‘We intend to expand into producing original content’
Amna Zafar Khan is the CEO of Check-Box Media (CBM) - a strategic communications, content production and management agency that has grown enough to have teams across Lahore and Islamabad in a span of just 2 years. Before founding CBM, Zafar managed Coca-Cola Icecek’s communications portfolio for 6 years for the company’s 10 country region. Her in-depth understanding of the communication landscape in Pakistan and global best practices, a leaning towards evidence-based strategies and a reputation as an astute decision-maker in times of crisis has earned her the trust of some of the biggest names in the public sector and entertainment industry.
Following are the edited excerpts of a recent conversation BR Research had with Amna Zafar Khan:
BR Research: Given your experience in the industry, how would you describe the evolution of corporate communications in Pakistan over the years?
Amna Zafar Khan: In the past few years, the industry has really changed. It’s certainly more data-driven now. For example, a lot of firms are now relying on data gathered online as well as through focus groups and surveys to analyze target audiences’ feedback. More and more companies are diversifying the platform profile they are using for different things depending on the reach of each platform for different types of audiences. So there is a data feedback loop and a lot of decisions are based on that now, which is more efficient. I think now more companies have started to understand the importance of integrated marketing communication (IMC), which is premised on the idea that to keep something relevant messages need to be consolidated and kept uniform across all platforms. This is to say; a lot more companies are diversifying the kinds of platforms and media they use to get their messages across.
On the consumer end, due to lockdowns and physical distancing triggered by COVID, the online spaces have radically dominated the market and our lives. From social interaction to commerce, everything was forced to shift online and a lot of it has stuck even as life returns to some semblance of normalcy. Hence, strategic communication also pivoted to the digital spaces, which became the primary platform where conversations about brands initiated before they spilled over to print or mass media. Now it has become really important to companies to improve the conversations happening about them in digital spaces and even use machine-learning based tools to conduct social media sentiment analysis which is a service CBM also provides. I think the traditional mediums of newspaper, television and physical marketing have taken a few steps back in terms of priority in the industry.
BRR: What was the idea behind setting up your own strategic communications firm? What opportunities and gaps did you see? What sets Check-Box Media apart from the mushrooming agencies?
AZK: The idea behind setting up Check-Box Media was to fill a gap in the market and offer a one-stop shop solution that enables integrated marketing communication (IMC) by bringing marketing, advertising, PR and corporate communication (including content production) to the same table. Most existing agencies right now offer services in isolation. Organizations have to engage different agencies to add each piece of the puzzle.
To achieve this goal, CBM has built a dynamic team, acquired state-of-the-art equipment for its studios and developed partnerships with other experts and allies in the industry. This infrastructure is what has enabled CBM to provide creative ideation, strategic planning, research, content production (including design, photography and videography), post-production and placement. This allows us to have a creative input in the entire process and ensure consistency of messaging, which is critical for recall value.This business model allows us to remain agile and cost-effective while still remaining a one-window solution for our clients.
Moreover, another aspect that sets us apart from other agencies is that we have an extremely diverse range of clients, and that allows us to facilitate mutually beneficial partnerships between clients across sectors.
BRR: What kind of clients do you focus on and what are the areas of interest for CBM?
AZK: It’s an exciting time for CBM. There’s never a dull day at the office because our team members have found themselves at meetings with government representatives and at sets for music video shoots the same day - such is the diversity of our clients. In the past year alone, we have worked very closely with the public sector, human development sector, large-scale private corporations, emerging start-ups and the entertainment industry (including musicians, models and social media influencers). We have not only worked in Pakistan but also expanded our horizons by working in international markets as big as Dubai.
BRR: Who are some of your major clients and what sort of projects have you worked on recently?
AZK: As far as the public sector is concerned, we’ve been consulting for the federal Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination since December 2020. We established a Strategic Communications Cell within the Minister’s Office by embedding our team members there and gradually training other employees or consultants at the Ministry who can take over eventually to ensure sustainability. The cell works closely with Dr. Faisal Sultan, SAPM on Health, to fulfill his strategic communication requirements. We have also worked on documenting and creating awareness about the milestones of the Ministry’s flagship programs. Most importantly, we got the opportunity to represent the Ministry at the NCOC, the body leading the Government’s COVID-19 response. CBM was at the forefront of utilizing dynamic listening and developing evidence-based strategies for risk communication during COVID, which were implemented both at the federal and the provincial level across Pakistan. Our team also developed audio-visual content for print, mass and digital media that played a crucial role in informing the public of life-saving SOPs and the guidelines for getting vaccinated. This was a huge undertaking and therefore, we led and worked closely with the COVID-19 Risk Communication Task Force made up of the communication teams of global health development partners such as WHO, UNICEF, and UNDP. At the same time, we strengthened partnerships with social media companies like Facebook and TikTok, which we believe must be used for public health awareness going forward.
Other than that, we also served as the lead creative and event management agency for Punjab Board of Investment and Trade (PBIT). CBM was responsible for putting up a month-long exhibition for the Punjab Government at the Expo 2020 Dubai. We also got a chance to collaborate with the exceptional team of the Trade Development Authourity of Pakistan (TDAP), which manages the Pakistan Pavilion. Team CBM ideated the theme, logo and design identity of the PunjabEase campaign as well as executed the series of seminars, panel discussions, cultural shows and concerts at the Dubai Expo 2020. The idea behind the theme was to showcase the history, natural beauty, multiculturalism, hospitality, contemporary entertainment and emerging modernity of the province.
Within the entertainment industry, we manage four major globally recognized, trailblazing musicians: Meesha Shafi, Faris Shafi, Natasha Noorani and Abdullah Siddiqui. In addition to that, we work with a host of other content creators, providing them with an ecosystem that can execute the entire pre-production to post-production funnel. Therefore, creators who work with us can just focus on the content they want to put out there rather than worrying about the logistical or technical hassle.
BRR: How are small businesses holding up in terms of marketing during such precarious situations?
AZK: Some small businesses very sadly went under and did not survive the start of the pandemic which triggered an economic downturn. However, others that had the flexibility in terms of their budget, business model and consumer service have performed really well. That’s because the digital space was something that small businesses that did invest in marketing were already very well versed in, unlike large multinational corporations that had the budget and hence preference for ATL campaigns across mass media. These businesses could not compete for consumers or audiences by paying for TV ads or other large scale media campaigns, so they were already relying on the digital spaces to reach customers in a cost efficient manner. With a lot more consumers shifting to online shopping and commerce, they exactly knew how to market themselves to their target demographics. A lot of small businesses were able to increase their returns on marketing expenditure.
BRR: What are you seeing at your company with agency demand? What are your plans for the next couple of years?
AZK: We’re seeing a demand for audio-visual content production particularly optimized for the digital realm - content that can be churned out at a fast rate, is cost-efficient and is impactful but short enough for the average person’s attention span online. Most of these demands are coming in from start ups being run by young entrepreneurs. They are astute enough to understand that the return on investment is the highest with digital marketing, and it is easy to analyze data online to understand how to improve their advertising as well as public image.
We also intend to expand into producing original content as well. We aspire to create a community of artists in Lahore - the kind that has lately only been found in Karachi which has become the hub for narrative long form content. We have begun the process of bringing creators together to foster collaborations that could lead to fresh, out-of-the-box concepts for content.
BRR: What trends will dominate the communications landscape in Pakistan? Do international trends drive the agencies and their strategies at home?
AZK: I do not believe international trends “drive” the trends for the local market and industry in Pakistan. At least, that is not how Check-Box Media believes it should be. We have an industry with an identity of its own and a socio-cultural context within which we have to engage the audience or consumer. Borrowing and transplanting trends from the international market does not really translate into a successful, organic outcome. International trends surely can inspire creatives and the communications industry in Pakistan in terms of design, strategies and working modalities though. For example, the global market for long had a very different modality of work as compared to Pakistan, but that change was never really adopted in Pakistan until the industry was pushed by COVID-19 to do away with the geographical limitations it had put upon itself. So that change occurred organically.
I think this industry has a tonne of talent. As a community, we have the ability to find our own way and not just follow trends that have gained momentum abroad but actually set new trends ourselves.