Dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, with his thick, curly dark hair combed back, he could be an intense, brooding hero in a desi indie flick or a reluctant villain in a hit drama serial.
Slim, self-assured and self-contained, Shahvaar Ali Khan has depth. And beneath all the layers there is a sense of restlessness.
Seating himself into a wicker chair on Mocca’s rooftop in Lahore, he lights up a cigarette and listens attentively. Not one to shoot his mouth off, he weighs his words carefully before responding.
With an intriguing career graph that has flowed from advertising, music, acting and then back to advertising, the young adman is quick to state that “advertising is the most consistent factor in my life.”
Acting and music, on the other hand, stand as forms of art that Khan has pursued, and continues to pursue on the side. Be it hit patriotic tracks (No Saazish, No Jang and Azad Ki Dua), songs for Bollywood (Filmein Shilmein for Desi Boyz), and acting (Hum TV’s serial, *Mera Dard Na Jaane Koi *and another in the pipeline for Geo TV), it comes as no surprise that Khan hails from an artistically-inclined family.
Both parents were graduates from the National College of Arts in Lahore and Khan laughs recalling “cooking up” a story to prepare them for his move back home in the aftermath of 9/11.
“My creative aspirations are connected to this land, I had to come back,” he emphasises, while taking a drag from his cigarette.
Khan currently runs Farigh Four, a relatively new, albeit award-winning five-year-old ad agency, founded by himself and Beenish Mir. The agency has managed to make a name for itself in a short span of time with a client list that included Shaukat Khanum, Mayfair, Coca-Cola, Metro, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Unifoam, Fast Cables and others.
Affiliated since their Lowe & Rauf days, Khan tells me it was him and Mir who ‘cracked’ Nesvita’s ‘Bones strong toh mein strong’ campaign, among other campaigns for Nestlé.
“She is the backbone of Farigh Four, we share great creative chemistry.”
Speaking fondly of his spouse, Rohma Khan, who supervises the agency’s business administration and HR, Khan says that “unlike Beenish and I, she is pragmatic and brings method to the madness that is Farigh Four. As far as work-life balance is concerned, there is none from my end! I’m a workaholic. I get depressed on Sundays. The credit goes to Rohma for handling family and home matters.”
To date, Khan’s most gratifying experience in the ad world comes from working on Shaukat Khanum’s campaign.
“It used to have a very Imran Khan-centric approach to advertising,” he says.
“Look, he is still a big pull; without him the fundraising capacity of the hospital would severely reduce, but the long-term strategy that we have communicated to them is that Shaukat Khanum needs to grow independently from his personality.”
The concept of ‘Naya Pakistan’ – which still continues to trend on social media – was Farigh Four’s brainchild. During conception, he says that his agency wanted to bring out something which resonated with the new voter; Pakistan’s young, particularly. “We introduced the idea of Naya Pakistan to PTI before the elections and gradually Imran started talking about Naya Pakistan in his speeches, press conferences and interviews.
To tackle this, Farigh Four began producing campaigns which solely focused on real stories of patients at Shaukat Khanum. In fact, in 2013 during and after my brother’s year-long treatment at the hospital, my family and I would often come across flyers and standees of an ad which featured a handsome young man with a walking stick standing beside his father. It was a brilliant and moving ad which I have never forgotten.
“The idea was to make the audience think the walking stick was owned by the frail father,” he says about the ad.
“We wanted to make these patients heroes – cancer is such a harsh, dark reality, but nothing connects with people like optimism. So whenever we show the patient, it has to be a message of hope; winning against all odds along with the optimism the person has despite the disease.”
Perhaps this is what helped Farigh Four bag accolades at the Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS) Awards for Best Campaign (Healthcare) consecutively in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“It was the most rewarding ad campaign hands down. When you are competing against giants like Cadbury’s, Samsung, Coca-Cola, etc. When you beat them to it with a simple story, it feels great.”
While Farigh Four’s success can be attributed to young blood that brings new, off the beaten track ideas to the table, the agency’s accomplishments point at the bigger picture: the evolution of the local advertising industry over the past few years.
Today, clients are not as rigid and controlling as they used to be. Besides, given the competition, they cannot afford to be dictatorial vis-à-vis ad campaigns anymore. Khan echoes the sentiment.
“Clients still keep a creative check on what is presented, but I think it has improved greatly over the years. There is more room for experimentation,” he says.
“Just the other day I was talking to a client and said that a great concept or campaign is as dependent on the creative as it is on the client, because the client has to have the backbone to take the risk.”
Speaking of risks, Khan mentions that his most challenging campaign was PTI’s election campaign that took off before the 2013 elections.
The concept of ‘Naya Pakistan’ – which still continues to trend on social media – was Farigh Four’s brainchild. During conception, he says that his agency wanted to bring out something which resonated with the new voter; Pakistan’s young, particularly.
“We introduced the idea of Naya Pakistan to PTI before the elections and gradually Imran started talking about Naya Pakistan in his speeches, press conferences and interviews. It was a herculean task where so much was at stake, but Naya Pakistan today has become a platform that you are either for or against. It has now become the focal point of political debate.”
Hopeful about the future of advertising in Pakistan, he thinks the receptivity for original and “clutter-breaking” ideas has been on the upswing.
For Khan, credit goes to the new admen and adwomen in the profession who have no qualms in challenging the mindset of their clients.
And while Pakistan may be light years behind India in terms of creativity and content, he remains optimistic.
“We need to keep challenging brand managers and clients to move out of their comfort zones.”
Sonya Rehman is a teacher and writer based in Lahore. firstname.lastname@example.org