Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Girl, Interrupted?

Can women find their place in Pakistani advertising agencies?
Updated May 01, 2017 08:06am

(This article was published in the May-June 2009 Aurora Magazine issue.)

Working women have never had it easy in Pakistan; their forays into career building have been interrupted time and again by forces which are invariably linked to realising their traditional roles as wives, mothers and daughters. The story has been fairly similar for women in the advertising industry who have constantly struggled against the odds.

Contrary to popular perception, the number of women in Pakistani advertising agencies remains relatively low compared to men. Aurora conducted a survey of women in the advertising industry (the first of its kind in Pakistan) and found that in the 2,616 strong staff of the 39 agencies that responded, only 15% were women.

While the general consensus at the helm of affairs in agencies is that things have improved for women, and they are viewed as active contributors to creative and strategic processes, there is a subtle yet definite undercurrent that men are a more sustainable HR resource, although very few CEOs are willing to admit it, and certainly not on the record.

So while women have struggled, the question is whether their struggle has amounted to much – have they reached the highest echelons of power in the advertising business, or have they become victims to the clichés about themselves? All of it boils down to a single question – is the advertising industry in Pakistan a female friendly environment? Answering it fully requires an objective look at the past and the present.


The Golden Girls

Masood Hasan, CEO, Publicis Pakistan says that in the 60s, women in Pakistani advertising were in a somewhat ironic situation. On the one hand the advertising itself portrayed them as career women who were smoking, wearing hipster saris and having a good time in the company of men. On the other hand, those who worked within agencies were consigned to the conventional positions of secretaries and receptionists and treated with a touch of arrogance by their male colleagues. Hasan points out that there were exceptions to this rule including Naushaba Burney and Mujji Sattar who worked on the creative side, but such women were rare.

When Zohra Yusuf (now Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R) made first contact with advertising in 1971, the situation had not changed too much. While the larger agencies, such as Asiatic (now JWT Pakistan) employed a few women, Yusuf was the first one to join MNJ Advertising.

The environment, she recalls, was “a bit overprotective,” and for a long time she was expected to sit behind a partition in the client service department, which made her feel restricted and unable to interact with her male colleagues.

Both Hasan and Yusuf remember that working in an advertising agency wasn’t considered very kosher for women in those days. Yusuf says one of the reasons for this could be the advertising images people saw in the media.

“Modelling wasn’t done on a professional level back then, so many of the models came from the red light area, and this is what shaped peoples’ perceptions about the advertising industry.”

Hasan believes that women first started entering advertising agencies in a big way in the 80s. Tannaz Minwala (now GM, Creative Unit) and Nagina Faruque (now CEO, Think Tank) were two of those women.

Their recollections of this time are considerably different. While Minwala says that IAL (now IAL Saatchi & Saatchi) had a considerable number of female employees, Faruque says things were still pretty bleak for women.

“When I joined SASA in the 80s, apart from the secretary and the receptionist, there was one odd creative manager. When I switched to JWT in the late 80s, there were four women – two creatives, a telephone operator and the sweeper!”

However the winds of change had definitely started to blow, and when Farahnaz Haider Shaikh (now Executive Creative Director, JWT Pakistan) made her debut in the advertising industry in 1991 at R-Lintas (now Lowe & Rauf), she found herself in a creative department that was populated largely by women.


A Beautiful Mind?

Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Neil Christy, CEO, HeadLion, remembers that in his early years as a creative at Interflow Communications, all the top slots in the creative department were occupied by women. Christy’s comments along with several others prove that when women finally started making their way into advertising on a somewhat larger scale, it was to entrench themselves in the agencies’ creative departments. The survey conducted by Aurora found that this trend still holds true. In the 39 agencies that responded, close to 35% of women are in creative while just 16% are in client service. There are several reasons for this, the most obvious one being that most of the graduates from major art schools happen to be women, as artistic pursuits are still not considered worthwhile for men. Another emerging trend is that male art graduates (their number is steadily increasing) prefer to work in the electronic media where the pay scales are far more lucrative.

Some in the ad industry point out that the reason women tend to be in the majority in creative is because they have a keener sense of aesthetics. Yusuf however says this is a cliché, and one that women have unfortunately started to believe in.

Apart from being a cliché, there are other considerations to take into account. Ruby Haider, CEO, IAL points out that a job in account management requires endless running about (occasionally at the whims of the client) – to the client’s office, to the market and to several other locations, sometimes at very odd hours.

“If women have to do this kind of job, it not only puts a lot of pressure on them but also on the men who happen to be around them.”

Christy adds to this by commenting that client service is an extremely personality driven function of an agency, and while women can be excellent at it, it exposes them to a great deal of negativity from the client’s end as well as from the creative department, which they may or may not be ready and willing to take on.


Some in the ad industry point out that the reason women tend to be in the majority in creative is because they have a keener sense of aesthetics. Yusuf however says this is a cliché, and one that women have unfortunately started to believe in.


Putting paid to all this speculation, Shaikh gives the example of JWT Pakistan where there is a healthy proportion of women in client service.

“These women are tough cookies and they drive the work on big projects. They are better at multitasking, good at reading people’s moods and well versed in the art of getting their work done in a warm and cordial manner.”


The Stepford Wives

One of the unavoidable issues that women must face in the advertising industry, whether they opt for creative or client service (or any other agency function) is that they will have to work long hours. This presents a particular conundrum for women who are married and have kids – not only do they have to cater to the needs of their children, they also have to fall in line with demands made by their husbands and in-laws. Even many single women are answerable to parents and other family members.

Most agencies expect women to work late whether they are married or single. Shaikh says this cannot be helped because agencies work at the will of the clients and the key resources have to be available all the time. She goes so far as to say that working late is “almost like a rite of passage within agencies, and women know they have to do it in order to get ahead.”

Christy agrees, saying that when he interviews women for positions at HeadLion, one of the key questions he asks is whether they are willing to work late.

“If they respond immediately, I know they will be alright but if they hesitate even a little bit, then there could be problems ahead, so we just don’t hire them.”

Other agency heads take a different view of the situation. Hasan, for example believes that women have too many other responsibilities to fulfil at home, so male bosses and colleagues simply cannot expect them to work after five on a regular basis.

Yusuf agrees with this view and says that since many women come from conservative backgrounds and have to resist their families to come out to work, they should be encouraged.

“This is not the West and women in this country do not have the same opportunities as men so you cannot be very rigid and say that they have to work the same number of hours as men.”


A Few Good Men?

In spite of the strictures imposed on them, there are plenty of women in advertising who work the hours that are expected of them and are serious about their careers in the field. However, the efforts of many women are sidelined when marriage and family come into the picture and the advertising industry, as Hasan puts it, “has lost countless women to marriage and immigration.”

Does this lead agency heads to suss out women more carefully? Faruque is clearly exasperated by this question and exclaims that it is impossible to screen women for such things because their plans change rapidly and often in conjunction with their parents’ wishes. Other CEOs however admit to pointedly asking unmarried women when they are likely to get married and whether this will affect their work.


The efforts of many women are sidelined when marriage and family come into the picture and the advertising industry, as Hasan puts it, “has lost countless women to marriage and immigration.”


Both Christy and Masood say that they spend a great deal of time during interviews with women talking about future plans, but they also understand that much of this probing may be futile in the grand scheme of things.

“I don’t expect women to stay with me forever,” says Christy, “but we do want them to stick around for at least two years.”

Although they refuse to admit it on the record, most of the people interviewed for this story say that deep down they often feel that men are a more sustainable option when it comes to hiring, even though there are many women out there who are very talented.


Lady Boss

For all that women have achieved in advertising, one ‘no-go’ area remains: there are hardly any women heading advertising agencies in Pakistan. Those who are at the top have either acquired the position by sheer accident or by virtue of a family legacy, but very few have had the nerve to start a new agency. Faruque is one such bold and enterprising individual, and says that establishing an agency is hard work.

“My skin has turned to leather in the process,” she exclaims only half jokingly.


For all that women have achieved in advertising, one ‘no-go’ area remains: there are hardly any women heading advertising agencies in Pakistan. Those who are at the top have either acquired the position by sheer accident or by virtue of a family legacy,


Many women who have been in the business for long periods of time say that they have never considered starting their own agency in spite of numerous opportunities to do so, simply because running such an outfit requires business and social skills. Because advertising is built on relationships, agency CEOs are often required to entertain current and prospective clients, which is not something that women necessarily want to do.

Christy points out that when male agency heads throw boozy parties and invite models it is considered par for the course, but if a female agency head were to do the same, it would be deemed inappropriate.

Another reason that there aren’t many women heading agencies, says Haider is because advertising became a desirable profession even for men only a few years ago. In her opinion, as advertising grows and more women join in, there are likely to be changes at the top.

However one cannot help but make a comparison with the media buying and planning sector which is less than 15 years old in Pakistan and can already claim four agencies that are headed by women. Why then has advertising been so slow to catch up?

Some of it has to do with the setup of advertising agencies, most of which still operate on the entrepreneurship business model, so that ownership and authority is passed from father to son. In this kind of environment, it is very difficult even for men to rise to the top.

The male chauvinist in Christy cannot be suppressed and he adds that even if promotions were possible for men and women within traditional agencies, women would have the next to impossible task of managing a business and a home.

Of course there are the exceptions to prove that it is possible and Faruque and Reema Mustafa (although she has no children) of Evernew Concepts are shining examples of this but it seems highly unlikely that many women will be heading advertising agencies in the near future.


What Women Want (and need)

When all is said and done, the question about whether the advertising industry is a female friendly environment remains. The short answer is that it differs from agency to agency. Agencies which have a female creative director or CEO have a better reputation for being female friendly but there are plenty of companies headed by men which are equally conscientious about women and their well being. Although the advertising industry has yet to graduate to the point where it offers women flexi hours and day care facilities for their children, certain policies such as maternity leave and transportation arrangements are in effect in most well established agencies.

What is missing, says Faruque, is the human touch.

“Agencies are all about squeezing out as much work as possible from people. They don’t understand that when women work late hours, their children and families are deprived and there has to be some compensation for that even if it just a regular half day off.”

Others like Shaikh believe that the best thing agencies can do for their female employees is to provide them with an environment where they can work with like minded people and not have to worry about what they wear or say.

“It should be an environment that does not encourage sexist jokes so that women can have the peace of mind they need to work there even at odd hours.”

Haider says that all agencies need a healthy mix of men and women as the interaction between the sexes helps produce good work.

“Women need to be encouraged, but the attitude of condescension which views them as ‘poor things who need to be helped’ should be dropped. Women are a valuable human resource and need to be treated as an essential part of the team.”


Things may have come a long way from the 60s when women in advertising were treated with disdain, but not all of what we see of the sleazy clients and colleagues on Mad Men is a thing of the past. Stories still abound of women being sent to meetings as the ‘pretty face’ of the agency even though most people are loath to admit it.

Neil Christy, CEO, HeadLion says that he regularly and purposefully sends women to clients, but stresses that it is mainly to make the point that the agency has a gender balance, which is important in advertising.

Masood Hasan, CEO, Publicis Pakistan, on the other hand tells stories of Lahore clients who are less than businesslike.

“If a girl is pretty, she is in a lot of trouble because the clients would rather explore that option first. If she is ugly but competent, she is probably in a better position – they may object to her looks but at least her work is untouchable.”

The women in the industry all agree however that the only reason clients and colleagues are likely to treat a woman disrespectfully is if she gives off that vibe. Nagina Faruque, CEO, Think Tank pointedly says, “If you want to be the babe of the office, people will treat you that way.”

— MLA