Advertising in Sri Lanka: Part 1

Is arrogance in blogsphere a bad thing? London Lanka and Drums questions three individual bloggers why they choose to blog in a certain arrogant tone and manner.

Out of the three, Nibras Bawa is someone I can empathise with, to a certain extent, purely from a professional point of view. We are both in the business of brand-building, he’s a suit and I’m a creative. I love wearing yellow and red, he hates them colours. I love to see some boobs on billboards, and porn on the bookshelves – he thinks women shouldn’t wear mini’s to work. When it comes to advertising – which has been my livelihood for the last 18+ years – we tend to find some common ground. While I don’t like to generalise things, we both seem to agree that the advertising industry as a whole in Sri Lanka needs to be revamped: honesty and integrity restored, and ethical business practices re-introduced.

DD wrote an insightful reply to NB’s now famous 45 reasons why he doesn’t like the people in advertising in Colombo. I could’ve easily written a post why I didn’t agree with half of the list, but the job was already done.

Anyhow, going back to the topic, I too think the local advertising industry has lost its respect and we have witnessed a sharp decline in morality over the past couple of decades. Post 1977, the country not only embraced consumerism, we have done it at the cost of honesty and transparency in the business. We forgot what the advertising forefathers said, and started treating the consumers like morons. From the unethical behaviour of international brands such as Anchor and Dettol; to the irresponsible business practices of guardians of the local industry such as Superbrands and absurdities at Chillies, Sri Lankan advertising industry is going down the gutter – just like everything else in the island. Unfortunately.

In a land where there is no value for human life, it ain’t a big surprise to find that respect for the consumer is a commodity that’s hard to come by.

The advertising industry needs resurrection. It would take more than a few whistle-blowers to draw attention to the problems, and it would take a whole new generation to stop the deterioration and mobilise an upwardly move in the industry. People like Nibras Bawa play an essential role in drawing the attention to the issues that some of us would like to comfortably ignore and conveniently forget about.

At the same time, one cannot only blame the governing generation – ye olde club that rides Jags – alone, for the problems. They are partly to be blamed for the mess we are in. This is OUR mess, and the responsibility to resurrect the ad industry lies in our hands.

There are some basic, fundamental requirements that need to be fulfilled in order to establish a “proper” advertising culture in the island. They vary from (but not limited to) education, training, ideation and creativity, delivery and execution, business ethics and good governance; and I would hopefully shed some light on these from a creative perspective.

Let me begin with one. Feel free to pitch-in.

1. Education: There are no proper Ad Schools in Sri Lanka that produce great creative talent

Advertising creatives (both copy and art) are an extremely rare breed in Sri Lanka. “An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it” said the advertising great Bill Bernbach. In a business that runs on ideas, the importance of the right talent couldn’t have been better expressed.

The state universities produce graduates in Fine Arts, and graduates in Mass Communication – but contrary to popular belief, these graduates don’t necessarily become great art directors or fantastic copywriters.

There is also a serious lack of understanding when it comes to recruiting the right talent – some agencies don’t seem to understand the fundamental difference between a graphic designer/Mac operator and art director. They also tend to think that journalists are copywriters – finding the right person for the right job is a nightmare in Sri Lanka.

The situation is not being helped by the rogue “advertising schools” – a good money making racket led by Wijeya Graphics and emulated by a dozen that litter the Colombo Streets. They offer touch ’n go crash-courses in software such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign; and offer certificates which they call “Diplomas in Graphic Design” – consciously misleading the poor-unsuspecting out-of-town wanna-be ad guy.

Let alone the non-existence of (Adobe) certified instructors, most of these place don’t have even a course syllabus. There is no preliminary exam to evaluate the prospective “designer” who is going to join the advertising industry one day. As a result, we are treated to an island full of rubbish that we call graphic design. And the country thinks a graphic designer is someone who can draw a ball in Illustrator.

Teaching someone which button to press in the Microwave doesn’t produce a great chef. Learning how to use the tools and filters in Illustrator does not make one a great Art Director either.

Creative flair is not something one could acquire from a road-side shop in 60 hours. Either you are born with talent, or you are not. It is that simple.

While looking for creative talent in Sri Lanka, I have discovered that there are many so-called “Graduates in Graphic Design” who have never heard of Andy Worhol, for instance. I also once met a “lecturer” who didn’t know the difference between RGB and CMYK – and he was teaching Photoshop at Wijeya Graphics!

Ingrin (the Government Press) produces good technical talent that is required in the studio of an agency. These talents, who are called the “Mac Operators, Artworkers or Finalisers” in the West, are hired by Colombo agencies and are often called graphic designers. We have tendency to not-fire people and keep promoting them just because they have been there – and eventually they grow to become art directors and creative directors.

How wrong!

As far as I know, the only design school in Colombo that produces decent graphic designers is the one next to the Cricket Club Café. For Art Directors and Copywriters, we are yet to find a breeding ground (no pun intended).

Except for the handful of rough diamonds in a few fortunate agencies, there is hardly any young blood that gives us any hope.

Thankfully, the industry has realised this situation and has already taken some steps in the right direction. The 4A’s, and veterans like Nimal Ekanayake and Dilith Jayaweera have started ad-schools to scout and train the talent that is desperately needed in the industry. While some of their ulterior motives remain questionable, one could be assured that the product is going to be at least somewhat better than the road-side find. Even if their intentions are honourable, their produce would be only as good as their faculty – there is a serious scarcity of suitable trainers with overseas exposure, expertise and training to guide the raw talent to take on the big brands, and the world.

Right now, overseas agencies don’t even think of recruiting from Colombo, we are that bad.

In the absence of true talent, the agencies in Colombo have no option but to employ half-cooked road-side “graduates” at the entry level and import the mid-level creatives from an affordable place like India, and pray that our ones would learn the good from the Indians. I have made my thoughts clear on the “bad-influence” of Indian advertising; I will also write about the “good-influence” in another chapter in this discussion. Later.

I think, the lack of proper advertising schools that produce outstanding creative talent is one of the primary reasons why we are suffering from mediocracy and stupidity that we witness everyday in the local advertising scene.

My two cents on training and mentoring the talent, next.


  1. You know one of the major issues that I see with SL whcih ties in with what you said about the promotion process is that there is no real hunger in SL, no pushing people out of the box. I'm trying with a couple of friends to take a Lankan product global but dealing with the producer in SL is a headache, simply because they are comfortable doing the same old thing, while we are trying to push the product out of its box and take it to the world. Frustrating and has me pulling out my hair by the tufts...

  2. N, thank you for your comment. There are lots of issues that need addressing, one by one. Not being able to complete our ideas the way we want is a huge issue, and I thought of writing about it under “execution and delivery” later on...

  3. Spot on Wijitha. The industry itself has lost a certain degree of professionalism. Although I think this is true in all parts of the world. Maybe to a lesser degree.
    When billing becomes priority this is usually the case.
    Do wonder if any of our Universities in the Paradise Isle offer a degree in Media, Communications or Marketing Communication?
    JWT in the late 1980's and early 1990's had a three month course in all aspects of advertising that took place every morning in the agency boardroom from 8.30am for one hour. The agency department heads ran it. So when a trainee/fresher to JWT joined the agency they had to attend this program and subsequent exam. I did this and found it extremely useful as it helped me understand the bigger picture.
    With no offense to whatever advertising qualification currently offered in Sri Lanka, I do strongly believe that a practical experience is important, but it must be backed with a strong foundation in theory. Therefore, theory must be thought by properly qualified academia as in any field.
    For instance in the UK, to be even an assistant lecturer one must have completed at least a masters level in the field that one is teaching in and pass a stringent test and background check.
    Then the students who earn a relevant media or comms degree apply to a media house or ad agency to apply for graduate internship.
    Colombo is so far away from that type of professional set up.
    DD :)

  4. Ad industry?

    But in all seriousness, you're absolutely right about taking responsibility and education and mentoring the next generation. I see a lot of talent (especially on the Sinhala side), but I also see them getting crushed by dumb managers and clients. They need some school or space that will encourage actual quality.

    If it doesn't exist, you guys in the industry should do it.

  5. What I have noticed in general in SL is that they are not taught the basics like back in high school and most don't pay attention to detail. They are happy to get something working by tying it together just for the day and to keep doing it by applying band aid fixes. They just don't want to spend the hard yards and apply themselves to be an expert in their field, but expect things to fall on their laps. No research and finding things out for themselves.

    I do disagree with your point about "Either you are born with talent, or you are not. It is that simple." What you are born with is the ability to work hard, but very few people utilize it to the max 'cos it takes extreme hard work to be good at what you are doing.

  6. nice article....totally agree with u on this. im a free lance designer..one thing i can say is..creativity..no matter how formally trained still depends a lot on the individual. some have it and others dont. its as simple as that. sounds rude..but its a fact