separate organization. So was Zag a success or a failure? It was created for a certain purpose and when that purpose was fulfilled, it was absorbed into BBH. I thought that was very interesting. Ad agencies must stay continuously fresh and ahead of the curve, but as organizations, they have their own limitations of size, work methods, and structures that don’t allow them to do certain things. One way to overcome this challenge is to branch out and start exploring in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the overall original organization. And through GMA that was what we did. So it is not a question of success or failure; somebody had to do it, and if we were the first ones so be it. Even if you look internationally, what is happening now is that the Cannes Advertising Film Festival for 2018 has removed the integrated category because ‘integrated’ is no longer a separate category. Rather boundaries have blurred and all communication is now integrated.

Since we are on the subject of integrated offerings, do you think that egos are the biggest hurdle when Pakistanis are made to work in an integrated manner?

The kind of service industry we are in, our job, and the job of all the agency-partners is to provide solutions to brands or products in terms of design, strategy, business-oriented solutions etc. and it all must be achieved without egos getting in the way: people’s egos, institutional egos, egos of hierarchy.

And what are the circumstances in which such a situation comes into play?

This usually happens when roles are demarcated without an in-depth understanding of the scope of work or in certain cases, even the work itself!

The IMC – integrated marketing communications model is nothing new for many organizations today, and I would hesitate to critique the theory of it. The reality, however, is that what’s at stake is the ultimate success of the brand for which the entire exercise is being undertaken and not the glory of individual teams or people. With so many content possibilities, channels, and touch points across which an overall thought needs to be translated, with the endless engagement and interaction possibilities, it is increasingly imperative that the scope, responsibilities, and autonomy of execution be carefully delineated amongst all key stakeholders to ensure a seamless and interconnected rollout both.

Do you think that the current pool of graduates from Pakistani universities is equipped to handle the creative needs of clients and challenges posed?

I’ve taught at Indus Valley and the University of Karachi and I’ve noticed a decline in the general intellectual capacity of students. Also, the high school education system seems to be teaching them just to learn by rote. Or students are taught techniques to answer questions; learn and use the technique and you will get the required marks.

Then there is the way courses are structured. Students are not really learning how to learn, or how to analyze or solve problems. This should be the mandate of college or university level education. Our industry is increasingly about coming up with solutions which require a certain thought process, but is that thought process being inculcated properly in students? They graduate with certain skills — verbal, visual, communication — but are they able to analyze and understand? It is expected that a student should be able to do that to a certain level by the time he or she graduates with a degree from any professional institution. If they cannot, then it is up to us to bring that person up to the level where we are able to use them. The raw talent coming out of universities needs to be groomed and trained to a certain way of thought and point of view. Every professional institution has its own training program or system that molds the person to its own mode of working. Is there anything like that in our industry? Maybe in some organizations. You can’t change the educational institutions; the most that you can do is improve upon what you get. You can provide a proper framework and allow the student to fill it in according to their own capability because every student is not a genius, but as long as they are equipped with the right tools they can make the best of it.

I do wonder if the institutions are providing these tools. At the risk of sounding extremely judgmental, despite the number of new institutes, people still prefer to hire certain graduates because of perceived skillsets, because over the years they have observed the caliber of that institute’s graduates. There is no harm in having expectations. Clients have expectations of us because of our track records. They have a right to do so because we have offered to provide them with a service. Similarly, we have expectations of students from particular institutions.

‘Creating thought leaders in an industry like Pakistan’. What are your opinions on this?

You can be associated with thought leadership in two ways: it comes across in what you say, or in what you write. Only then will people associate you as a person, or you as an institution, with leadership in thought.

We don’t have scholarly publications or research work, or knowledge banks that can be studied. Not in the industry, not in the media. A lot of good work is happening and it needs to be documented and available for people to benefit from. Due to PAS Awards, PAS does have a collection of case studies, but the purpose of collecting them ends once the awards are distributed. My reservations are that these cases are not available for public consumption, or for research purposes, which does not add sustainability to the exercise. Our advertising magazines are very valuable pieces of communication, but much more can still be done to expand the scope of information available in them. This is where this whole thought leadership comes into play.

The real problem arises at the basic level. Are people willing to become mentors to others? Thought leadership is possible only if you’re willing to impart your experience and knowledge. Depending on where you are on the ladder, you either have great responsibility or you have great power. What you do with this responsibility and power is a personal endeavor first, and then an institutional endeavor. And institutional endeavors are possible only with like-minded people.

Once the young energy that used to pool itself into the corporate advertising sector is now being utilized by millennials in forming creative and digital hotshops of their own, as well as becoming freelancers. Does this pose a challenge for ad agencies?

No. But there are a number of things that need to be understood here. A) Tapping into the right kind of human resource has always been a challenge. 20, 25 years ago, someone looking for a job could come to you, or go somewhere else. That would usually be another agency or maybe a multinational. Now there are more “somewhere elses”. B) People want interesting packages. That does not necessarily mean money or work environment; if you are not offering the kind of work that the person is interested in or is challenged by, that person will not come to you! C) Why do hotshops even exist? Because the current framework of agencies is not providing the new lot what they are looking for – it can be the freedom to do their own thing or the freedom to make money on their own terms or whatever.

Having said all of this, I think it’s great to have all these different kinds of solution providers out there, and one has the option to end up collaborating with them!

See, every agency, brand, and client has a different dynamic, but the reality is that the agency has to evolve. If the market is no longer conducive to traditional work, the agency will lose. The client will go to a freelancer or a hotshop. But now the question is, will this fresh creative lot be equipped with the skillset to deal with this practically? Maybe not. But if a number of them are fantastic resources, then you will find ways to work with them. If not work for you, they can work with you in some other way. So agency structures need to evolve to allow for agencies to tap into all the different kind of talent coming up.

Generally, what is your opinion on the application of technology in Pakistan?

I’m not a tech or digital expert. I have a very basic, layman’s perspective. The developed countries have undergone a tech revolution and we are going through one too, but there is a fundamental difference between us and them: We have jumpstarted. We have dived right into the deep end of the pool. We haven’t completely understood technology, its applications or ramifications or what can be done with it. Until we do, we won’t be able to harness that technology for larger, long-term benefits. We will use it for short-term goals.

We need to think, understand and analyze because technology is exciting. New conveniences are benefiting people in their daily lives. Some of it is being transplanted from outside, some is being grown from within. Start-ups and tech incubators are creating all kinds of new services. In advertising and marketing and then on the branding side, are we able to harness all this growth? That’s our challenge. We aren’t tech experts, but are we able to harness and collaborate with the right kind of minds? Until we are able to do that our ability to use technology properly will be at a very superficial level.

It’s very inspiring to see what people are doing abroad, but why are we unable to apply our own minds to achieve similar results? It’s not that we’re less intelligent; we’re just as, or even more, intelligent. Why can’t we harness our inbuilt jugaaru culture? If individual tech startups and students can come up with these brilliant innovations, then why aren’t we in the service industry able to bridge that connection? It’s the silos we work in. They are all in the mind and until we bridge those gaps, we won’t be able to achieve those kinds of examples and cases.

What is the role of Pakistani ad agencies in image building when ad concepts etc. are done regionally?

There really isn’t image building as such. Multinationals have brand strategies that apply across regions. How rigid – or not – those brands are in terms of the application of those strategies will influence how those agencies apply or how those agencies produce creative solutions. It doesn’t matter if the agency is part of a network or independent. A client who has operations across the MENA region, for example, will farm out a centralized concept. Another multinational will prefer to have locally conceived and strategized work. All our work for Telenor, for example, was conceived and created here, in Pakistan. Then there is the example of Nandos, a brand we used to work for a few years back. It’s a chain of restaurants in various countries so technically it is a multinational, but not of the size or impact of other multinationals that we are more familiar with. However, they had regional campaigns for certain products and seasons and left a lot of stuff on their annual marketing calendar to the local offices to do as they wanted, with prescribed limitations on how much it could be localized in terms of production or execution or adaptation, which was fine.

One needs to understand the dynamics of the industry we are in, the challenges every country has and the aspirations of the agency. All three have to come into play together. With multinationals, if you don’t have the mandate to contextualize, what can you do? You can critique a regional copy, point out that the insight is wrong or it is culturally incorrect. The agency can make a recommendation, but the ultimate decision rests with the brand.

The requirements vary from country to country. Some refuse to air foreign-made content, some have strict censorship laws, so you have to produce local work. Brands also factor in the autonomy they want to give to their regional offices. The agency is simply providing the brand a service, so their opinion comes after.

Besides this, Local offices of MNC clients may simply want a copy of an international ad. Some agencies will do that, some won’t. So the role of Pakistani agencies in image building would be what you make of it; there is no prescribed role.