Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Time to toughen up

Published in May-Jun 2009
To be successful, women in the ad profession will just have to work harder at it.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

In looking at the position and role of Pakistani women in advertising, I find it rather disconcerting that more women have made a name before the camera, modelling for ads, than those burning the midnight oil at ad agencies.

After all, there are several men that created a name for themselves in the profession, achieving near celebrity status. Javed Jabbar is the most prominent among them. And among the younger generation are sought after directors such as Asad-ul-Haq and Jami. Moreover, most of the men are self-made successes, though some have entered it as a matter of right, as sons who are expected to carry on the family business. On the contrary, the few women heading their own agencies have either inherited the business or received financial support from their families. There are no rags to riches stories for women in the tough world of advertising.

So is the advertising industry less than welcoming towards women?

Its attitude is probably as friendly or hostile as any other similar profession. However, advertising does have certain rough edges and anyone working in an agency has to be able to withstand tensions from both within the agency – and externally from clients. Internally, at the workplace, the conflicts centre around the space claimed by each – creative and client management. Many in creative strongly believe that their colleagues in client management are unable to sell great ideas. On the other hand, those interacting with clients act as custodians of the brief and often accuse those in creative of unauthorised deviations. At the same time, in external relations, clients’ demands are getting tougher as is the competition. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, many women tend to wriggle out to other professions or to the even safer environs of a domestic life. Spectrum, for one, has lost more women to marriage (and migration) rather than to better opportunities.


Stuck between a rock and a hard place, many women tend to wriggle out to other professions or to the even safer environs of a domestic life. Spectrum, for one, has lost more women to marriage (and migration) rather than to better opportunities.


Right from the 70s, when women began to consider advertising a serious choice as a profession, they preferred to make their entries via the creative department – a trend that has continued. They join the creative departments, exploring their writing or designing skills. The difference is that in the early years, most of the learning was on the job, while today, Pakistan has a fair number of reputable art schools. In fact, in most departments of communication design in Pakistan’s art schools there are far more female graduates than men, the ratio often being 80:20.

What many discover a year down the line in a professional environment is the absence of creative freedom. There is the restriction that the marketing and advertising brief itself imposes, reinforced often by the whims of the brand team to which the campaign is being pitched. Rejections come in early in a new entrant’s career and so does disillusionment. Moreover, today there are more options in the creative field for young people, including women, who have had enough of the twists and turns a career in advertising entails.

The mushrooming of the electronic media has resulted in a lot of desertions. Not half as demanding as advertising (judging by the quality of programmes usually on air on most channels) and far more glamorous, private television channels are increasingly attracting those young women who may have considered advertising as a long term career. Encroaching on the profession, they appeal to those who seek greater creative freedom – and credit – for what they do. As a television presenter or even scriptwriter, they get instant recognition – unlike the anonymity imposed in the world of advertising which acknowledges their input only after years of struggle.

If young women in advertising remain, by and large, anonymous, there is quick fame for those appearing before the cameras. Modelling has never before been so professional or so well paid in Pakistan. In the early years of the industry, agencies were heavily dependent on the film industry for modelling talent.

This resulted in girls from what are generally labelled as ‘good families’ shying away from modelling – if not the advertising profession itself. Babra Sharif gained recognition as the ‘Jet Girl’, while other starlets of the Lahore and Karachi film studios sang the praises of whatever product was handed to them. Modelling agencies were unheard of, as was any grooming or training. Absent, too, were professional contracts, leading to the exploitation of many naïve young women, a situation that has fortunately changed with the emergence of educated young women entering the field.

So is the Pakistani woman destined to be more of a pretty face rather than a true professional when it comes to advertising? The answer is certainly a categorical ‘no’. Many women are working hard and independently to make a name – and place – for themselves. However, there are not enough of them. Pakistani women entering the profession, I believe, are not hard enough on themselves. It is not a question of competing with the men but of standing out as individual professionals, proud of their achievements and their contribution. Increasingly, Pakistani women are doing better in education and in many professions. Advertising provides a reality check on how far they have come in terms of self confidence, courage and commitment. This is a challenge to which they must rise to make a difference to their own careers and, indeed, to the industry.

Zohra Yusuf is Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R.