Faaez Samadi
Aug 6, 2019

Pakistan: Asia’s sleeping creative giant

Often overlooked and battling a bad global image, the country is now regarded as the next fertile ground for brands looking for big growth in Asia.

Fairy Meadows national park, one of Pakistan's increasingly popular tourist destinations.
Fairy Meadows national park, one of Pakistan's increasingly popular tourist destinations.

On paper it’s a no brainer for any brand. A steadily growing economy in one of the world’s most populous countries. More than 200 million potential consumers, around half of whom are under 30, upwardly mobile and like spending their spare cash. As with many of its emerging Asian counterparts, the shift to digital is fast occurring, with few legacy systems to slow this down.

What country is this, you ask? Ah. This is where the hesitation comes in. Pakistan. A country that, to the wider world, has been synonymous with terrorist attacks, poverty, political instability and corruption.

That this image has preceded Pakistan on the world stage for decades has undoubtedly been its largest challenge for attracting business interest. In the world of fast-moving Asian economies, Pakistan has been in a semi-permanent state of catch-up, and this rings true for the country’s advertising and marketing industry too. Campaigns were largely tactical for years, only seeking to sell products as quickly and loudly as possible across traditional media, reflecting the market’s relative immaturity in this industry.

However, over the last number of years these partly reasonable, partly tired preconceptions have been changing. The numbers alone speak volumes about Pakistan’s potential for brands—it is the world’s sixth-largest country by population and in spite of all its problems its economy is growing at around 5% annually. But its creative community has found its voice and is starting to make the world take notice.

Creative confidence

From a marketing point of view, Pakistan has been and forever will be primarily associated with two cultural phenomena: music and cricket. For all that this may seem lazy stereotyping, Asim Naqvi, CEO of Ogilvy Pakistan, is one of many observers who explains that it is simply fact.

“The difference between these two leading trends and all other emerging trends is still massive. The country is still crazy about music and cricket, nothing comes close,” he says. As such, it is natural for brands to look at these sectors and want to invest “because that’s where everyone is”.

In music especially, Pakistan has seen one of the most innovative and successful brand collaborations anywhere in the region, with Coca-Cola’s creation of Coke Studio. A music platform that showcases both modern and traditional Pakistani artists, available on TV and online, it is a runaway success, attracting huge audiences and cementing Coca-Cola’s position in Pakistani hearts and minds.

Naqvi, whose agency helped create the project, said Coke Studio’s timing was critical to its triumph. “The country was going through a difficult time politically, this was the time when terrorism was at a peak, about 10-12 years ago. Coke realised that youth needed a platform, and this is when the idea of fusion music came up.” The celebration of both Pakistan’s music heritage and its future-forward musical youngsters has reigned supreme ever since – Coke Studio’s latest ad, promoting Pakistan as a country, has garnered nearly a million views since launching in June.

With so much focus on just two trends, however, they unsurprisingly became very expensive and so brands have had to turn elsewhere. This, coupled with the rise of digital marketing, has allowed brands to explore many of Pakistan’s hitherto lesser known cultural trends.

One such creative outlet is the feature film industry. While still small compared to music and cricket, Naqvi says it is growing dramatically, with more films being produced in Pakistan than ever before by young, hungry, creative people. The growth is leading to more cinemas opening, allowing more patrons access to film content and, as such, brands are now investing heavily in producing movies.

This growth is also leading to Pakistani art and literature beginning to rise outside the country's borders, says Ali Rez, executive creative director at BBDO Pakistan. He points to author Omar Shahid Hamid announcing a Netflix adaptation of his work, the first Pakistani writer to do so. “That’s pretty exciting, original Pakistani content moving into global territory,” he exclaims.

The digital ecosystem has played a huge role in this creative growth, Ali continues, because it has meant exposure to content from around the world that wasn’t possible before. “At one point in time Pakistan used to be in this bubble of just getting by with the mediocre stuff they used to create.

“That’s happening less and less, and I think that’s just [because of] the general awareness of what’s possible now [in creating content]. Social media is discussing traditional advertising more now, and brands are more aware of what the consumer is looking for because they get direct feedback. That has started to shape content and the way brands approach content.”

Rez and his team put these words into action with BBDO Pakistan’s ‘Truck Art Childfinder’ campaign for Berger Paint, which saw the agency work with a local artist to create a stunning campaign that combined a critically important theme with a celebration of Pakistani culture. It won four Cannes Lions this year, significantly boosting Pakistan’s creative profile. “Pakistani creative confidence is absolutely growing and it’ll be an exponential trend,” he says.

Another growing industry attracting brands, somewhat counterintuitively, is tourism. Badar Khushnood, co-founder of digital agency Bramerz, says improving security concerns has led to a significant rise in people seeking to explore much of Pakistan’s untouched beauty. “Adventure tourism is seeing growth – Pakistan has deserts, coastline, and the highest concentration of the tallest peaks in the world. This will only keep growing as we continue to minimise the security concerns.”

Where consumers are heading, brands are already following. Naqvi says Harley-Davidson is one brand that has tapped into the biking community’s increased penchant for touring around Pakistan. Car brands are doing similar, and so are brands less associated with travel. National Foods, one of Pakistan’s leading food brands, has its ‘National ka Pakistan’ series, which sees hosts travel the country and cook local foods from different areas.

Marketing maturity

The aforementioned examples help put paid to the idea that Pakistan’s marketing and creative community is lagging behind its peers. However, Naqvi says there is still work to do to get clients in Pakistan to think more progressively about digital marketing and communications.

“Many clients in Pakistan depend heavily on what’s been working for them in the past, and it’s difficult to shift their mindsets to digital-first,” he explains, saying that until quite recently a lot of brands would ask for a digital element to their campaigns as a box-checking exercise. “Now we are getting to a point where we’re starting with a digital first strategy, and that’s a big change in Pakistan.”

Ali Rez, ECD BBDO Pakistan

One major aspect of what’s happened in Pakistan, because of digital growth, are memes. I find Pakistan to be one of the most talented countries globally when it comes to meme making.

When you think of it as a social conversation currency, it’s pretty huge as a creative tool. That’s what gets disseminated, made popular, starts trending. Anything that happens in Pakistan, within seconds there’s a massive influx of these meme artworks that go across everybody’s WhatsApp and social media.

That’s one aspect that a lot of people overlook, but that shows you, at least on digital, where society is headed in terms of the way people approach content making. That’s starting to reflect on the way brands produce their digital material as well. Traditional media is still strong, and it will be for the next five or six years probably. But there’s going to be a shift at some point.

Right now traditional media in Pakistan is a slave to media buying, because a lot of brands depend on the repetitive nature of memorability from their content, rather than making you remember something after only seeing it once. But that shift is happening, and some of the biggest players in the market have started experimenting.

This reticence from brands in the digital space must be viewed in tandem with what many experts accept is the huge challenge of Pakistan’s limited digital infrastructure. It is making progress, in no small part thanks to investment from China, and smartphone usage is skyrocketing, like in many emerging Asian markets.

But as in the face of all its challenges, Khushnood at Bramerz says Pakistanis have proven themselves to be adaptable, and a thriving start-up economy is developing across several sectors.

“Youth are the number one users of digital, and they have brought in everyone else. We are transitioning from entertainment to commercial usage of digital. Initially people just enjoyed YouTube, but now it's mobile payments, agri-tech, medical tech.”

Alibaba’s acquisition of leading local ecommerce platform Daraz was a significant statement of both intent and confidence in Pakistan’s digital future, even though around 90% of online orders are currently paid cash-on-delivery. Brands have a potentially lucrative opportunity to get in on Pakistan’s digital ascendency very early on, while it remains inexpensive.

Moreover, Khushnood adds that Pakistan has another advantage over its neighbours, alongside its enormous youth population and their entrepreneurial abilities. “Our youth is very English-oriented, unlike many other countries,” he points out. “Our local language media and content isn’t as developed so the majority of people online, especially youth, are very English-centric as a language. This means that we have very good global connectivity in addition to the local ecosystem.”

All the ingredients are there to take Pakistan from being Asia’s sleeping giant to one of the biggest markets in the region. By no means are the country’s significant challenges solved, and its image is likely to remain murky until more progress is seen on the security and politics fronts.

But with an ambitious, hungry and innovative youth driving the country forward, there may soon be brands that are kicking themselves for not seeing Pakistan’s as yet untapped potential early enough.

“It’s a young country and unfortunately, the majority of its young history has been in turmoil, trying to fix things, and we’re still fixing things,” says Rez at BBDO. “We’re still trying to catch up. Once that fix happens, it’s going to be a massive turnaround.”

More for Campaign Members

This article is part of an ongoing series running in August and September about some of Asia's less well-known markets. 


Campaign Asia

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