As originally published in Synergyzer Issue 4, 2017 – ‘A Better Tomorrow’
What brought you into the world of producing television commercials?
I did my MBA in Marketing and always wanted to build a career in applied marketing strategy. I was a marketer and a marketing communication professional in the first 9 years of my career.
I worked as a Brand Manager for Lakson Tobacco Company (now Philip Morris), represented World Gold Council in Pakistan; was Head of Strategy & Planning and later also managed operations at Synergy Advertising. It was after that stint that I decided to start my own concern. I moved to Dubai where I wished to start a Brand Activation firm; however, I ended up partnering in an animation house in order to generate early funds. I wanted to do consultancies and activations and here I was making and selling architectural walkthroughs, corporate videos and high profile animated presentations for the Government and Real Estate sector in UAE.
Two years later I set up Stimulus in UAE, and that is where Pakistani clients started getting in touch with us. Our first project for a Pakistani client was in December 2009, and what better appreciation could there be than realizing that they still come back to work with us. Despite our rapid growth in the TV commercials business, I was still actively pitching, winning and executing the activation business across GCC, but I had to say farewell to it in 2012 after the production business grew significantly and demanded my undivided attention.
How is Stimulus Productions a trendsetter in making the industry production house-led?
Globally, production houses bag projects and execute them for clients, while the directors focus on storytelling, the real creative aspect of the job. Until 2009, the Pakistani market operated differently because there were no independent turnkey production houses and the business used to be director-led primarily. When we came in, we were one of only two production houses and we started a trend: We approached clients and opened doors of unlimited possibilities for them. The clients now had an opportunity to look beyond the conventional means. With the involvement of producers, the directors could focus entirely on the creation instead of worrying for the logistics-heavy productions. Also, before us, the number of clients working with foreign directors was small since they didn’t know who to collaborate with. We introduced an easy route for the client to approach international directors as well as new territories. Now, an approximate 65% to 70% of the business goes to independent production houses that recruit the directors. This practice gives clients more power, and greater access to unlimited global resources including, but not limited to the directors, DOPs, locations and modern techniques and technology unavailable in Pakistan.
Also, as a production house, we also have the responsibility of executing TV commercials keeping Pakistani nuances in mind. This understanding of Pakistani culture goes down to the minutest of details to the point of knowing how even Pakistani head nods are completely different from the Mexican ones. Working internationally always keeps you abreast with the modern trends and technology. We got the opportunity to use some of them when no other Pakistani had ever used them. We created competition. Others started following and the overall standard has improved for sure in Pakistan. And that’s why I believe that we are the trendsetters in the industry.
In your personal opinion, is hiring foreign directors more of a cliché or does this really add value to Pakistani TV commercials?
Every director is an artiste. Whether it’s Hollywood or a short film shot in Vietnam, every director has a particular style of storytelling. Just like painters can be identified by their paintings. So every time you go to a different director, she or he brings something different to the party. That opens up the scope of the game and gives way to inspirations and diversity, in turn, helping the industry. So why not?
You did the famous Nurpur ad. Is it the man or the machine that does wonders?
I would say it’s both. Bolt is a high-speed Cinebot that moves the camera in less than a second and hence can follow speeding objects including falling liquids. Not many know that we first used it in 2013 for a K&N’s commercial, again a first for Pakistan. It had just arrived in Thailand and I learned about it and wanted to experiment on it, so commissioned it. We were shooting with Ronald, the acclaimed tabletop director. On set, we found out that the bot wasn’t synchronized with the rigs and the staff didn’t know how to use it. It took us 5 hours of failing to get 30% of a shot that we planned. Then in 2016, we went to Italy to work with a team who exactly knew how to handle the beast, and Nurpur was created.
Now Nurpur is the benchmark food film for Pakistan, and everyone wants to make one like that.
You’ve only shot films for the conventional medium, i.e. TVC’s. Why not make films that work on the digital medium only?
Traditionally because it made business sense to make TVC’s.
It’s only in the past three years or so that the digital medium has evolved in Pakistan and the industry will eventually be making a move towards it, especially once it grows to the point where it takes a bigger chunk of the marketing communication business versus the conventional advertising. I feel that it will have a large impact on the way Production Houses do their business. We have done some work for digital advertising, and we will continue to do that. However, as long as there are Super Bowl commercials in the USA, TVC’s are not dying. It is an evolution that needs to be keenly observed.
Having attended the Cannes Lions Creativity Festival 2017, what are some observations that the Pakistani creative industry should learn from?
It’s a whole new world of learning. Going there I was wondering that the world is running campaigns in effective and creatively brilliant ways; why can’t we do that?
What I saw at the Cannes Lions Festival made me wonder why I believed in conventional marketing and advertising and the production of TVC’s or digital videos for so long. Being there I realized that making a piece of communication that has an impact doesn’t mean making a four-page ad or a commercial talking about the brand. You can design a unique solution or think disturbingly simple or create a symbol that the world will follow with huge press coverage, it can go viral in multiple layers in the digital space and reap the kind of results that no conventional marketing or advertising campaign may perhaps be able to.
Millions, perhaps billions of dollars are saved rather than spent by creating smart campaigns that are not contrived and that break-away from conventional methods, not just for awards, but for the betterment of the brand, for communicating brand objectives, and it is being done brilliantly without using a single billboard, TVC, or press ad in many incidences. There are award categories relating to digital platforms, innovation etc. which are not necessarily limited to Facebook and YouTube videos; it means coming up with an idea that might just be a little tweak into an existing design pattern, yet it creates a stir and changes the entire phenomenon.
My personal favorite was the ‘Fearless Girl’ campaign. There’s a statue of a charging bull at Wall’s Street, the financial district of New York, signifying the ‘bullish’ stock market trend. To celebrate International Women’s Day, a bronze statue of an eight-year-old Latina girl was placed in front of it; the fearless girl who is staring the bull right in the eye and that’s just it. It’s nothing, yet it’s the biggest campaign in the world, which went viral, and everyone talked about it. Billions of dollars’ worth of PR and media unspent, yet earned, and the simplicity of its message for women empowerment is pure genius.
Is the audience ready for the material that is being seen abroad?
If your audience has always been watching Hollywood and Indian films on pirated cassettes, appreciating their TV commercials and singing their jingles, then I’m pretty sure they are intelligent people. PTV dramas from the 70’s and 80’s were more intellectual than anything we produce today and the majority of our population was their audience. When I was the brand manager for K2 at Lakson Tobacco Company, I went from village to village in Sindh, and there would be 250 people crammed into a tea shack, paying Rs.5 per head to watch the film being shown on the TV in the shack.
I tell my clients that they should not underestimate their audience as they have already been exposed to Hollywood and Bollywood and the rest of the world. The audience is smart; we think we need to lead them by the finger? No, we need to make a jump and experiment towards an unconventional idea and then see how many people understand. Take memes, for example. They’re amazing, they’re funny, and they come up almost as soon as something happens. The people who are creating them are smart just as well as the audience who are understanding them, interpreting them, and laughing over them. The new generation has a lot of exposure to the world; we can test their intelligence and we can push it. It’s not a problem. All we need is to be a little brave.
What are your views in creating intellectual debates on advertising?
We rave when we see Indian, American, or European commercials. Why? Mostly because our marketing and advertising practices still have a lot to encompass before they can be on par with the rest of the world. We need to know and talk about marketing theories, how things are evolving in the world, and how industries are moving. And we need to have local think tanks, which could debate a trend in an organized form, create local case studies, and publish them to make them a part of the marketing and communication literature.
The most accessible way of doing this is through creating offline and online discussion groups. In 2001, Aurora Talk was the first online forum for discussions on marketing in Pakistan. I was one of the first 12-15 members and gradually became very active. There were great discussions and I learned a lot. After the group closed, a couple of friends and I started a new group called Marketing 360. It wasn’t a perfect forum to be termed an authentic think tank, but we used to question marketing strategy, branding strategy, talk about theories evolving in the more developed nations and how they could reflect on similar local brand stories. That would have been a great contributor to the local industry, had it stayed. Unfortunately, everyone got busy and moved on and the group eventually became defunct.
Basically, as is the case with every other work, we need to put competent people with strong leadership skills even when running online discussion forums. The person at the helm should know what topics to start, how to drive them, and entertain only serious discussions; not forgetting the fact that running the group needs to be the person’s primary interest. Discussing stuff like mere typography or design flaws in ads will not get us much farther.
What are your comments on post-production facilities in Pakistan?
When we worked with conventional film stock, there weren’t any processing labs and Telecine facilities in Pakistan so we went abroad where they had experienced technicians for color correction etc. However, barring the digitization and the color correction, most of the online editing and CG were still being done in Pakistan. Now that all work is being done digitally, the local post-production houses are catching up fast. While there are certain areas such as Hollywood standard 3D character development, or complex computer graphics based jobs for which, clients feel that it’s better done outside Pakistan, but that’s only 15-20% of the time. I’d say 80% of the post-production work is now being done locally, and it’s getting better.
You were planning a cinematic venture, Albela Rahi. What are your current plans with it?
Yes, our film company is called Fog Catcher Films and we’re working on the script which revolves around the life and times of Alamgir, Pakistan’s forever living pop icon, but we will only go ahead with it when the script is perfect.
You see, you make a feature film because you hate your money and love film. We wrote the first draft of Albela Rahi in 2014, and by 2017 we have done over 20 drafts and we’re still not happy. We will go ahead with it once we are sure that we have a high-quality script in hand. After all, Alfred Hitchcock said not for nothing, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script.”