USAID: Changing Conversations


Published in Aurora Magazine

By Ayesha Hoda

In an attempt at transparency and rebuttal of myths about US assistance, an ad campaign ‘Roshan Pakistan’ (Brighter Pakistan) was launched by USAID in May this year.

The campaign apprised us of the role of USAID, a US government agency which provides development assistance to countries around the world, including Pakistan. Over the years, USAID has been active in various sectors and socio-economic programs designed to impact hundreds of communities across the country.

The organization has only recently started focusing on directly and heavily advertising its assistance in Pakistan. USAID spends less than 0.5% of its annual budget on public communications efforts. It was only in early 2011 that it conducted the first large-scale ad campaign although it has been advertising for several years in other countries like Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia and Egypt. In Pakistan, USAID has previously advertised causes such as enrolment in modern teacher education programs, tourism revival in Swat and energy efficiency efforts.

Roshan Pakistan is the largest USAID ad campaign, not only in Pakistan but all over the world. Communications Specialist at USAID Pakistan, Virginija Morgan says that this is an effort to increase transparency and accountability.

“I am sure you have heard people of this country questioning how exactly US assistance is being used,” she says. “Advertising campaigns such as these help answer this question. Since the start of the campaign, we have heard many of our counterparts, and even people we meet in various communities, thank us for explaining what assistance is being provided to their country on behalf of the American people.”

Only a handful of people in Pakistan – government organizations, NGOs and teams of experts – deal with USAID directly. Hence, a need to utilize mass media tools was identified to reach out to the people who are experiencing the benefits of US funded programs in their lives. The primary target audience is thus SEC C, D and E, while A and B are secondary.

The campaign, whose concept was born in early 2012, was created by Interflow. The agency has been engaged with USAID indirectly for many years for other projects such as Key Social Marketing, PAIMAN, Abt. Associates etc. For Roshan Pakistan, Interflow was however contracted as a partner under the banner of the Public Communications Project (PCP).

Syed Atif Saeed, Group Account Director (Designated Director Operations for PCP) at Interflow, reveals that the umbrella concept/strategy of the campaign was “Roshan Pakistan”, selected on evidence based procedures through research.

“The rationale behind this is that everyone wants a ‘Roshan Pakistan’. The three areas USAID spends immensely on are education, poverty alleviation and energy. All these focused areas synergize with the umbrella concept aptly,” he says.

The campaign was run in three phases. According to Interflow, Phase I (May and June) consisted of information and education communication component (IEC), that is, it familiarized people with the development initiatives USAID has taken in Pakistan. The introductory print ad tells us how USAID is trying to achieve a Brighter Pakistan. The other print ads focus directly on education, energy and poverty alleviation, with detailed copy which sheds light on the areas and projects USAID has invested in. The second phase (August and September) ads are a combination of IEC and Behavioral Change Communication (BCC). This is a thematic campaign which was geared towards building an emotional connection between Americans and Pakistanis, by depicting friendship, tolerance and highlighting the contributions of USAID employees.

For Phase three (October – November), the agency tweaked and made some adjustments in the earlier communications based on feedback received. For example, research revealed that people often watch television by switching off/lowering the volume so written text in the form of pop-ups was introduced on the screen. The print ads in this phase were not too different except for some changes in copy.

Roshan Pakistan stands apart from other social development campaigns of NGOs and youth groups as it does not ask for donations or volunteering support or talk about patriotism or any cause in detail. It merely talks about USAID activities in certain sectors, what positive changes these can bring and Pak-American friendship. This serves the purpose of the campaign since the objective here is not to market any particular cause or program.

The TVCs and radio spots are in the same vein as the print ads but they tell a story: the story of making a difference through assistance and joint efforts. Three of the ads are based on common Pakistanis and their daily issues, which can be resolved by improving literacy, providing energy and employment opportunities to the less privileged. The main thematic ad shows USAID workers mingling with local citizens. Whether this has generated a wave of positive sentiment or not is debatable.

Unlike other local and international social sector campaigns, Roshan Pakistan also does not present anyone as a victim in need of assistance – no images of extreme poverty, dismal living conditions, children out of school etc. – and neither portrays development as a simple process by promising instant change. Watching it for the first time, you might think it is an ad for a telco or an FMCG brand. But the TVCs have the ability to draw you in. What works for the print ads are the examples of the large projects USAID has undertaken or invested in over the years.

The campaign was run on a 360 degree basis, including outdoor, TV, cable, cinema, print, radio and digital mediums. It was a nationwide initiative. The first year’s KPI was to raise the awareness level from 8 to 12 percent. The second year’s objective is to take it to 24 percent.

However, against the volatile political backdrop and anti-US sentiments of the public, the campaign, its entire look and feel, can seem highly optimistic, especially with regard to relations between common citizens and their American counterparts.

“In general terms the campaign was launched with a lot of apprehension and fear of backlash,” shares Atif. “But no noteable negative feedback has reached us. In terms of statistics, key performance indicator of raising awareness by 50 percent has been achieved.”

Virginija Morgan adds to this by mentioning that they are already witnessing the impact of Roshan Pakistan as dinner table conversations in many households have moved towards the importance of education, job training and energy efforts; people are showing an interest in replicating some of the initiatives.

The campaign is still at a nascent stage and as with any such awareness/image building campaign, significant impact can only be visible after subsequent reinforcements of the messages. Therefore, USAID plans to continue the campaign in the future.

Going tomatoes

By Ayesha Hoda

Published in Aurora Magazine (September – October 2012 issue)


The ketchup category has seen advertising activity recently and there are lots of tomatoes to be found whether you switch on the TV or look at a billboard.

The story of tomato ketchup in Pakistan began with Mitchell’s – a food brand that dates back to the 30s. The category has changed significantly since and more brands have entered the market. Today, the category is populated by names such as Bake Parlor, Knorr, Mitchell’s, National Foods, Shangrila, Shezan, and international brands like Heinz.

According to Adnan Malik, Head of Marketing, National Foods, the tomato ketchup category is worth three billion rupees (Source: A C Nielsen) and his brand accounts for 51% of the share. He says that there is a 70% penetration of this category in consumer segments A1, A2, B and C. In sharp contrast, the penetration levels go down to 30-40% in B, C and E.

Since the 90s the strategies for ketchup brands have evolved. Inflation and the economic downturn have seen cuts in consumer spending and brands have turned to offering their customers convenience and economy.

To this end, Shangrila (established in the late 80s) introduced a 100g sachet in the late 90s and became the first company to launch pouch packaging, a development that raised the bar among competitors and also brought the price down, helping develop a market for ketchup among a wider public.

National Foods quickly followed suit and today claims to be the leader in this format. Pouches account for 60% of the company’s sales and even consumers who are not price sensitive and previously preferred bottles, have accepted pouches due to their convenience.

At Mitchell’s, although concentration on pouches has recently increased, glass bottles still account for a 40-50% share of their sales.

Pouches come iin three sizes: 800g, 400g and 250g, and glass bottles in two: 500g and 280g. For all the brands the large (800g) pouch is priced at about Rs 150 whereas the large (500g) bottle is about 10-15 rupees cheaper. However, there is a smaller quantity of ketchup in the bottle, therefore by paying a little extra, consumers get more ketchup, making the pouch more economical.

Most ketchup brands are concentrating on younger consumers, because, says Malik, “We are a a young nation and the trend of having snacks with ketchup is growing.”

However, a major challenge is to ensure that the brand appeals to everyne, including housewives and other influencers.

In terms of advertising strategy, National Foods, Shangrila and Mitchell’s all seem to be focusing focusing on the main ingredient – tomatoes.

National Foods originally positioned (before 2008) their proposition around fun. However, in 2008, the package design was changed to emphasise the fact that the product was made from 100% pure tomatoes, with the focus of the communication turning towards flavour and purity of the ingredients. The company’s recent ad campaign is also based on ‘The real tomato experience’.

According to ad agency IAL Saatchi and Saatchi (National Foods’ creative agency), the new campaign capitalises on benefits such as purity, quality, convenience and economy through tempting shots of food and tomatoes. The campaign was leveraged to television, retail level (POS) and gondola/displays at shops.

Shangrila leverages print and outdoor and does not advertise on TV or radio as the company believes it is against sharia’h to do so, which is why, according to Erfan Mirza, Brand Manager, Shangrila, the brand has a low share of voice compared to its competitors. Yest, he says that Shangrila is still considered Pakistan’s number one tomato ketchup.

Compared to National Foods and Shangrila, Mitchell’s ad spend was relatively low until about three years ago, because of a focus on infrastructure development. However, advertising activity has picked up since. Zakria Fawad, Account Manager, Lowe & Rauf (Mitchell’s creative agency), says the current ad campaign for Mitchell’s tomato ketchup (Bin khaye raha na jaye  – originally released in 2010) stresses the fact that the product is made from the highest quantity of tomato pulp.

Fawad adds that “strategically, we decided to target the younger age group as they are the primary users/influencers but we also incorporated the primary buyer, the mother.”

In addition to the TVC, Mitchell’s is exploring non-traditional marketing avenues. It currently sponsors a food magazine called Chef Special and Chef Zakir’s annual cookbook. The brand has also opted for content integration on Dawat on Masala TV.

Faiza Iqtadar, Media Planner at Maxus Global (Mitchell’s media agency) says, “The brand’s media strategy is to increase awareness, create recall and promote its discounted offer.”

Overall, things look good for the ketchup brands. All the major players have become more aggressive on the marketing front and the size of the market is growing simultaneously. These brands are also looking to explore more consumer segments. Hamid Mukhtar, Assistant Brand Manager, Mitchell’s Grocery Products, for example, says that Mitchell’s has recently changed their penetration strategy from A+ and A consumers to target people in the B and B+ range.

However, as more ketchup brands are providing more options to snack lovers, the big brands may need to think of new ways to differentiate their product apart from the claim of being ‘natural’. They will also have to come up with more innovative media mixes to remain relevant and appeal to various consumer segments.

Creative café: are you being served?

Published in Slogan (October 2010)

Ayesha Hoda recounts the story of client servicing from the creative team’s perspective.

Life in the creative department starts with a salty email from the client service/account executive and ends with the innumerable campaign entrées that will be served hot to the client.

The creative team is often at war with the client service team. First there is a predictable, almost-friendly tussle over the creative brief – an essential ingredient – which, it is said, the client almost never provides. Often the executive defends himself saying the client did not really say much about what he wants and ‘I’ elaborated this much for ‘your’ benefit and understanding.

Once the brief formality is out of the way, the cooking, i.e., the brainstorming session starts. The creative chef (manager) is expected to churn out great ideas, which are also doable within the deadline. At the mention of that deadly word, the guard of the creative manager goes up – he knows he will soon be cajoled, blackmailed or coerced into accepting less time than he deserves.

Based on past experiences, the account executive and his manager use one of these strategies to convince him that it is a do or die situation, things can turn sour with the client without timely deliverables and ASAP as always is the best policy. Some knives are thrown each way but the creative unit almost always has to give in to the demands of client servicing.

Back in his department, the creative manager directs his copywriters and creative executives / designers: the artworks must be ready by COB tomorrow. All the usual ingredients are brought together, to be blended in the tried and tested ways. Sometimes past researches and previously rejected pitches for other clients are retrieved, to be peppered with some new design elements. At other times, ideas and taglines may be poached from the internet.

The genuine creative cooks struggle to strike a balance between satisfying their own creative souls – producing something out-of-the-box – and completing the work on time so that the client service unit can save face. Somewhere down this road, comes the ‘Eureka’ moment when the main ingredient, that is, the BIG IDEA is found.

After a late-sitting and early morning, the creative cooks prepare to serve the campaign options, to be tested by the client service. Waiting for the reaction is no easy task. The reaction is almost never neutral. It will either be a heart-warming “Wow” or a blunt rejection.

Either way, some changes are sure to follow till the creatives hit the boiling point. While some inputs (given from an idea-selling perspective) are valuable, others (given by recently hired executives with no background in design) can be tiresome. With the colour wheel and design principles thrown out of the window, some executives demand changes in colour, shape, images, video etc. based on their aesthetic sense (or the lack of it). Reasons as illogical as “This is my favourite colour” can be used to justify the change.

The work that is then presented or emailed to the client is generally a unique mixture of creative wishes and client service whims. In a temporary period of quietness and bliss, the creative and client service teams wait for the client’s response.

This response determines the client service team’s next set of actions. The creative can expect sarcasm or angry outbursts if the response is negative. Even if the campaign ideas are not rejected, a plethora of changes are sure to follow. While the client may praise the ideas, there will always be some addition, some little tit bit here and there that will be changed. Despite the ire of the creative, it is difficult for the client service team to hold on to its own ideas: the client is king and work needs to be completed on time. So creative battles do not last very long and creativity can be compromised to please the client.

The final ad or PR campaign then depends a lot on the understanding and trust of the client, and the persuasive powers of client service professionals. Their skills can help make a campaign brilliant and tasteful, or one that leads to dyspepsia.

‘…where life will take you’

Published in Slogan (April 2010)

In conversation with Ayesha Hoda, S.M. Shahid revisits his childhood, recalls his days at Oscar Advertising and reveals how glorious old age can be.

Seventy five year-old S.M. Shahid sits casually in what seems to be his favourite room in his simple and cosy home in Karachi – with shelves lined with wonderful books, some memorable photographs, CDs of classical music and a few cups of tea.

Though humble about his achievements and contributions, the man takes great pride in speaking of them and of the struggles of his early life – immediately drawing one into his world and his life story.

“I was born in 1934 in Bihar – a time when India was in great turmoil,” he says, vividly describing the situation at the time and the tragedies resulting from a massive earthquake, WWII, Hindu-Muslim riots and partition.

In the midst of all this, personal tragedy struck as ten-year old Shahid’s father passed away. Being the eldest amongst the sons, responsibility fell on his shoulders but he was ready to face life and was supported by his paternal uncle. It was the latter’s decision due to which the family migrated in September 1947 to Chittagong, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and then to Karachi, West Pakistan in 1951.

During these years, Shahid attended railway school and studied up to intermediate, after which he had to drop out due to financial constraints. This comes as a surprise looking at the depth of knowledge this man possesses but he cheerfully points out that he is self-taught – giving one all the more reason to be impressed.

Shahid initially earned his living by giving tuitions to kids and working on low-profile jobs. He has no regrets though – the result of being brought up in a family that believed in simple living and leading a dignified life defined by strong work ethics and sincerity.

In 1959, he began writing short stories, which were published both in English and Urdu publications. But despite his excellent writing skills, he could not get a job as a journalist since he was not a “graduate.”

The other option was a career in advertising as it did not require technical knowledge or very high qualifications. Competition was not very intense in the ad world of those times and his younger brother Mazhar Hussain had already gained experience in the field while working for Orient Advertising in Dhaka. So they got together to establish their own agency – Oscar Advertising.

Whoever hails from that particular era of Pakistani advertising remembers Oscar as a very creative agency. It remained a small agency throughout its existence but handled a number of big and important clients like the Export Promotion Bureau, State Life, First Women’s Bank, etc.

Eventually, Shahid’s best friend and mentor, Irfan Haleem, also became a partner, and together they produced a number of great campaigns. Their lives were once again affected by the political unrest in 1971, when Mazhar left for Libya and only two partners remained to run the agency.

However, they still did extremely well. “Irfan was not only my partner but my dearest friend,” Shahid reminisces. “He was a philosopher and guide. I learnt a lot from him. Like me, he was also a college dropout from Aligarh. But he had a lot of knowledge about English and Urdu literature, music, etc. We had shared interests and we truly enriched each other’s lives. Our partnership lasted for more than two decades.”

In 1987, Irfan said he could no longer take the pressure of work due to failing health. He passed away in September 1994. In October that year, Shahid decided to retire from advertising, handing over charge to his younger daughter and son-in-law.

“Young blood made the agency very successful,” says Shahid. “But around 1999, it suffered some setbacks due to changes in government. Plus, bribery was rampant but we never engaged in such unethical practices. Then my son-in-law took on some partners who turned out to be dishonest and incompetent – they brought bad business. For instance, the agency released a campaign worth 50 lakh rupees but the client never paid.

“As a result we defaulted in 2000 with All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS). All efforts on my part to recover the money were fruitless. I went to APNS and the newspapers and told them what had happened. They were quite understanding but as a rule, APNS had to suspend the agency and we lost a number of big clients because of that.”

S.M. Shahid had been a good paymaster and thus had a very good reputation in the media. In an unprecedented move, all newspapers – with the exception of one – wrote off all the money that Oscar Advertising owed them. Only one newspaper took action but that too half-heartedly.

Shahid once again got involved in the affairs of the agency but could not revive it or retrieve the lost money. So Oscar had to be shut down. “It still exists on paper,” he says, not in a sentimental way, but as a man who has learnt to cope with the highs and lows of life with a smile.

His next revelation is quite startling, “My old age is the best time of my life even though I lost all my money when the agency closed down.”

One rarely hears that.

“I believe you make half of your life yourself and half of it is determined by destiny. I firmly believe in destiny. You never know what is going to happen next; where life will take you. I could never imagine the amount of respect I earned even after my retirement.”

Then he sheds light on the other, more interesting aspects of his life.

The only thing that Shahid formally learnt in life was classical music. From 1972 – 1992, he was taught by Ustad Wilayat Ali Khan. But he was not interested in going on air on TV or radio and projecting himself as a singer. Instead, he shared his passion for music only at home or at social gatherings with friends.

He is also fond of photography and likes to explore different subjects, wildlife in particular. He documented Karachi’s old buildings in 1983 and ran a column in Daily Star for eight months, called ‘Vanishing Karachi’, in association with Ghazi Salahuddin.

After retirement in 1994, Shahid ceased to be an advertising man and dedicated his time to his other interests and hobbies. As a freelance writer, he shared his knowledge on classical music and other subjects.

Shahid also had experience in book publishing as he had published some very artistic books for Export Promotion Bureau. His first book on music – Classical Music of the Subcontinent – was sponsored by Dr. Shahid Hak, the Managing Director of PARCO, in 1999. That was the turning point in Shahid’s life as he found a way to impart his knowledge to the next generation.

With the success of the book, Dr. Shahid Hak agreed to sponsor a number of other titles that included Madam Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan, the greatest folk singer of Pakistan – Tufail Niazi, and one of the finest composers of songs, Kamal Das Gupta. In just seven years, S.M. Shahid published 38 magnificent books. He terms this as a very small contribution.

After Dr. Shahid Hak’s demise, S.M. Shahid did not pursue any other sponsors although he has a number of unpublished manuscripts.

“When Shahid passed away, I gave up. After a certain time I tend to give up. Like I had said goodbye to advertising. In the same way, I never went to anybody for sponsorship. I did not search for another Shahid Hak. I thought I would never find somebody as supportive as him. I will publish more books if a sponsor comes along.”

Shahid is now content with writing columns. His satirical and humorous pieces – under ‘Two’s Company’ – appear in Dawn magazine every Sunday, sometimes prompting fierce feedback from across the globe.

“My childhood was bad. Young days were full of struggle (which is a good thing). But my old age is glorious! I live in a joint family system – with my younger daughter, son-in-law and their three children – which is a great blessing.”

His three grandchildren – two boys and a girl – have inherited his aesthetic sense and interests in writing, music and visual arts. He spends a lot of time with his grandson Hasan, who is a special child and shares Shahid’s interest in classical music. Like his grandfather, the 13-year old has gained a lot of knowledge of classical music and BBC Urdu Service has made a documentary film on him.

Gladly absorbed in his world of literature, music and family, Shahid says that he would be a total misfit in advertising today.

“Everything has changed in advertising. It is a totally different ball game now. Plagiarism has become very common. They used to copy earlier as well but they had some original ideas… now a lot of things are simply ‘copy paste’. We copy India in everything. We mix Urdu and English and can speak neither language very well. The entire culture has changed.

“People have much more exposure these days, especially because of the internet. Our knowledge was limited. But the new generation is going so fast that it is missing a lot of things on the way. People don’t have the time to stop, observe and appreciate the good things in life.”