As originally published in Synergyzer Annual 2019

With evolution, one expects improvements. Take advertising in Pakistan for instance. So much technology, cross-border learnings, global alignments and multinational culture; it stands to reason that advertising today should be miles ahead in terms of content, creativity, impact and of course, effectiveness in delivering results than say, a decade or two ago.

Sadly, such does not appear to be the case in our beloved homeland. Don’t take my word for it, watch some ads tonight on your local channels or browse the streets for billboards and messages and you might reach the same sad conclusion. Things have not improved and in some cases, regressed. Song and dance rules most category ads, senseless use of stereotypes persists boldly and competitive brands can easily be replaced within and woefully, outside their category with generic advertising messages making perfect sense. Just yesterday I learnt that if you have spicy food and follow it up with a swig of a clear soft drink, expletives will pour out of your mouth much to the delight of your friends. This is what evolution has achieved, making swearing acceptable and in fact, much loved in our advertising.

Why are we not improving in terms of creating on-target, insight based effective advertising in this digital age? Why are we still subjected to torturous communication in the name of advertising? And to add insult to injury, Facebook posts by the brand and production teams have the audacity to showcase the names of the individuals and teams responsible for these atrocities! “Tu Mun Haji Bigoyam, Mun Tu Hajo Bigoyam!” translated, “You call me Haji and I’ll call you Haji!”, seems to be the order of the day. So is this all a case of innocence gone awry or is there a sinister ploy that we have not yet unearthed?

Being on the client side of the equation for almost three decades, I feel clients are largely responsible for this. Pakistan has seen its fair share of brain drain in these decades with the result that mediocre people within organizations have reached senior decision-making levels. This is reflected in the sorry advertising that gets approved. Weak leaders are almost always risk averse hence not prone to try new ideas or never been done before concepts. They are primarily working to save their jobs, not challenge the status quo. Hence the need to work within the comfort zones of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

The advertising world has also seen its fair share of brain drain so the quality of ideas has also suffered immensely. With mergers and acquisitions, global media giants have created virtual monopolies. These have created the situation where 80% of the business is hogged by 20% media houses, leaving little else for smaller boutique agencies to play with. If these hegemonies were producing stellar work, one could applaud their creation. Sadly, they have done more damage than good. Allegedly, the culture of benefits traded for work has grown exponentially, which has been responsible for a lot of mediocre work seeing the light of the day.

I asked a friend of mine in the advertising business to name a few things he feels are responsible for run-of-the-mill work being churned out by agencies and worse still, accepted by clients. He mentioned that work takes a back seat when other elements come into play such as “monetary exchange being the primary reason work is assigned to a certain agency or production team”, “foreign trips being offered to clients to get work”, “clients playing favorites in only choosing to work with a certain production house or director or model” and so on. I argued that this has always existed so what’s new? Sheer magnitude was his reply. It is more rampant now than ever before, he argued. The quality of mediocre work seeing the light of day today certainly conveys that there could be some truth to this assertion. After all, if the client is primarily assigning work on the basis of self-interest, why would he or she care about the quality of work?

Another disturbing trend which has gained over the years is the number of ad films being done outside Pakistan both in terms of shoots and post production. Not just multinationals, but even local companies have joined this bandwagon. It’s anyone’s guess what this number is but according to a few experts, the number could be close to PKR 1.5 billion annually. Imagine the loss to local peripheral industry on account of this trend. Is this a coincidence or is there something seriously wrong with this picture? The result is mediocre, ineffective advertising, but with sheer gloss and great production values.

On the client side, I feel pained to see that branding mindset has almost entirely been replaced with a trading one. We want short term results and that too yesterday. “Madari pun” is all that is appreciated and rewarded. Weak bosses breed weak teams as they cannot stand to have someone challenging their mediocrity. Merit has almost universally been replaced with sycophancy. “Sach sunnay ka hosla khatam ho chukka hai” – such is the plight of organizations plagued with yes men and dare I say, women.

Another sad outcome of mediocrity rising to decision making levels is that they put their own interest ahead of the organization’s interest. Decisions to sponsor an event depend on whether they are given the primary slot to speak. If the agency or production house offers money or whatever is their poison of choice, work is assigned to them. Even on the agency side, many heads of agencies were sacked by their organizations when found indulging in unethical practices only to be hired by another agency wanting to benefit from their brand of expertise and network of favors. When the entire ecosystem is built around dubious practices, is it any wonder that the evolution of advertising is going south?

Is there any hope for the future? Sure. Reverse brain drain has started – either with the so called euphoria of Naya Pakistan or familiar markets for expats moving towards a work bias for their own nationals, this bodes well for our advertising future. With better trained clients returning, decision making should be more robust, challenging the agencies should grow and stronger work ethics should bring the mafia’s unchecked methods under scrutiny.

More foreign direct investment would also mean more incoming new advertisers. Hopefully they will bring in global learning’s and we will see some refreshing new insight based work surfacing. And contrary to my scathing critique earlier, not everyone on the client and agency side are brain dead. We have insight based work surfacing from time to time but it is far outweighed by the mafia brigades.

So what are professional trade bodies doing to improve advertising? Well, they are busy awarding the work being churned out already and also bringing in more international awards like Effie to Pakistan. Will this help things? One can only hope so. After all, if one asked oneself, how can one improve things? The most logical answer it seems is to give more awards to things that need improvement!


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Qashif Effendi has over 23 years’ international experience of working at CEO, Director and General Management positions in top multinationals in the MENA and South Asia regions. He has worked with Chevron, Philips, Unilever, Tetley, Abu Dhabi National Industrial Projects Co., UAE and currently as CEO at Reem Group, a 100% multinational JV of Al Ghurair UAE and Al Mohaidib KSA. Brands like Philips Whirlpool, Dalda Cooking Oil, Brooke Bond Supreme, Tetley and Reem achieved tremendous growth during his stewardship. He has also consulted for various companies such as HELM Medical (Hamburg, Germany), Simply Sufi, Shan Foods, KESC, Adamjee Insurance, Dollar Stationers, Liberty Books, Hilton Pharmaceutical, PharmEvo and PSTD (Pakistan Society for Training and Development). He is an alumnus of IBA with a great passion for learning. He has been a visiting faculty at IBA, Szabist and CBM for over 13 years teaching Brand Management, Export Marketing, Advertising, Consumer Behavior, Strategic Marketing and Technopreneurship. Voted as one of 100 top performing company CEO’s in 2017 by CEO Club Pakistan, he is an advisor to the Board of WE-NET (Pakistan Women Entrepreneurs Network for Trade) a World Bank funded initiative and has conducted several capacity building sessions for trade development bodies such as USAID funded PREIA (Pakistan Regional Economic Integration Activity), NIC Karachi & Lahore, TIE and Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce. He is also the Module Leader for Technopreneurship program at Chaudhry Muhammad Akram Center for Entrepreneurship Development in Lahore.