When I text Sarah Moquim to confirm our meeting, she replies: “Coolness.”
I step into her newly redesigned offices at Bates & Interflow where she has recently been appointed ECD. She is wearing a checked button-down shirt and blue jeans, a dash of eyeliner appears to be her only nod to makeup. A massive mug half-filled with black coffee sits next to her laptop.
As we get on with the business of hi and hello, one of her creatives pops his head round the door. The exchange is succinct.
She looks at him quizzically. “Why? You know what you are doing, you can do the approvals.”
Like this dialogue, everything about Moquim is pragmatic. She offers me refreshments and for herself requests a cup of hot water. A jar of Nescafé Gold lies on the table behind her. There is no spoon at hand, so with zero ceremony she shakes out a measure of instant coffee from the jar into the lid, dumps it into the cup and, with frequent interjections of dry, mildly self-deprecating humour, tells me about her life in the creative lane.
She started out as a student of the arts and media, which to her family of doctors and engineers “and one (supportive) architect,” was tantamount to rebellion.
“‘What is this...?’ they asked,” she recounts with a wry smile. “‘What are you trying to do?’”
“But I wanted to be in advertising ever since I was eight years old!”
The reason behind making such a specific choice so early in life? Laughingly, she tells me about a film she saw where, in typical Hollywood/ Bollywood style, the world of advertising was portrayed as a glamorous wonderland. The magic of the film stayed in her subconscious, until years down the line she wound up in the creative departments of some of the better known agencies in Pakistan.
The journey to get there began by enrolling in the Department of Visual Arts at Karachi University, with a view to major in film and design. At the same time Moquim began working at Geo Television in talent recruitment.
As with all her places of work, she speaks of Geo warmly.
“It was an eye opener. I met some interesting writers, thinkers, actors, directors, cameramen; all sorts of crazy people under one roof. It was great exposure.”
From Geo she went on to intern at Think Tank where she credits Nagina Faruque as being instrumental in teaching her about the advertising business. Next she moved to Interflow.
“I consider Interflow my first job in advertising,” she says, and recalls days when she was supposed to be a copywriter, but took every opportunity to design and do whatever else she could lay her hands on – mostly unasked – just to see how it would turn out. Although she describes this curiosity to constantly try new things as “an inherent flaw”, it served her well in the current dynamics of multidisciplinary creatives.
Despite being part of one of the most established agencies of the time (in a move that foreshadowed one she would make again) she quit Interflow after nearly two years and joined the much smaller Headlion.
“I wanted to work with Neil Christy. He was a great writer, a force to reckon with, and one of the rare examples in this country of a creative-turned-CEO.”
She remembers Headlion as a huge learning experience where “everything was done in guerrilla mode and you went after anything that was thrown your way.”
Now she has focused her attention on reclaiming the glory that was once Interflow’s by producing award-winning work.
In her opinion “the boardroom is a graveyard for a lot of good ideas” because when it comes to global brands the decision makers are rarely present in the boardroom, let alone the country, and the approval (or rejection) can take weeks.
“You meet a lot of people with the authority to say ‘no’ and not many with the authority to say ‘yes’.”
Having more local clients – as Bates & Interflow intends – suggests the likelihood of breakthrough ideas going through. She cites HBL as an example, describing as “surreal” the way direct interaction with the brand’s decision makers enabled her to go ahead with the idea of using mountaineer Samina Baig as the face of the bank.
“Eighty percent of what banks do is very dry, and they are expected to communicate in a certain way,” she says, noting that she has worked on UBL, Barclays, NIB, HSBC, and HBL’s Mr Bean campaign as well as the football street child campaign.
“The challenge is to be unexpected while bringing value to what a bank does.”
Another challenge she is looking forward to is incorporating her new responsibilities into her day-to-day work, explaining that as ECD, the business end of things takes on an increasingly prominent role.
“You are accountable for how your clients feel about your team, your work, what you do for them on a daily basis and the value you bring to the table,” she says, but stresses that despite the added responsibilities, generating quality creative work will always be of prime importance.
Among her goals at the newly repositioned Bates & Interflow is to make the agency “one of the top two choices” for anyone looking for a job in advertising.
She knows first-hand this will be a daunting task and shares a story about teaching final-year communication design students at the Indus Valley School of Arts.
“It was a class of 30, and hardly anyone wanted to land a job in an ad agency.”
In her opinion, to convince fresh graduates to commit to a career in advertising, seasoned professionals need to prove there is room for growth.
That is also her philosophy of life.
“This is meant to be fun. Achieve, deliver and grow – your growth depends on your team’s growth. It’s automatic.”
Noting the genuine appreciation with which she recalls her mentors and the confidence with which she just delegated authority, it’s evident that Moquim does not just talk about people being an important asset, she believes it with a passion.
Equally passionate is her belief in the future of Bates & Interflow.
“This place was pretty much the definition of cool not too long ago,” she says. “It’s not that hard to bring it back. Give us a year.”
I remark that she appears to be very positive about this.
She gives me a confident smile and a simple, succinct reply.