“Renowned global banking institutions have been given heavy penalties for manipulating the Libor rate secretly which eventually had a profound impact on the advertising sector as well. This lack of ethicality, integrity and greed has become the ethos that has replaced respect for the values and the standards accompanied by a shameful surrender of the state as a regulator and as a watchdog.”
Javed Jabbar is not an unfamiliar name to the advertising world. In fact he is dubbed as one of the trailblazers who have helped lay the foundation of the advertising industry in Pakistan by founding the trend-setting advertising and mass communication firm, MNJ Communications Ltd., in 1988. He was also the director/writer of the first ever film in the English language The last Mountain (1976) and produced the critically acclaimed film Ramchand Pakistani( 2008). Jabbar’s creative endeavors have left an indelible mark on the viewer’s memory. People still get nostalgic when they hear the jingle a woman will always be Lyla, or the enchanting sound of the pied piper in Peek Freans ad that captured the imagination of so many children, including myself, and adults alike. For many of us these ads represent a significant part of our growing up which remind us of a much simpler time when everything was not about making a quick buck. Although Jabbar has become disengaged with the advertising industry after he stepped into the political arena but his undying flair for the craft is evident from his numerous writings published occasionally in different magazines. I sat down with him to know what he makes out of the advertising industry and its dynamics today.
Q- Why did you disengage yourself from the advertising world? JJ – Even when I started my career in the early days, I had diverse interests from writing, theater, documentaries to drama, but particularly in writing. However, I had realized during my university days that writing alone will not pay enough to enable me to pursue the things that I wanted. When I started making documentaries and commercials for companies like National Bank of Pakistan and English Biscuits that required me to live in different cities like Karachi, and Mohenjo-daro, I became very interested in the reality of our society. When I made an independent documentary for Pakistan Television The City That Must Not Die (1972) which was the first PTV documentary to win an international award; soon after I began to realize that our society is very complex, beautiful and multifaceted. Therefore advertising in a very small way engages with the rest of society. As this feeling grew I decided eventually that apart from doing voluntary work during my professional working time I must also enter the political process. So when I entered the political realm, that was virtually the de facto beginning of my disengagement from advertising. I was invited by the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to join her cabinet in December 1988 as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. I felt that I could not continue being the chief executive of MNJ and the minister because it could create a conflict of interest so I formally resigned from MNJ on 3rd December and I had nothing more to do after that date on an official basis with advertising.
Q- Can your hands-off approach to advertising be attributed to the plight of the industry?
JJ -No it has nothing to do with the plight of the industry, as a matter of fact the industry has flourished over the decades. Sometimes my friends banter that my existence in the industry would have made them much more nervous now, so if you are looking for moneymaking this is the time to be in advertising but I am not interested in making money. I want to mention this particularly that after my disengagement from advertising in 1985, my wife Mrs. Shabnam Jabbar took on the huge responsibility of looking after the company- she assumed the role of chairperson and did a marvelous job with it. Without her support, the agency could have not survived and finally both of us felt that neither our daughter nor son was interested in remaining in advertising. Since I had become more interested in other fields such as filmmaking and cinema, I handed over the agency on the payment of one rupee to one of my former executives, Shabbir Muhajar.
Q- How do you compare the advertising today with that of the 80s?
JJ – The good aspect of advertising today is that there is a lot of vigor and a willingness to innovate in terms of location and not being bound by what is available immediately and locally, that is a distinct change that you can sense. The Pakistani advertising agencies now can take advantage of locations and technology regionally: in Dubai, Mumbai and Bangkok that didn’t happen so much in our time. The other is that today in some cases there is a greater use of humor, entertainment and storytelling than it was in our time, relatively speaking it was less. Third, in terms of sheer size, range of products and competition it has grown phenomenally. There has been an exponential increase in terms of media and choices but as I said in one of my lectures earlier, there has been a decline in the ethics maintained, in the codes of conduct and in integrity. There has been an excessive dependence on foreign influences, ideas and a loss of indigenousness. I feel there has been a shift of paradigm from indigenousness to ‘imported-ness’, now there is excessive reliance on the other sources or factors. Whereas we need to be much more self-reliant and be able to make use of our own ethos and culture, I am not saying that we should shut ourselves off from the rest of the world but there is so much more to find within Pakistan.
Q- I remember reading your article published in the daily Dawn titled Surviving And Advertising in the year 2000 that highlighted the ethical dilemmas advertising faced in the 80s and your premonition for the future of advertising in the 21st century. Have we been able to cover some ground on ethical front in advertising?
JJ – There were attempts made but they didn’t always succeed because of a crucial failure which has been on the part of the advertisers. They have not been as ethical as they should have been, for instance take the example of malpractices committed by banks and pharmaceutical companies globally. There are examples where major pharmaceutical companies have been fined on account of corruption and malpractices. Renowned global banking institutions have been given heavy penalties for manipulating the Libor rate secretly which eventually had a profound impact on the advertising sector as well. This lack of ethicality, integrity and greed has become the ethos that has replaced respect for the values and the standards accompanied by a shameful surrender of the state as a regulator and as a watchdog. The state should not have taken a back-seat and said let’s not intervene with the free-market dynamics. For example it has the State Bank of Pakistan, the Competition Commission of Pakistan and the Ombudsman where you can address complaints, but all of them necessarily have not acted effectively to check the malpractices of the corporate sector. One part of the corporate sector respects the law, both the multinational and the national, but there are several other parts that do not respect these ethics. They destroy the environment, they pollute it, they contaminate it and they don’t have any regard for protecting the rights of the earth. So all of this has led to a change from the time when we were in the industry and issues like pollution have arisen, with an effect on the climate that is going to be shared with the rest of the world. This problem is more important for Pakistan because it is one of the 10 countries in the world which are going to be worst affected by climate change.
Q- For a student what should be the right motive to step into the advertising world?
JJ– I would certainly urge young people to look at a career at least for a 5-10 year period because advertising can be very educative professionally. It can be extremely educative because you’re dealing with a range of products and services for instance, you may deal with pharmaceuticals one day and the shoe business the other and on the third day you might have to work for a toothpaste manufacturer. You will not find such exposure and interactions with all kinds of media and communications in any other sector. If you are of the creative and the production side, the virtues of compression, brevity and the capacity to narrate something important and persuasive enough to change behavior of a consumer in favor of what you want to sell is a tremendous source of learning and capacity building. It can stand you in a very good stead when you go into some other field that can be marketing, management, banking or your own business you can learn a great deal. So that’s why I would highly recommend it to the aspiring young candidates as a career option.
Q- How has your experience been at KSBL?
JJ – It has been a far more interesting experience than I thought it would be. Because I found the class to be willing to ask interesting and thought provoking questions. The second thing I like about KSBL is its relatively small size therefore it has a greater sense of familiarity and fraternity. It is a nice place to build relationships within the class between people hopefully, and between faculty and students. For places with larger numbers, the ability to assess each student is limited because you’re dealing with so many people at one time, so the size here is a good thing. The third thing that I appreciate about KSBL is the scope for each lecturer to explore freely the course that he wants to teach. There is no interference or an attempt to impose a predetermined curriculum from the faculty head or the dean’s side, they have left it to my discretion and that is how I would’ve preferred it, so those are the three things I like most.
Omar Farooq is a final year MBA student at KSBL. He writes about advertising & brand management, you can find him on Twitter @OmarFarookui