SANNA MALIK: As Chairman of PAA, what are the main objectives that you are working towards?
JAMAL MIR: Let me be unequivocal in saying that we, 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. At the heart of every industry body, whether trade bodies like the Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OICCI), Pakistan Business Council (PBC), American Business Council (ABC), or organizations more related to our own industry such as the Pakistan Advertisers’ Society (PAS), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), or the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) lies a strong secretariat. It must be noted that the members of the Executive Committee operate on a purely voluntary basis with their own time constraints, so it is up to the Secretariat to implement and drive the agenda and vision of the Association.
Some quick wins towards this aim include 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 on the ground. The other 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. Stepping back a bit, it is also important to develop selection criteria for PAA member agencies. In its earlier years, PAA had a very specific requirement that every agency that wants to become a PAA member must have five credible clients in their portfolio. Currently, there are no such criteria and we have to develop clear guidelines if we want to be taken seriously as an association.
SANNA MALIK: PAA was resurrected to act as a representative of Pakistan’s advertising industry. What are the key challenges that need to be resolved in the industry in your opinion? What part can PAA play in these?
JAMAL MIR: The advertising business is still somewhat in its infancy in Pakistan, but it is growing and it is dynamic. However, it has grown in a somewhat vacuum without all the checks and balances in place and hence is buffeted by a number of problems and changing patterns. I would put our problems in four main categories: people, perception, partnerships, and policies/practices.
Let’s start with people – the industry is seriously concerned about attracting and retaining talent at all levels. The inflow and outflow of people, men, and women in the industry is fairly rapid, which undermines learning and talent development both at the employee and employer ends.
The industry also has a perception issue – its contribution to the national economy, to employment, to the development of new media skills and technologies, and providing a talent pipeline that feeds into marketing departments in local and international businesses is often undervalued and unrecognized. We have failed to build on our expertise, contribution, and success stories.
This leads to the biggest issue and that is around partnership – or more aptly the lack of partnership between agency and client. 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. Constant pitching, delayed payments, unsuitable pricing and commissions, inadequate briefs or clarity on projects, and an unwarranted high-handedness that goes well beyond the axiom ‘the client is always right’.
Partnership with Government clients is non-existent. There is an abyss of unregulated practices and a lack of any transparency or merit-based decision-making. Despite the fact that the role of communication is becoming more critical for the political process, the Government has a poor understanding of this industry and its workings.
Furthermore, with the advent of digital advertising, recent years have also seen a shift from full-service agencies to a more fragmented landscape – digital agencies, media agencies, PR agencies, e-commerce, etc. leading to a splintering of both marketing and advertising budgets. The pie may have grown, but everyone is getting a smaller share. From retainer models to project-based engagements means the fabric of long-term partnerships is undermined and the stability and certainty of a retainer agreement mean agencies cannot predict revenues, allocate resources, and invest in talent in the same way as before.
In all fairness, there are a number of reasons for this emanating from the agencies’ as well as the clients’ end. One major reason for this is business practices in the advertising industry: we lack quality and consistency in our work. As an industry, we need to standardize our practices and get the basics in order if we want to deal with clients professionally. We need to put value into our work and then we also deserve the right price for that.
SANNA MALIK: What is your opinion on what needs to be done to upskill the industry?
JAMAL MIR: I would say this is a multi-tiered effort; we need to upskill and educate our advertising professionals as well as people from the marketing and brand sides, including their procurement departments. 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.
Similarly, we need to educate the brand side on ad agency processes; otherwise, our business models will keep getting disrupted. We also need to clear other misconceptions about advertising agencies that get embedded in the client-agency interface and become a mindset issue.
SANNA MALIK: We have MNC companies and advertising agencies as well as affiliated advertising agencies. Don’t they already have international exposure?
JAMAL MIR: In this market, internationally affiliated agencies may carry a big-name tag, but often they have an advantage in terms of predesigned global or regional concepts and templates that simply need translating into the local market. So yes, the affiliations may have a captured market or client base, but in terms of work, creativity, or strategy I don’t believe there is much of a difference between affiliated and non-affiliated agencies.
Moreover, in Pakistan, the interface with the regional/global agency is not a very high engagement one, and nor is the investment – that kind of investment does not exist or is not earmarked for the Pakistani market. You don’t have regional or global people flying in for workshops or market visits etc. so the ‘exposure’ is not of the quantum one perceives.
SANNA MALIK: The traditional ad agency business model is destined to fail. What are your comments on this?
JAMAL MIR: There are two things happening here. As I said earlier, with digitization there has also been a fragmentation of the industry – from 3600 agencies we are moving towards more niche areas or specialist agencies – media, digital, events, PR, etc.
Another issue is that with Zoom, remote working (especially post-pandemic) and digital communications, etc., the new players on the block are freelancers, one-man operations, or very small teams. Since they charge on a project basis, much less than what an ad agency might charge in terms of commission or retainer, their appeal and effectiveness has become more potent. What clients don’t realize is that agencies act as their advisors 12 months of the year, adding value to their brand, and too often, the decision to release and allocate budgets is left to procurement teams, who naturally are only concerned about monetary savings and not necessarily quality or relationship building or long-term brand building. In the recent atmosphere of recession, economic downturn, and financial gloom, our industry has become extremely price-sensitive. Most local brands find it expensive to work with advertising agencies and stay focused on building sales rather than fully appreciating the value that comes from brand building and its impact on sales in the long term.
SANNA MALIK: How can we improve the perception of our advertising industry?
JAMAL MIR: That’s a tricky one because as they say ‘perception precedes reality’ or ‘perception also creates your reality’ – we are somewhere between both paradigms. I’ve already talked about our perception issue. To start with, the institutions and educational programs that cater to the advertising industry in our Country do not have student counselors who may have any experience of the advertising industry. Students in these institutions find themselves discouraged from working in ad agencies, citing the work environment and late sittings. So the problem starts at a very seminal stage. Therefore, as members of PAA, we have discussed that there is a need for ad agency heads and professionals going to business and art institutes and conducting interactive sessions and workshops with students to address false/negative perceptions about the advertising industry. These engagements would also be an opportunity to build a rapport with students, inspire some hopefully, and give them a better understanding of the nature of the beast – all the exciting opportunities and options that do exist and can be explored. Secondly, we have a huge industry on our hands; we have people working in it, yet we don’t have people to run it at senior levels. The majority of the people in our ad industry don’t have the required exposure and even though our industry has talent, it needs to be streamlined and honed properly.