Covid-19: Pakistani advertisers expected to cut spending on ATL, BTL, digital mediums by $55m in FY21

Senior media practitioners at Z2C and GroupM suggest that spending on above the line and below the line mediums has shrunk substantially, while social media platforms and digital media avenues continue to thrive.

KARACHI: Ever since the world went into lockdown to flatten the curve, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites noted that the sharp decline of humans and mobility has resulted in significant reductions in air pollution in major cities around the world. Additional news reports suggest that the Venice canals have clear water, wildlife has ventured into locked down cities, and an environmental economist foresaw that improved air quality in China could save thousands of lives.

On the opposite spectrum, the lockdowns meant companies had to rapidly adapt to work from home workflows, a shrinking top line resulted in layoffs and furloughs across industries, bailout packages were drafted, nonessential brick and mortar businesses were shuttered, creditors were bullied into extending payment terms, and transformation initiatives took off to offset the concerns over in-store shopping. The recession caused by Covid-19 will have lasting effects on consumption, business models and marketing expenditure. 

“The current situation is totally unprecedented, but the closest historical equivalent would be a combination of the Great Recession and 9/11; a brutal economic downturn and a “black swan” national disaster,” said Vincent Létang, EVP of global market intelligence at Magna. “Its effects on supply, demand, and media consumption are more complex and widespread than in any ‘normal’ economic recession in the past, and some of them will outlast the current crisis.”

According to the latest Magna Advertising Forecast, media owner linear advertising sales will decrease by 16 per cent globally. Linear refers to spending across national TV, local TV, print, radio, Out of Home (OOH), cinema, and direct mail. The report prognosticates that before convalescing by 6.1 per cent in 2021, total media owner advertising revenues will dwindle 7.2 per cent by $42 billion for linear and digital formats. 

“Beyond the short-term V-shaped recession/recovery impact on the economy and the advertising market, the COVID crisis will have global and long-term effects on society, business models, consumption habits, mobility and media usage, all factors pointing to a more subdued economic growth and advertising spend than previously forecast for the 2022-2024 period,” said Létang. “[We] thus reduced [the] global advertising growth forecast for these three years, from +4.5 per cent per year to +3.5 per cent per year. The global ad market will reach $647 billion by 2021 compared to $745 billion in our previous long-term scenario (a -14 per cent decrease).”

The forecast notes that while net advertising revenues in the APAC region will shrink by 8.5 per cent, emerging markets – which Pakistan is classified under – will see a 6.3 per cent reduction in spending. For Pakistan’s advertising industry, the change in Above the Line (ATL), Below the Line (BTL), and digital (search, mobile, online video, social media) was quick and decisive. In the media mix landscape, there were winners and losers, coinciding with a shift in content consumption behavior, both in-home and OOH.

According to a post Covid-19 forecast from a senior media practitioner, advertisers in Pakistan are expected to spend $440 million (a drop of almost $55 million) on ATL, BTL, and digital mediums during the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The media spend is split across TV, digital, print, OOH advertising, brand activations, and radio, with a share of 39 per cent, 26 per cent, 14 per cent, 11 per cent, 6.3 per cent, and 2.1 per cent respectively. Without Covid-19 and the lockdown, the expenditure was expected to be $495 million with a similar spread.


When the current government decided to pause TV advertising in 2018 and 2019 – due to an audit into rate inflation – the news channel industry responded with mass layoffs and deep inventory discounting. As expected, when the Covid-19 lockdown went into effect in March 2020, the first response from advertisers was to go dark while Pakistanis grappled with the essential information and measures for disease prevention. For news channels, this resulted in further layoffs, payment delays, and deeper discounting – more so for upfront cash.

According to Ahsen Idris, CEO of Blitz Advertising, clients spent 35 per cent less during Ramadan 2020 than during Ramadan 2019. The reasons for doing so were a mixed bag, with fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies doing so because the demand for staples rose organically due to the pandemic, which meant that advertising for demand generation was no longer a priority. With hand sanitisers, liquid soaps, and face masks quickly becoming must-haves, personal hygiene brands fought for a share of voice and share of mind, continuing to do so today.

Covering up the decline in Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) advertising spending were spikes from the telecommunications industry, due to the rise in video streaming on YouTube, Netflix, iflix, Amazon Prime, and pirated services. This was verified from senior media practitioners from Z2C – the holding company with CMPak Ltd, Pakistan Mobile Communications Ltd, and Telenor Pakistan (Pvt.) Limited as clients. It was cross verified by a senior media practitioner at GroupM, the media agency that leads ATL buying for Pak Telecom Mobile Ltd and Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd.

Digital banking also increased TV advertising as urban audiences sought to avoid visiting bank branches and ATMs, exacerbated by the strict lockdowns in major cities and the fear that physical notes transmit the virus. Brands in the real estate, consumer durables, automotive, insurance, apparel, batteries, construction, and allied categories saw a sharp decline in spending as well due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Print and radio

Idris estimated that clients’ media budgets for radio went from 5 per cent to 3.5 per cent due to the decline in commuting – referred to as drive time at media agencies – adding that those that do commute leave their homes in such a mission-based state that listening to the radio has lessened in importance. He added that radio as an advertising medium has been troubled by plummeting listenership since the ban on Indian content following the 2019 Pulwama attack, with current content restricted to Pakistani songs which have been listened to ad nauseum.

Several respondents on the brand side, who asked to remain anonymous, shared that while print advertising was down, due to the perception that the virus can be transferred through paper, the decline could not be quantified due to expenditure tracking needing at least 90 days from various sources.

Tariq Hameed Siddiqui, brand head for the digital business unit at Team A Ventures, shared that media spending on print ads and radio spots went down, owing to the drop in print readership and radio listenership created by Covid-19. He instead redirected budgets towards performance marketing to facilitate eCommerce channels.

OOH advertising, brand activations, and shopper marketing

According to Idris, 80 per cent of client OOH budgets were allocated towards the largest 20 cities in Pakistan. Ever since the pandemic lockdown went into effect, OOH advertising has taken a substantial hit in light of the sharp decline in motorists and traffic. He added that other areas of BTL – such as brand activations – have also taken a hit due to social distancing measures. While the lockdown impeded buyers from entering malls, audience participation activations were impeded altogether. This has resulted in a severe hit in revenue for BTL agencies around the country, save for BullsEye which diversified in 2018 with the acquisition of Symmetry Group.

“The lockdown has had a massive impact on the BTL industry which has taken a massive free fall and the future is also looking vague,” said Sidra Jung, CEO of Team Reactivate. “Even if today, everything comes back to normal the BTL industry will only be 30 per cent of what it was before COVID-19 started.” 

In a surprising twist, respondents shared that shopper marketing expenditure is down due to retail business booming, with locally owned businesses viewing in-store advertising as a sales generation avenue instead of a brand-building tool. People familiar with in-store marketing tactics shared that traditional business owners see no reason to expend extra effort during the pandemic as buying frenzies are emptying shelves across International Modern Trade (IMT) and Local Modern Trade (LMT).

Social media, digital marketing, and e-commerce

Respondents across specialties – ATL, BTL, and digital – shared that the initial reaction from clients was to go dark, followed by reframing campaigns as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and then directing budgets towards digital maintenance so as not to go completely dark – without overextending and further straining an already struggling supply chain.

Faizan Syed, CEO of East River, said initially spending was down in April and quickly recovered in the month of May, with greater improvements expected in June. Since the pandemic shifted buying behaviors, he said clients began to prioritize social and digital media spending towards performance marketing in the wake of Covid-19.

“Greater focus on return on ad spend,” he said. “[Clients] want to see revenue and are interested in ways to get it through digital.”

Raza Faisal, Transformation Lead at Team Reactivate, said that the perceived inability to shoot TVCs and DVCs safely has prompted his clients to turn to influencers on Instagram using them as both a content creation avenue and a digital PR channel. This workaround has been the go-to fix for brand marketers worldwide.

“It’s a sensitive period right now, so brands want to subtly infuse brand messaging through digital public relations,” he said. “Since they can’t shoot TVC’s and DVCs, content creators help make fresh very Covid-19 relevant content and it’s a comparatively cost-effective medium compared to television so that works too. So high relevance – smaller audience.”

He estimated that FMCG client media spending across Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube has risen by 30 to 40 per cent, primarily aimed at identifying shoppers and sending them to marketplace listings – such as Daraz, Bagallery, HumMart – with the intent to convert traffic into buyers.

Adeeqa Nazir, Head of Influencer Marketing and PR at Digitz, has also seen a spike in client interest towards influencer marketing, with clients telling her that TV advertising is risky because messages are getting lost among heated arguments and gruesome images on the poorly regulated medium. She shared that clients, such as L’Oreal, invested in influencer marketing campaigns that integrated with storylines and delivered commercial results during Ramadan.

“Two types of campaigns have been done – awareness and sales,” she said. “Sales were driven via influencer experiences for brands like L’Oreal. Make-up is a very cult category, you believe the influencers you follow. TikTok was engaged for Coca-Cola, EasyPaisa for mainly tapping into the platform, being relevant, and penetrating the target segment. Snapchat I feel like is old news now.”

She added that the effectiveness of the medium is measured quantitatively by the Click-Through Rate (CTR) to the targeted landing page and qualitatively by looking at conversations that the content drove and audience sentiment. For the Eid Shopping Festival on Daraz, Digitz ran an Instagram story for L’Oreal featuring an influencer who seemingly had never used Maybelline before – with the creator trying out the foundations, making comparisons to high-end brands, and educating audiences on the price point – key messages which Digitz resulted in direct conversions.

“In [the] current world of saturated advertising, Influencer marketing has been an unexplored territory by most of the brands,” said Muhammad Ammar Hassan, Chief Marketing Officer at Daraz. “We are currently working with more than 1000 top influencers including celebrities, micro/macro-influencers, and content seeders from all over the country across various product categories and topic expertise, with a total of more than 30 million followers across multiple social media platforms.”

He added that the influencers are engaged for native and sponsored campaigns to influence consumer behavior, with fashion being the leading category at Daraz. The aim of this tactic is to make the Alibaba-owned store the top of mind choice for fashion products and accessories.

Several respondents in the BTL space said that they were diversifying into influencer marketing, making up for the lost time by working with established influencer marketplaces such as Ishtehari Influence – which launched Unilever’s Cleanipedia – and niche platforms such as Amplifyd, which connects digital media planners to macro, micro, and nano content creators from multiple platforms.

“There has been a hard stop on BTL briefs and an increase in digital briefs,” said Umair Kazi, partner at Ishtehari. “In the last two months, we’ve picked up digital work from Castrol, Unilever, Facebook. We launched Unilever’s cleaning-focused platform in Pakistan focused on Influencers who integrate Unilever products in their ‘now I’m a home cleaner’ narrative.”

Eisha Salim, Senior Associate, Planning and Strategy, at Mediavest said that during the second quarter of 2020, marketers saw digital PR as a quick and easy solution to stay active, relevant and keep the audiences engaged by seeking local faces to endorse their products or keep talking to the audience on a day to day basis.

“Quickly we saw this trend rise with competition brands jumping on the bandwagon to utilise Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and push their message to the audiences who were now stranded at home and anxiously looking for everyday solutions on digital platforms,” she said. “So while digital media spends may or may not reflect the shift in ad spends – since our digital spends do not account for digital PR campaigns – especially for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs), the unregulated digital PR market benefitted from this unprecedented situation offering quick and easy solutions to the brands to remain active by leaps and bounds.”

Blunt honesty

A source at one of the largest media agencies in Pakistan shared that, due to vested interests and backdoor deals with media agencies and TV channels, no efforts are being made to track the shift in viewership patterns between December 2019 to date. Had these efforts been made, media budgets would have substantially shifted away from TV channels and towards online mediums.

“If you average digital spending of traditional brands in Pakistan, they are between 6-10 per cent of total brands budget,” the source shared. “TV has been the brand and marketing managers kingmaker figuratively and literally. Most agencies are saying that people are sitting at home eating TV so you should be spending on TV. Digital savvy brands have bumped their digital spending markedly particularly if their service is online.”

Several respondents in the ATL space agreed, adding that due to established economics between TV channels and decision-makers – media planners and brand managers – any data that suggests that TV viewership is declining is ignored or suppressed. The rebates in ATL are far greater than those in the BTL and digital space, benefiting agencies, and sometimes trickling down to clients directly.

Another reason posited has been the established Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and targets given to media agencies at the start of 2020, which have to be met in order to retain the account. With little to no room for scenario planning – such as blacklisting a TV channel for insensitively covering a plane crash – media agencies are tasked to maintain relationships with the largest ATL channels.

Respondents in the digital space shared that even though it takes two days to set up a branded store on a marketplace such as Daraz, brand teams at Multinational Companies (MNCs) continue to tell their head office that digital and e-commerce lacks potential. 

Respondents posit this is due to brand teams at MNCs hankering for services at the cheapest possible cost, with no skin in the game to deliver tangible impact. In the pursuit of cheaper services, agency partners secure rebates from the duopoly and hoard the gains for themselves.

When looking at the volume of media spending versus the growth or decline across mediums, the bigger picture shows what we already know – that there has been a reduction in overall spending. Even with price reductions across ATL mediums, marketers are hesitant in these times of uncertainty over the lockdown being lifted and the inevitable second wave.


Babar Khan Javed
Babar Khan Javed
Babar Khan Javed covers the advertising industry and marketing function in Pakistan for Profit. He can be reached on [email protected] with details about media, creative, and digital briefs, future projects, management changes, client wins or losses, and everything in between.

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