The digital dilemma

Illustrations: Sidra Jangda
Illustrations: Sidra Jangda

WHEN the global giant IBM launched the Simon Personal Communicator (SPC) back in 1992, little did the world know that telecommunication would change forever. And that the Communicator would be subsequently known as the smartphone. The evolution of technology, cell phone and internet in particular, in the last 30 years has been spectacular, to say the least. And with leading Telcos vying for the much anticipated 5G technology in Pakistan, it is safe to say that we are looking at exciting times ahead.

To understand the impact that the ‘smart’ gadgets and internet have made globally, one has to look at the professions that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago but are very popular among the masses today. For instance, if you had placed a job advertisement for ‘Social Media Manager’ or ‘Digital Marketer’ back in 2000, chances are that you would have received zero responses or very little, if at all. And, in the first place, why would you have thought of placing such an advertisement?

The boom in technology meant that the world suddenly became interconnected. You no longer needed expensive calling cards to make local or international calls. With a few taps on the phone, you were able to send free text messages and make phone calls using mobile applications like WhatsApp and Viber etc. And as more and more people signed up on various social media platforms, businesses thought it was a golden opportunity for them to pitch their products to the masses without risking much.

In short, the methodology of marketing changed from traditional to digital without people even realising it. Companies that would need hundreds of salesmen going door-to-door to sell their products, were now looking at a few people who could set up a digital footprint for them, thereby decreasing the costs and increasing the footfall – or eyeballs – thus giving birth to a whole new profession called ‘digital marketing’.

Students in Pakistan have no way of taking up digital marketing as a degree course because no university offers such a degree. This is despite the fact that it is a hugely popular profession in the country.

Pakistan, like any other country, too lapped up the opportunity and became host to hundreds and thousands of ‘Creative Agencies’ – as against the ‘advertising agencies’ – that claimed to be experts in providing digital services. The unanticipated surge in such companies meant that many people from all walks of life took a well-thought-out decision of switching their careers. Why? Because digital marketing offered good money. But did most of them have professional qualification to be called ‘digital marketers’? No.

One then wonders why, despite being hugely popular in the country, digital marketing is not being offered as a degree course by Pakistani universities. According to Muhammad Saleem Ahrar, Associate Vice-President of Marketing at Gaditek, there is a lack of awareness among both the people and the universities with regards to the coveted profession.

“There is very less awareness about digital marketing in our society because the parents have no idea what it is. And since they have zero knowledge, they do not encourage their kids to take up this field,” observes Saleem. He attributes this lack of awareness to the fact that most of the students blindly do what their parents or guardians ask them to do, and not do their own research.

“When I was looking for academic courses, a family friend advised me to do BSc. Another recommended me to do CA. I said ‘no’ to both because I knew that I couldn’t do either of them,” he recalls.

According to Saleem, the students are now pursuing higher education merely for the purpose of getting a job and not for educating themselves which is resulting in lesser productivity. “The problem runs deeper than you think. People know how to use costly cell phones, but they deliberately choose to remain uninterested in the fact that they could make good amount of money off social platforms like Facebook and Youtube,” he adds.

He points out that people are using TikTok, a video-sharing social networking service, to their own advantage and are raking in approximately $35,000 for a 60-second clip whereas people in Pakistan are mostly using it to show off their ‘dancing’ abilities.

“Poor mentoring is also another factor that is hampering the academic growth of this field in Pakistan. If, by chance, someone learns a skill or two, he will start selling it straightaway to the students for as low as Rs.5000,” he remarks.

Saleem, also being an academician, admits that university lobbies are much stronger than one thinks. “The ‘traditional marketers’ are usually reluctant to accept digital marketing as a genuine field. “I tried pitching the idea of teaching digital marketing as an elective to more than three universities and all of them rejected the proposal,” he regrets.

Saleem was told by the respective managements that the students won’t be interested in taking the course. This was a perception that the managements concerned did not even think about checking out with their students. He believes that this reluctance of universities is a direct result of the wrong impression of digital marketing that has been created in Pakistan. “People, for some reason, believe that digital marketing is limited to Facebook marketing. No, it is much, much bigger than that! There are ‘Creative Agencies’ operating here on the same model of bringing in leads from Facebook only and calling it digital marketing,” he asserts.

Every month 12,000 people search the term ‘digital marketing’ in Pakistan. And, as Saleem points out, the amalgamation of different fields and digital marketing results in more refined content for the users. “Explore as much as possible because digital marketing, unlike what many believe, is a vast field. If you know the ins and outs of your skill, you won’t be exploited by digital marketing agencies,” he advises.

Syed Nawfil Rahim, Agile Manager at the same firm as Saleem, believes the problem lies at both ends, but maintains that the poor ecosystem is to be blamed for below par output. “If you talk about the ecosystem, the people who are designing the curriculum lack the appropriate exposure. For example, the students abroad are usually given complex tasks, like finding out what went wrong with Facebook servers when it faced the downtime globally,” says Nawfil.

He agrees with Saleem and says that the students have no awareness when it comes to digital marketing. “Unfortunately, our students have zero sense of self-learning. They would rather watch Netflix for hours instead of learning things that might help them ahead in their career,” adds Nawfil. He believes that there is zero progress in digital academics because the students are not challenging their teachers by asking them tricky questions.

Nawfil is of the opinion that even if the Pakistani universities were to offer a degree in digital marketing, it would be of no use to the students if it is not in line with the current and evolving trends of the industry.

Usman Ahmed Khan, Associate Community Manager at Nanosoft Technologies, notes that digital marketing is being offered as a degree course in many universities in the UK. “The universities are charging more than £24,000 in the UK. The students are actually paying a handsome amount which speaks volumes about its demand,” says Usman.

He wouldn’t have flinched, he says, had he been given an option to get a degree in digital marketing back in the day. Unfortunately, for many passionate digital marketers who did their degree in other disciplines, nothing can be done now except for hoping that a well-thought-out curriculum would be devised and implemented soon.

The older generation will also have to realise that the world doesn’t revolve around doctors and engineers anymore. “No offence to anyone, but that is the truth”. Perhaps, it will take Pakistan one more generation before the real change in the perception sets in.



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