Reema Mustafa, General Manager, Evernew Concepts, speaks about the challenges of being a woman working in advertising and the frustrations of being a media planner in Pakistan.
AURORA: What made you take up advertising as a career?
REEMA MUSTAFA: It was not accidental, I planned it. I did my Bachelors in Journalism and my Masters in Mass Communications.
RM: Because advertising inspired me. If advertising can convince people to buy water in a bottle, especially in a city like Lahore, where the tap water is excellent… I was already working in advertising when I completed my MBA.
A: Which agency were you working with then?
RM: Orient McCann.
A: Was it the first agency you worked for? RM: No, my first agency was Red Communication Arts. To complete my degree in Mass Communications I had to do a two-month internship, which I did at Red Communication. When my internship was over, Sabene (Saigol) offered me a job. I am very thankful to her, because apart from that two-month internship I had no experience in advertising. I worked for Red for almost three years. I started off as a media executive and ended up as the media manager. Going to Orient McCann was a career move, because I joined at the same package. But Orient was and still is a big name; it was like a university for me. You can say that Sabene gave me the opportunity and Orient gave me the learning.
A: The learning in what way?
RM: Orient was handling the Coca-Cola account then, which was the biggest client in Lahore; and Coca-Cola was very demanding in terms of analysis; before spending a single rupee we had to justify our recommendations. So it was a great learning experience. However, I have to say that I am completely self taught. This is not a claim, you can check it. I had no immediate boss, either at Red or Orient. I used a computer for the first time when I was at Red. When the media manager at Red Communication left, I would sit in the office long after midnight, trying to make sense of those Excel sheets. I opened previous files and tried to learn from there. Luckily, I was inclined towards numbers! At one point, the creative director suggested to Sabene that she hire someone senior in media. Sabene’s reply was, “Reema can do it, and if anything goes wrong I will take the responsibility.” I will always thank her for this. It gave me the confidence and the determination not to let her down.
A: After Orient, where did you go?
RM: I joined Evernew Concepts. Just a month after I left, Orient asked me to consider rejoining. However, I worked for Evernew for two years and then joined Orient again. Then after another two years, due to internal problems at Orient, I joined Evernew again. So my career path has been Red, Orient, Evernew, Orient and Evernew.
A: Does the fact that two ad agencies rehired you despite your having resigned say something about the quality of your work? RM: Exactly.
A: How much of what you learnt about advertising while doing your various degrees was actually applicable to the job?
RM: I would give 10% to education and 90% to practical experience. When I did my degree in Mass Communications from Punjab University there were practically no facilities and the textbooks were out of date, although things have improved. At Orient I had access to international presentations and I adapted them to the local market conditions here. But I had to learn by trial and error; there was no one to teach me.
A: How can media planning find its true role in Pakistan, when no institution is teaching the discipline? Then there is the problem that most advertisers see media planning and buying as another word for ‘discount’.
RM: Clients should acquire training in media.
A: From where can they acquire this training?
RM: There are courses available on the internet, or they can go to Dubai or India. Coca-Cola used to send their brand managers on media training courses, but nobody is willing to do this, especially not our local clients. I used to prepare detailed media analyses for them and they would fall asleep listening.
A: Isn’t that frustrating?
RM: It is. Here we are giving the client in depth information and all they are interested in is that we place their ad on the cheapest channel.
A: Has being a woman in the profession been an issue for you?
A: How so? RM: I was very determined, so I used to have fights with my family over the late hours I had to keep. I was able to resist family pressures, but every woman cannot do it. For employers, not being able to work long hours is considered a disadvantage. Also, when a woman says she is working in advertising, people sometimes think ‘modelling’ or ‘showbiz’ and families do not like this image. Then there is the harassment, which happens at every level; from the lower to the upper level. Women have to prove themselves every time. Marriage is another hurdle. If you are unmarried you are asked when you plan to get married, And if you are planning on getting married in a year’s time they will not hire you.
A: But it is not that uncommon for women to join an organisation on the basis that they will continue to work after marriage and then change their minds later.
RM: If a woman is not serious about her career, she should not apply for a job, because somebody more deserving can do that job.
A: Why is having to work late such a big deal in advertising?
RM: Because advertising works this way; clients are very demanding. They will send a brief at five o’clock and they will expect a result at nine the next morning. You have to change the client’s mindset before you can change your own agency’s setup and that is not going to happen, because the client will never change. They will continue to make as many demands as they are making now.
A: Why don’t agency heads take a stand on this? RM: If an agency closes at five, another agency will step in and tell the client that they can provide 24-hour service. So it is a fight. And there is no advertising association. The PAA (Pakistan Advertising Association) was sleeping and now it doesn’t exist. There is no consortium where one can take a stand.
A: Supposing you were in a situation whereby your husband was working in the US, would you pack up and go?
RM: If I had an opportunity to work in the US in advertising I would go, otherwise I would try to convince him to come back to Pakistan. I am very pro-Pakistan. I love Pakistan and I do not plan to go abroad after marriage. As a career move, I might go there for a few years, but I would come back and implement what I learned in Pakistan.
A: What would happen if your future husband asked you to stop working? RM: I would not marry him (laughs).
A: Are salaries a problem for women in the profession?
RM: Salaries are not a problem.
A: Do women get paid the same as men at every level? RM: Yes. This is a good thing actually. It is not a problem at all.
A: You mentioned the absence of an advertising association. But now that the AAP (Advertising Association of Pakistan) is coming onstream, do you think matters might change?
RM: Let’s see what happens. The PAA experience was bad. Take the issues of commissions. If agencies were able to get their 15% commission from every client, they would be more than happy. But there is a war going on, with some clients offering from zero percent to three percent or whatever, and they get away with it because the agencies do not have a platform. There is no one to take a stand and say that that we will not negotiate on agency commission and we will to stick to 15%. The moment agencies are able to get 15% across the board, they will be able to spend on HR and training. In advertising, everyone is learning on their own, because not a single employer is spending money on training or on HR.
A: The multinational and affiliated agencies say that they do spend on training. RM: Very few agencies spend on training, and the local agencies without affiliation do not.
A: As general manager what can you do for Evernew Concepts in terms of encouraging training?
RM: I need to see the numbers. If we are getting two percent commission from a client, I need to make sure that we are able to meet our expenses first and then look at training. If we are facing losses, we certainly cannot spend on training. This commission fight is disturbing the advertising industry in Pakistan. In times of recession, you cannot survive on the kind of commission we are getting. During a recession advertising suffers a lot; clients cut their budgets and their commission, they ask for more discounts and yet they demand better and better services, and we cannot hire good people based on those commissions.
A: Is the current economic situation putting a lot of pressure on the agencies? RM: People are worried. Things are on hold; every day you hear about such and such agency firing people. And if they are not fired, then the environment is very strict.
A: Strict in what way?
RM: In efficiency. One person has to do five jobs to survive.
A: In your experience, and having worked in both cities, are there any marked differences between Lahore and Karachi?
RM: There isn’t that much of a difference. Karachi is very fast, Lahore is comparatively slower; although it is getting its own pace. In Lahore people give respect to each other; in Karachi it is all about favours. “Do me a favour and I’ll get your work done.” In Lahore people listen to each other and friendships count.
A: Would you consider working in Lahore again? RM: No. I’m a workaholic; I don’t think I would go back.
A: How responsive are clients to using new media; internet, etc?
RM: We are still restricted to 30-second TVCs and radio spots, and quarter page ads.
RM: Probably because the agencies are not educating their clients about new media. There is so much clutter on TV. Most local clients don’t understand that they need to try different and innovative things in order to grab the attention of the viewers, and that viewers are changing. The internet is spreading like anything in Pakistan; for the younger and the working population, it has become a very important medium. Only Unilever and P&G have tried doing reality shows and branded programmes. The cost of a 30-second TVC and of a branded show is almost the same, so local clients should explore those areas, but the agencies are not educating them. Today there are 80 local channels available and to get the same visibility as they did when there was only PTV, clients have to spend much more for less return.
A: Surely clients see that; doesn’t it affect their bottom line? RM: Instead of fixing the problem, they start cutting the advertising budget. This is when the analysis should come in but they don’t understand it.
A: Do you see a change in this mindset? RM: Some local companies have a kind of multinational approach in terms of attitude and professionalism, but most do not. When we put together a media plan, we are asked to place an ad on a particular billboard. Why? Because the director of the company drives down that road on a daily basis; so if he has seen the hoarding, then everyone has seen it! If he is not using the internet, the brand team will never propose the internet as a medium. “We are going to spend this amount of money on the internet? But who will see it?” Because the director will not see it! Clients think that media planning is about television, when it is actually about knowing your consumer. What are they doing, how do they perceive your communication and where are the contact points. When I was handling Coca-Cola I was so happy. They used to demand more and more in terms of media analysis and planning.
A: What are your career goals?
RM: When I started off in media, I had heard about Raihan Merchant and my ambition was to be like him. Being a woman, opening up my own agency would be difficult. As media is my core strength, I want to take it to the next step. Media will be my career; it is a specialised field, just like creative. If media and creative are not there in an agency, it would not function.
Interview conducted by Mariam Ali Baig.