You cannot be an artist.” With that one line – delivered deadpan to no one in particular and to all advertising creatives in general – Ali Hayat Rizvi makes it clear why Walter Pakistan, where he is the Chief Creative Officer, has recently won Pakistan its first Effie Award for Pepsi’s ‘Made for cricket’ campaign.
One can almost sense that the thing that secretly pleases Rizvi most about the win is that it was an effectiveness award, as opposed to an award for the most creative ad.
“The Effies are awarded on the basis of results achieved in the market, they take into account actual sales and EPI.”
Couple the refreshing real attitude that he brings to the creative side of the business, with the fact that he spent eight-and-a-half years at one agency and Rizvi is something of an anomaly in the world of advertising.
“During my 8.5 years at Interflow, I was the creative manager for a long time, but I was gaining great experience there. I was able to work on all the accounts as I gnawed my way up.”
Far from being cynical about his rise, Rizvi considers the “time spent in the trenches” with a characteristic attitude that says, c’est la vie and instantly deflects to the upside.
“I had the opportunity to work closely with some of the giants of advertising such as Anwar Rammal, Framroze Punthakey and Taher Anwar Khan, and nothing can beat that.”
For someone with such a steady, unhurried career trajectory, Rizvi’s entry into the field of advertising would oddly enough classify as a stumble, rather than a grand arrival.
In truth, he ‘arrived’ while trying to escape from business school.
“I was working towards my business degree in 1998, when I was offered a part-time job at a small design house called Option 2 that was run by one of my teachers at HamdardUniversity. I jumped at the chance, carried my own desktop computer to the office and started work. While the prospect of earning Rs 2,000 a month certainly excited me, I was also looking for a break from business school.”
Indeed, the only time he is truly animated when talking about business school, is when he recounts joining the college theatre group ‘Shakespeare Unplugged’.
“I had no interest in acting, but the same teacher had started a theatre group. One day he walked into class, pointed at me and said, ‘You are coming to Shakespeare Unplugged!’ and that is how I ended up doing some theatre.”
Business school was not to be, and when a friend who worked at Asiatic JWT, found him his next job as a trainee copywriter at the agency, Rizvi promptly left his studies, with only six more months to go before graduating.
It wasn’t the first time he had become restless while enrolled in a degree programme. Four years earlier, he abruptly cut short an engineering career when he left the PakistanNavyEngineeringCollege (now NUST) – and again, six months prior to receiving his degree.
“There is definitely a pattern there,” he smiles.
Soon after he joined Asiatic, Rizvi’s designation was bumped up by an act of providence. It was perhaps a sign that the right man had landed at the right place.
“When the copywriter on the Close-Up account didn’t turn up just before a Valentine’s Day campaign, I had to step into his shoes and see it through,” he says.
He remembers being surprised when the day after the crisis Rammal called him into his office to tell him that he had landed a permanent position at the agency and received a raise of over 100%. Not a bad career start for a boy from Hyderabad who had twice sabotaged his own attempts at getting a degree.
Rizvi grew up in Hyderabad as the baby of a house full of much older siblings.
“‘I was born 14 years after my parents thought they were done having children.”
His father passed away when he was just four, and asthmatic and quite ill as a child, Rizvi recalls his mother as a strong role model, who was unstoppable.
“She established a school after my father died; brought up the family and after a long day at work still found the energy to pick me up and soothe me when I was breathless at night.”
The lesson in resilience was well learnt and sustained him during the long years he spent at Interflow, while many around him were busy flitting from one job to the other.
In 2009, he finally left Interflow and moved to Islamabad to work for IAL Saatchi and Saatchi for a year, “but flying into Karachi every weekend to be with my children was just crazy and I really missed them.”
So when in 2012, Michael Maedel, President of JWT Asia-Pacific asked him to join WPP’s new venture Walter Pakistan, Rizvi jumped at the chance.
The move was a godsend, as it allowed him to work out of Karachi (although the agency is based in Lahore). It also gave him the opportunity to work on the Pepsi account again. It was an example of what Rizvi likes to call the ‘perfect storm’ occurring in his professional life.
This is a term that makes Rizvi’s eyes light up and which he frequently uses to describe that surreal moment when things align magically. Like they did when his team set to work on the Aquafina campaign, which Rizvi describes as “one of the most memorable campaigns I have worked on. Everything just came together. Our team was able to rope in TV stars Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan just at the time when they were still basking in the success of the TV serial Humsafar.’
At the moment, things seem to be magically lining up for Rizvi in what could become a parallel career for him: as a lyricist for Bollywood films. The chance to write Maula sun le re for the John Abraham starrer Madras Café quite literally fell into his lap.
“Ronnie Lahiri, an a film director that I had worked with on a couple of TVCs called and asked me to write a song for him and I did. The process was quite quick, and I think the composer and singer both did a great job!”
And then he can’t help but add “and so again, the perfect storm.”
Since then he has written two more songs for forthcoming Bollywood films.
The foray into songwriting was not Rizvi’s first brush with showbiz. In the past he has indulged the acting bug that he caught in college, by appearing in ads (“out of sheer necessity”), music videos (“that was a dark part of my life that I don’t want to discuss”) and a sitcom for PTV called Ahista Ahista (“which I enjoyed immensely”).
In an industry which likes to keep things simple by dividing people neatly into suits and creatives, the multifaceted Rizvi blurs those lines, by flexing both his creative and rational muscles.
“I don’t like this sense of self importance that comes with calling yourself a creative. Your client has been selling his products for 40 years, whereas you only received the brief three weeks ago, so get some perspective!”
He is also irked by creatives who walk into the office looking like something the cat dragged in.
“There is really no excuse for looking like that. You are in the business of image management, so why can’t you manage your own image,” he wonders perplexed.
Clearly in Ali Hayat Rizvi’s world the creative ‘dons’ the suit.
Shahrezad Samiuddin is a pop culture junkie and an aspiring screenwriter. firstname.lastname@example.org