By Sonya Rehman
They’re young, they’re cool and they have a flair for advertising. Ali Rez and Assam Khalid, long-time friends and colleagues at the international advertising agency, BBDO, have worked on some of the most well-known advertising campaigns, such as the Asia Pacific Transgender Network’s ‘Change The Clap’ campaign (aimed at tackling transphobia), UN Women Pakistan’s ‘Beat Me’ anti-violence campaign, the award-winning ‘Not A Bug Splat’ campaign (which gave a face to Pakistan’s drone victims), and Moltyfoam’s award-winning ‘Billbed’ campaign (which targeted the homeless by providing DIY beds made from billboards), and many more.
In an interview with The Friday Times, the two trailblazing admen speak about their work, the challenges being faced in the Pakistani advertising scene today, and how their field can be used as a tool to make consumers more mindful and socially conscious.
You faced a lot of criticism on social media for your UN Women Pakistan’s ‘Beat Me’ campaign…
Ali: One thing that we’ve realized in this field is that no matter what you make, there will always be some kind of a backlash. Even with the ‘Not A Bug Splat’ campaign we knew there would be people who wouldn’t share a similar view as us; but as long as you’re bringing a subject to the table and getting people to talk about it – it’s a good thing. You have to understand that social media is liquid, it always finds its own path, you never know which way it’ll go. You can strategize, research, make predictions, but in many cases, you will be very surprised by the outcome.
Does provocative advertising still sell?
Ali: It depends on the target audience you’re marketing to. I think in a lot of countries it still works, even in the United States. On a very subliminal level, psychologically speaking (and I hate to say this), but brands do it with beautiful people. But now people tend to see through the bullsh*t; they know when something is too trite.
So would you say consumers are more perceptive about what they’re being marketed?
Assam: There was a time when consumers would have to watch commercials on television and take the advertiser’s word for it. But nowadays it’s more difficult to lure consumers in because people are more aware and can access information more easily. The power is with the consumer. Marketers, today, have to be more responsible with advertising.
Okay, but what about this new trend of advertisements carrying a social bent? Remember that Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner? It received a lot of flak online.
Ali: The Pepsi advertisement is a good example of how tone deaf advertising can be even though it featured beautiful people. Consumers saw through it. It was a major disaster. The strategy was to do something good but along the way they didn’t know how to put the message across. On the other hand, there are advertisements such as the Heineken [‘World’s Apart’] commercial. Heineken made it feel real, Pepsi didn’t. Another thing that’s becoming more and more important in advertising is how authentic you can be – when somebody believes the brand and message, they wholeheartedly believe in it. People truly thought Heineken was trying to do good for the world and not just trying to tell its product; but in reality, they were trying to do both.
What are the biggest challenges being faced in the Pakistani advertising scene today?
Ali: Pakistan right now is still pretty far behind the rest of the world in terms how it approaches advertising and a lot of that has to do with how the media works here. We’re still basing our campaigns on the model of bombarding audiences with television advertisements.
But it works doesn’t it?
Ali: In terms of sales, most of the times, but a time will come when you will have to build better content because once you give people the power to choose what they want to watch, then it has to be entertaining. In markets abroad you’re forced to make campaigns that are interesting. Rather than spending so much on repetitive advertising, why not make good, meaningful advertisements that people talk about?
Assam: One major challenge that we face in Pakistan vis-à-vis advertising is a cultural problem. As children we’re conditioned not to do anything risky that is far from the average. It’s important for us to break that risk-averse mindset as marketers and convince people to step out of their comfort zones. Nothing extraordinary can ever happen without taking a risk.
Assam, in your TEDxIslamabad talk in 2016 you mentioned that you work with a lot of psychologists and magicians – could you tell us something we don’t know as consumers, that’s used on us in advertising?
Assam: It’s not a big secret and it’s so obvious but we keep missing the point that the brain can only process one task at a time. Yet, we keep thinking we can multitask. But magicians keep you occupied with one task and right under your nose they’ll do something else because your brain is already engaged. This applies with advertising as well; it all boils down to the process of priming.
Ali: Have you read Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari? I highly recommend that book. There’s a part in it where the author talks about how we’re all algorithms, a set of instructions – from genetics, family conditioning and societal instructions. When you think about it, nothing you do is your own decision – think about how profound that is. Every single thing you’ve chosen in your day is from some other source which feeds into your algorithm. Advertising and marketing itself is the most powerful form of that – it can shape a society. It will determine how things are run; the people you elect are because of advertising. All of us are basically running on suggestions.
But what about the concept of free will?
Assam: There is no free will!
Ali: I don’t think it exists…
Jeez, that’s a hard pill to swallow…
Ali: Think about milk for instance: for the longest time we’ve been told it’s good for our bones. But in actuality, human beings have evolved to digest it. It’s the same with the fat versus sugar debate. Even diamonds – we’ve been told that when you propose, you do it with a diamond ring…diamonds are advertising’s creation.
Don’t you find human beings very predictable and boring as an advertiser?
Assam: Nooo [Laughs].You know, it’s funny, but whenever when my wife, Nariman, and I go shopping, Nariman will be busy buying stuff from the shopping list and I’ll just be there observing people; what they’re buying and how they’re making decisions. But I too pick up a product and not know why I buy it. But I think I’m more aware as a consumer.
Teach us then, how can we be more aware as consumers?
Assam: Eat before you go to a shop. The hungrier you are, the more you’ll shop for things you don’t need.
Have you ever had an existential crisis working in the field of advertising and how deceptive it can be vis-à-vis creating the desire for products that aren’t really needed?
Assam: Incidentally, this is the same topic you cover in grad school – is advertising ethical? At times, in Pakistan, that boundary is crossed; if there’s a product you know won’t work, will you advertise it? There are a lot of negative aspects attached to the field which is why I started focusing on the non-profits. Advertising can be used as a tool to change the world and can be used as a power for good, be it through a corporation’s CSR activities or to make people aware of issues that haven’t yet been highlighted.
Ali: I think whichever field you get into; you have the option of using it to do good. Personally, I wanted to get into advertising to build beautiful things. I remember my first internship with an advertising company in the United States that only worked with socially responsible clients. It had an effect on me. I don’t think there’s any other applied art form that has so much influence over people. If you think about it, every decision you’ve ever made today is because of an influence directed by peers or directed by advertising.
One Pakistani advertisement that you’ve never forgotten?
Ali: I was 17 when I saw an amazing advertisement made by Javed Jabbar for the Department of Tourism. The headline read; ‘Guess who came sight-seeing to Pakistan the other day? Alexander.’ It was brilliant.
Assam: The Dentonic advertisement because it was Pakistan’s first animated commercial. There are so many jingles from that era that I still remember to this day.
The Friday Times