I met Atiya Zaidi on a Wednesday morning at her Clifton office where she is Group Creative Director and Partner at The Brand Crew (a digital agency) and Firebolt63 (a traditional ad agency based out of Lahore). She was chatty, unassuming, self deprecating, funny and quirky; in other words, instantly likeable. Then before I started writing this article, I took a peek at her LinkedIn profile and this is what she said about herself in the summary:
“I am always hungry, hungry for fame and [for] my work [to] see the light of the day; hungry to get things done and always starving to have a sense of achievement. Life is too short for us to go unnoticed.”
To be honest, I was surprised to read this. Zaidi doesn’t come across as desperate for achievement, although at one point in the interview she did say that she is obsessed with winning awards. On the whole, however, she appears to be extremely laidback, giving her audience (in this case, me) the impression that she has let life happen to her and success has been coincidental.
Given that Zaidi is a great reader and self improvement is her genre of choice (she is currently reading The Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss Without Being a Bitch), she could be taking a tip from The 48 Laws of Power to make her accomplishments seem effortless, but boy is she good at it! Or maybe, she is confident enough and doesn’t need to blow her own trumpet.
Whatever the case may be, there is no denying the fact that she is accomplished and has worked on some of the most talked about campaigns of the last nine years, including HBL’s Mr Bean, the G-L-U-C-O campaign for EBM, Tarang’s launch campaign, the Sunsilk hijab campaign and the Lux gold coin campaign. She has also worked with some of the top names in the business, including Ali Hayat Rizvi, Farahnaz Sheikh, Farhan Awan, Guy Winston, Imran Syed, Mansoor Karim and Zehra Zaidi.
In October 2011, when she was at the zenith of her advertising career and self-admittedly in a “very strong position at JWT,” Zaidi quit the MNC agency for her current role which straddles creative on digital media (which is completely alien to her) and working with a traditional agency that does a great deal of work in Afghanistan (a market completely alien to her). So why would a 30-something woman with two kids and a successful run in mainstream advertising move herself so totally out of her comfort zone that it takes her all the way to Kabul?
“You must be very brave,”
“There are two ways of looking at it: I’m either very brave or very stupid,” she rejoins with a quirky laugh that surfaces often during the conversation.
This ‘bravery/stupidity’ has been a recurring theme in Zaidi’s life. As a young woman, she went to university in Karachi and lived in a hostel (while the rest of the family lived in Saudi Arabia) and found herself a job at the then newly formed Awan & Kapadia (“They were so new they didn’t even have any chairs!”); she studied in the morning and worked from the afternoon until whatever time she was required. Why? Because it “was just so cool to work!”
A few years later she married a man she had known most of her life (“We bear grudges together and forgive people together,” she laughs) and calls a “janati insaan”; he encouraged her to go to London a few months after their marriage to study for a Design for Communications Degree at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. One year into the three year degree, she had the first of her two children so she took a gap year and then packed up the baby and went off to London again to complete the degree.
“England was the toughest part of my life especially after the baby came. My husband and my family were all in Pakistan and I constantly had doubts about being out there. But I found the strength within me and I was always lucky to be surrounded by good people.”
Next, while Zaidi was working at Adcom (the third in a total of three separate stints with the company), she travelled to Lahore for the Tarang launch shoot when she was eight months pregnant with her second child blithely telling the stewardess that she was only five months along.
Is Zaidi a glutton for punishment?!
In what I assume is her typical style, she giggles (no signs of a desperate over-achiever here) and gives the same reason for these moves as she does for why she chose to leave JWT and join a digital agency and work on Afghanistan-based clients.
“I have this sense that if I don’t grow I will become obsolete. Of course I will be obsolete one day but not yet!”
So how does it feel to work in the very un-obsolete world of the full-service digital agency, I ask? Her answer is straightforward, honest and funny.
“It is ‘hard’. Most of the time I don’t know what the developer is talking about so I ask him to explain it in plain English, then I ask him to tell me in Urdu and sometimes I still don’t understand.”
Working on the Roshan telecom account (one of the four telecom operators in Afghanistan) is harder still.
She admits that her family doesn’t sleep when she is in Kabul (she has already been there thrice in one year) and also that it is challenging to produce advertising for a culture that is totally different from our own.
Challenging but also rewarding it seems, as she speaks of the Afghan people with warmth and fondness.
“I realise Kabul doesn’t necessarily reflect all of Afghanistan but from what I have experienced, the people have an amazing sense of humour, they know how to laugh at themselves (which we don’t) and they have an immense pride in being Afghan (which we have lost).”
Zaidi is also enjoying the ownership that comes from being a partner in a company instead of an employee.
It obviously involves more work but she is adamant that good people and the company’s friendly culture make all the difference.
“There is a lot of humility in the people here,” she says referring to Firebolt and The Brand Crew.
“It is a great feeling to get along with everyone and to know that these people will not stab you in the back.”
However, Zaidi’s favourite place is at home with her kids where her hobbies include “reading and thinking! Yes, I know I am boring, I am a born khala!”
Our interview comes to an end and she ushers me to the door with plenty of small talk. As I walk out, I am left with the feeling that I have met one of the nicest, friendliest and most down to earth people in the advertising business.