Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2012

Life after the personality test

Qasim Makkani, Director Creative and Strategy, Spectrum Y&R, in profile.

Just when one had thought that it is an accepted fact that personality tests are a ruse for the privileged to fill out yet more forms that signify nothing, one meets Qasim Makkani. 

Spectrum Y&R’s Director Creative and Strategy is rather nonchalant as he divulges that it was a personality test in a counsellor’s office (rather than a life-changing epiphany that came to him in the shower) that helped him pin down his life’s passion. Some personality test that must have been: he has been at his first job in advertising for the past eight years.

Taking the test was something of a last resort for Makkani, who had already changed his major at university three times.

“The top three possible career options that the analysis threw up were speech pathologist, while in second place was a tie between elementary school teacher and advertising and broadcasting,” he recalls.  His eyes light up as he remembers his reaction to the result.

His sense of ownership at the job is almost palpable, mainly because it is a rare thing and when he talks about the time he started Spectrum’s quarterly in-house newsletter, you almost find yourself saying, ‘but of course’.

“My immediate thought was, I have found what I want to do.

I am an elementary school teacher! That’s what I want to be. I have always loved teaching and I want to catch them when they are young.”

His excitement at the prospect of turning classrooms into his playing field was short lived as the counsellor promptly informed him that a degree in education would mean another three years spent studying, which would clock up a total of seven years in college. And so it was practical considerations rather than passion which nudged him to settle for advertising. He has never looked back since.

“I really enjoyed every aspect of the course and was completely entertained by it. Advertising was a perfect fit.”

Degree in hand, he entered the US job market in 2001, which he describes in one word: “dead”.

The last is delivered deadpan-style, betraying the performer in him, who can be found exercising his acting muscles at the Acting Wheel (a group of extempore amateur actors) which meets every fortnight. 

“Senior guys were losing their jobs and there were just no jobs in the field. No one wanted even proofreaders,” he recalls. 

That is when he decided to roll down the shutters and head to the proverbial imaginary homeland, where incidentally a media boom awaited him.

Born in the UAE, and raised in Africa and the USA, for Makkani Pakistan was home in name only.

“One of the biggest advantages of growing up in the US was the exposure I got from all the different jobs I did.”   

In the US, Makkani did the whole gamut, from the rites-of-passage-type mopping the floors at McDonald’s to selling vacuum cleaners and knives door-to-door.

Yes, knives.

“I didn’t quite get around to throwing melons in the air before slicing them, but I was definitely inspired by the salesmen who did.”

What he missed out on, growing up abroad was Urdu.

“Since I never formally studied Urdu, things can get tricky in advertising, especially when you are a copywriter at heart.”

But Makkani is not one to let a shortcoming put a damper on the task at hand. He simply used his ‘outsider’ status to offer rare insights the insiders might miss. The last was evident in an article that he wrote for Aurora on the way advertisers are experimenting with addressing their target audiences in increasingly informal ways in Urdu.

The article also throws a light on the uncommon conviction he brings to not just his job, but to virtually anything he touches. Add a dose of wide-eyed fascination to the mix, and Makkani’s conviction is the kind that turns an outsider’s view into a rare insight and which transforms a knife salesman into cool melon-slicing acts. Not surprising then, that it was Makkani’s personal beliefs about the environment that compelled him to spearhead the agency’s move to become ‘greener’ and work towards a more eco-friendly environment. The move led to Spectrum holding a press conference on Earth Day 2008 in which the organisation pledged to be an eco-friendly enterprise. The agency currently partners with a recycling company that ensures that all of their paper waste is recycled.

On a personal level, Makkani is mindful of his own carbon footprint.

“Yes I am that guy that bugs people about turning off the lights and the air-conditioner!” he says without as much as a trace of defensiveness.

His lack of self-consciousness is refreshing in a society that by and large treats activism with a generous pinch of salt, if not outright disdain.

Any form of self-consciousness is again missing when you ask him how, in an industry notorious for its high employee turnover rate, he has managed to stick

to his first advertising job for eight years. Surely that is some kind of record, I almost add before realising that Makkani doesn’t quite see the point of the question.

“I started working at an internship at Spectrum,” he starts “and stayed on for the next eight years. I love being in advertising, but one of the things that keeps me specifically at Spectrum, apart from the great environment is their focus on social marketing. We have the largest social marketing department of any advertising agency in Pakistan. Now that’s not the fun or the big stuff, but it’s something that gives some kind of meaning to my line of work, which is essentially all about making commercials and selling. On an average day, that doesn’t feel like much of a contribution.”

While Makkani’s steady stint at the agency has offered him the opportunity to work on the strategy of brands such as Caltex and PIA, ask him about work that makes him proud and he mentions an ad that he did for the HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) for World Press Freedom Day. You realise that his heart is intent on finding meaning in his work. Yet he doesn’t have a favourite story about a brilliant campaign that flew straight over the client’s head.

He dismisses that with “the unfortunate story is that most of my work never sees the light of day,” and moves on, eager to discuss the HRCP ad which received a lot of attention in the Pakistani journalist community. 

“I won an award for it in the agency, and Y&R spotlighted it for their entire network to see,” he beams.

His sense of ownership at the job is almost palpable, mainly because it is a rare thing and when he talks about the time he started Spectrum’s quarterly in-house newsletter, you almost find yourself saying, ‘but of course’.

Planet Spectrum ran for three years, but eventually had to wrap up due to lack of time and resources. However, Makkani continues to work on Spectrum’s own brand image.

“We have completely revamped the agency’s presentation and are helping increase its profile within the Y&R network.”

Initiating the greening of Spectrum, starting the agency’s in-house newsletter – taking ideas to their natural conclusion has come to define how Makkani does things.

And so when he declares that he is the biggest U2 fan in Pakistan you almost wonder what the natural conclusion to that is and that is his cue to talk about the contest to find Pakistan’s biggest U2 fan on a radio show that he took part in a few years ago. You can sense his enthusiasm as if it was yesterday, as he recalls staying up the night before the finale and inducting the help of a friend to help him cram facts about the band.

“I reached the final round, but lost to a girl only because she pressed the button before me.”   

He is still disappointed about that.

As he gets up to leave, he adds as an afterthought:

“You know I would still love to teach someday.”

Some personality test that was. Years down the road and the idea is still buzzing in his head. And given his inclination for taking things to their natural conclusion, you just know that he will.

Shahrezad Samiuddin is a pop culture junkie and an aspiring screenwriter.