He runs an agency. Ad agency. Add to that a leading marketing corporation. And a partner whose cooperation has made the two a leader in the market. That’s Ahmed Kapadia of Awan & Kapadia the advertising agency whose client list is impressive and work impressive still. He is the son of veteran actor Latif Kapadia. Whose footsteps he briefly followed before marching to his own tune. He is a close friend of Salman Ahmed. Whose jazba-e-junoon he helped turn into an anthem. He helped launch Coke in Pakistan. He is now launching Jinnah – The Movie. He teaches readily what he learns. And admits quickly he is self-taught. The key he says to his success. A success he knows is well earned.
So was Awan & Kapadia the aim in life realized or a dream eventually come true?
A bit of both I guess. But more than anything else it was a solution to our discontentment with the advertising scene in Pakistan. While at IBA Imran and I realized that the services ad agencies are supposed to provide and those provided by them in Pakistan are not one and the same. Advertising agencies all over the world are considered to be partners in brand building a concept that isn’t entertained here much. The client here hasn’t been educated about brand building and the agency isn’t positioned to operate on the level of an equal partner. So agencies usually contend with making ads and releasing them. To provide the services of a full-fledged agency we decided to open one of our own. It was in my garage we set up shop with an initial investment of five thousand rupees. That was in 1989. We remained in the market for three years.
And during that brief period you managed to win the prestigious Aurora Award.
That’s correct. In 1992 it was for The Best Newspaper Advertisement for Die Hard.
But instead of capitalizing on the heavy endorsement you decided to close shop. Makes little sense.At that point there was an opportunity cost involved. We were fresh out of the Institute, were operating at a very small scale and were above all naively idealistic. I mean, we thought good work alone was enough to get business which we soon learnt is not how it works in this country. The advertising practitioners acknowledged our work as exceptionally good but when it came down to business we got sidelined. Not having enough staff was a valid enough reason but wasn’t unfortunately the only one. So although we were making money our ambition wasn’t being realized. The ambition to be more than what we were. We wanted to be one of the leading players. But limited resources got us classified as a design house. So we made a conscious decision to shut down the agency, go out into the market, gain experience and re-launch when the time was right.
How does the experience slot on your resume read prior to Awan & Kapadia?
I started my career at twenty with Dubai Bank as a trainee officer. I was with the bank for about two years. In 1986 I joined MNJ Communication as a client Services Executive. I worked there for three years.
What about your last academic achievement?
I did my MBA from IBA. I was in the first batch of BBA at the Institute of Business Administration. That was in 1982. Those days studying at the IBA was in itself considered prestigious and to add to that was the hype they had created about the new Bachelor’s degree. Getting in was considered akin to conquering the world. I was an average student but was lucky enough to get admission. Coming from BVS however, IBA did not live up to my expectations and I dropped out after the first semester. That proved to be an error of judgment as I soon discovered. Employers those days were not really keen on hiring non-MBAs. So while I was at MNJ I got myself enrolled at IBA for a Masters degree. But by the time I got my degree MBA was no longer the key to a better job. IBA however did teach me the value of hard work, that you have to get going when the going gets tough. You have to hang in there and you have to keep struggling.
How did you meet Imran Awan, your partner in the agency?
At the IBA. We were both studying and working at the same time, a combination that helped develop instant rapport. In our present setup Imran takes care of the creative aspect of the work while I look after the business development. And the combination is just fantastic.
So after shutting the agency where did you two wander off to get the experience you thought was needed?
Since I was interested in marketing I joined Lackson Tabacco where I was the brand manager for Red and White, the highest selling brand at that time. I was there for three years. During my stay I master minded the World Snooker Championship for which I am real proud of my self. Meanwhile Imran worked at Argus Advertising and subsequently at Manhattan where he was the Creative Director. In 1995 we both joined Orient McCann the agency we restructured completely. At the time of our joining its billing was 13.2 crore rupees. When we left it was 22.3 crores .At Orient we launched Coke in Karachi for Coca Cola. Jazba-e-Junoon was engineered, sold to coke marketed and aired on PTV by us. We made the state of the art Coke commercials that left even the goras at Orient spellbound. Imran was the man behind the entire concept and its execution. From Orient we moved to Evernew Concepts. Evernew had been trying to establish Evernew Concepts in Karachi for the last ten years then without much success. We not only established the agency for them here but had it aggregated with APNS too it s positioning went from a B-grade design house to an A-grade agency. We Took its billing from zero to 10 crores. We were with the agency for two years.
After which came the big-re-launch.
That’s correct. In October 1999 we launched Awan & Kapadia second time around.
And how have you fared since then?
The battle is on and it will go on. People have won accolades centuries after they turned to dust in the grave. We are alive and kicking still. The work environment in Pakistan is not the best there is. The biggest problem facing the country is corruption. And it’s not just money that has made people corrupt. There is intellectual corruption and corruption of not speaking the truth To survive in this environment is not easy. To thrive difficult still. We could have established ourselves ten years ago had we become part of the system. But there are principals involved that we are not willing to forgo. Even when we are called stupid for holding so adamantly on to them.
You have some prestigious names mentioned in your client list.
Currently we are handling Bank Alfalah, Rubbermaid, Dupont, LG Electronics, Around – The – Globe Associates and Synet (Networking Specialists). We have also handled sandoz, Pfizer, Mobilink, Paktel, IBM, Apple, Berger Paints, Macleans, AVA, Pakistan Steel, ICI, Avari Towers, Coca-Cola. Tapal and Chrysler Cherokee jeep in the past.
With such accomplishments in so little time aren’t you considered a threat by competition?
Hard work has gotten us where we are and hard work will take us further. Hard work should never be seen as a threat. It should inspire to excel.
Apart from the experience gained at the various agencies, where did you did guys train for advertising?
There are no training institutes for advertising in Pakistan. So what you learn is mostly from experience and on-the-job-training. To become a true partner, you have to acquire certain skills which cannot be learned from either of the above. You have to educate yourself because those who are learned aren’t always keen to share what they know. Not that there are many who know much anyway. Most agencies have been passed down as inheritance and few are trained to run them. So we decided that to acquire the skills we needed we had to learn from each other and from books. And from each other we learnt a lot. I learnt a lot from Imran. Like there was a time I thought creativity was little more than sitting at the desk and writing captions for ads. Now I know it involves a fine blend of hard work and inspiration. We have learned to do everything on our own and have learned to do everything. From A to Z Imran and I can handle the whole process, from concept right down to the release. With the world snooker championship I gained the experience of event management organization. My strength I realized lay in creating organization and training people. I am good at getting work done. I am good with people, at finding out their potential and helping them to utilize that potential to their advantage.
We also learned that you have to educate the client, teach him that you are partners in brand building. When Coke was being launched here I had the entire budget at my disposal. Coke wasn’t dictating to me how I should spend the money. I was doing it at my discretion. But then they had seen me operate. They knew I was spending their money wisely. That I was saving them money. So the client can be coached. By proving to him your genuine interest in his welfare. It can happen.
What would you say is the key ingredient of your success?
In Pakistan there is a high turn over rate in ad agencies. For one reason or the other employees remain on the move forever. Human resources rarely get due importance and subsequently management fails to invest in those who know guard jealously their knowledge. In our case we taught our team members everything we knew and everything we learnt. From dress-sense to work sensibility. Everything That’s because we consider teamwork the key to make it to the top. The weakest link has to be reinforced and strength brought forth. I would readily train another to take my place because I can then move a step higher. Because I don’t wan to keep doing what I do for the rest of my life. I would encourage talent even if it were the peon who is talented. One young man I hired for a four-figure amount is today a Junior Partner in Synergy. He had it what it took to be an equal and so I put him in that position. To make the most of his abilities. That’s what long-term planning is all about. And that is the key ingredient to our success.
Why do you think teaching what they know doesn’t come easy to most in advertising?
That’s because of personal insecurities. Teaching someone who has the potential to be en equal to possibly replace you one day needs courage. Courage to embrace the inevitable. And not many are courageous enough here. So the talented aren’t ever groomed. Heck they aren’t even given a chance to show their best. My junior partner got where he is at 27. It took me 37 years to get where I am today. Because I had to go through the grind of getting here on my own. Had I been given the chance I could have been bigger than I am today at my age. So we need to teach and train. That’s the only way to grow as partners.
And then there are those who think they learnt everything they need to know in the kindergarten!
I don’t work with such people. A recent applicant at the agency fit the bill. He thought the knew it all. I told him we didn’t have a place for him because growth comes from learning and one who knows not he knows not is not ignorant but a fool who should be shunned. He turned around and changed attitude at once. There was nothing more he wanted than to work with us. Because he knew he would learn here what he did not know he knew not. Because having worked at Awan & Kapadia would bring him credibility and earn him a good reputation in the market.
What part do you think luck has played in your success?
I don’t believe in luck. I believe you make your own luck. That God has to favor you to make that luck work for you.
At present you provide informal training and only to your employees. Do you plan eventually to instruct in a more academic capacity?
We do eventually plan to set up some kind of institute in the distant future. Our on-the-job training is pretty organized and we simply plan to put it all up in a course form.
What is the one thing you lay most emphasis on in your training?
I can never emphasize enough on being completely up-front with the client. In fact I am pretty strict about it. Honesty I firmly believe is the best policy when it comes to the client-agency partnership.
Does all that honesty ever pay in the end?
Oh yes it does. How it pays off however is a matter of individual perception. Several months ago I was required to grease a palm to have some work done. It was a small amount I was asked to pay but it was a dishonest act I couldn’t commit. Through proper channel I ended up spending a higher amount and I had a lot of running around to do to meet up with all those concerned. But I know I was right not to have given in to dishonesty. For me the honesty paid off because I got to know important people who didn’t know me before. Like I said, it’s a matter of individual perception. Similarly you have to be honest with the client. You have to tell him where you stand with his work every step of the way. This above all to the client be true.
Do clients appreciate your honesty?
In the long run they do. Clients we presently work for voluntarily accompanied us from Ever new Concepts for two reasons. Our work and our honesty.
Your honest intent is quite heartening but my experience has led me to believe only the unscrupulous prevail in advertising.
The honest are out there but they are a minority yes. And you don’t know unscrupulous until I tell you how advertising is done in Pakistan. Jazba-e-Junoon for instance. I was involved with the making of that song, it’s marketing and transmission on TV. The whole process. From beginning to the end. It was appalling the way a tug of war ensued between Pepsi and Coke to decide who got it on air. The whole deal was manipulated. Big names were involved. I for one was dead against the way it was all done. But it was done nevertheless. The details are documented in the annals of history and will one day be told to put all to shame.
It is my experience that clients gravitate towards agencies that favor them one way or the other irrespective of how good or had the agency’s work. Is that the rule or the exception?
Had you put this question to me ten years earlier I would have said personal contacts get the agency clients. Period. But over the years I have come to realize that certain things regarding the agency invariably decide whether or not the client would favor it. Like its staff-strength, financial standing and the creative potential. In other words its size and credibility in the market. These do count at the end of the day. No matter how creative, someone fresh out of art school would not be able to serve the interest of a client who has a product to sell to discerning consumers. Similarly just because he’s worked for Lever Brothers would not make the client services executive an ideal candidate to handle every client’s account. But ability in advertising is a two way street. A client who is not trained in matters of the creative process is not in a position to judge the creative output of a genius. One whose skills do no encompass trade and commerce cannot reasonably judge the decision of one who has his fingers on the pulse of the nation.
But I have seen account being sanctioned to agencies other than those who qualify by merit.
They are the victims of what I call the ‘other’ factor. It has always been there and will be there for a long time to come. It is part of the corruption that has its roots deep in our society and advertising is no exception. But as the industry grows more competitive things will change and will change for the better. Contacts may get the agency clients but if it fails to deliver the client will rethink the decision sooner than later. No client wishes to lose in business. It’s the elementary rule of commerce.
Talking about corruption what about clients who use their advertising muscle through the agency to maintain control over the editorial content of publications to safeguard their interest. This undermines freedom of the press clandestinely draining its power to protest.
What I can say is that I’ll do the same if it comes to that. If I am looking after the welfare of a particular brand, I am responsible for it and its reputation in the market. If I find out that what you’re printing reflects negatively on that brand I’d try and stop you from printing it. I owe it client to stop you. It depends on the publisher to have the integrity to take a stand if he thinks the magazine is in the right. The agency is not to be blamed for doing its job.
Even if what is being printed is true? Even if lets say the ingredients of a certain product are discovered to be harmful to the consumers’ health and your slick advertising cleverly draws attention away from that health risk?
Yes even if it is true I’ll try and stop you from printing it. You see it is the responsibility of the brand manufacturer to ensure that the product does precisely what they are saying it does. Nothing more. Nothing less. The advertising agency by definition is going to glorify the product because it wants the product to sell. But if the agency is putting in the ad functions the product does not perform then the agency is definitely at fault. That is misinformation. Hyperbole is allowed. Lying isn’t.
Don’t you think that even a hyperbole can at times be misleading? I mean clever words can cleverly conceal facts or add to them without actually lying. Isn’t that manipulating the minds of consumers?
That’s very subjective. Depends on what is being said and for selling what. That is what advertising is about. I know it shouldn’t be done. And I don’t think that any leading agencies actually indulge in that kind of manipulation.
How do you compare our advertising abilities with lets say those of India?
The Indians had nothing out of the ordinary to offer in the field till the 80’s. Now see where they are? They have developed their film industry beyond compare and they have drawn their creative strength from that industry. Their film gurus were the ones who were originally involved in making TV commercials. So as the industry developed so did their advertising. They are far more professional than we are. And there is more competition than we have here.
You are also launching Jinnah-The movie!
Yes we are marketing it here in Pakistan.
Tell me something about the junoon song that features the film.
It’s a song meant as a tribute to Jinnah-The movie. The lyrics and composition are by Salman Ahmed. Ali and Samina Ahmed are the singers. Asim Raza has directed the video. Central idea and production are by Awan & Kapadia and Synergy.
On to a more personal Level now. You are married, right?
For the last 9 years. I have two beautiful daughters.
I have heard you are a good father. Are you also a Good husband?
I have a very supportive wife even though I am not able to give her as much time I probably should. The kind of work advertising entails one is on call twenty-four hours a day. My wife should get the credit for being so very understanding.
So what do you do to keep yourself entertained?
I play cricket. Salman (Ahmed) and I have just put together a cricket team. We call it the Junoon Cricket Team. Touseef (Ahmed) is on the team with us.
What does it mean to be Latif Kapadia’s son?
From my father I learnt that it is a definite advantage to have good form but it’s the content that’s more important. You can apply the same principal to a product and an organization as much to a person.
With an actor father in the house, weren’t you ever inspired to let your inherent acting abilities run amuck?
I did a play ‘Ahat’ with Salman Ahmed, a good friend. I played Talat’s husband in it. Hasena Moin wrote it and contrary to what most people assumed it wasn’t my father who got me the part. He was in fact surprised when he found out about it. I took up the role just to experiment with what I thought was an entertaining idea. But once I got in front of camera I realized it is anything but entertaining to emote. You need to work at what you do and you have to work hard to be good at what you’re doing.
That was the only time you acted on TV?
Just about. I realized it wasn’t my cup of tea. I mean, yes I could do it because I believe that you can eventually learn to do everything under the sun, except sing, and I could have continued to act. But it wasn’t really where my interest lay.
Did you do well?
Apparently not. I could never remember my dialogues and threw everyone off cue. Probably that is why I wasn’t head hunted by other directors.