Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

I detest advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2011

Sami Shah on being an advertising creative, comedian, columnist and a family man.

I have no idea what this is. Honestly, not a clue. Aurora asked me to write for a section of their magazine called ‘branded bubbles’.

At first I thought it was that day-in-the-life nonsense in which advertising people are supposed to chronicle a single day of their profession, pretending as if the entire 24 hours are not spent grovelling for business, prostrating themselves before ignorant clients, stabbing each other in the back with a viciousness that would make a Mughal blush and then trying to figure out how they can earn some extra money by lying to the director about the cost of the commercial and pocketing the difference.

Thankfully it turned out to not be that. Instead it is a section about… well… I’m not quite sure. They even furnished me with examples of previous ‘branded bubbles’ and to be honest I am no clearer. From what I can gather, it’s a stream of consciousness rant about the challenges of being whoever you are. Or at least that’s what I gathered. If I am mistaken, well, it’s too late for them to ask someone else. Classic case of a confusing brief made worse by a stubborn creative.

If it is a direct-from-my-forebrain-type thing that they want, then here goes. First, a bit of backstory, for those of you who came in late. My name is Sami Shah and I am, amongst other things, a creative director, a comedian, a columnist, an illustrator, a former news-producer and (sometimes) a husband and father. You might know me from any one of those descriptors, however if you know me from all of them then we need to get in touch because the ‘husband and father’ thing is supposed to be quite exclusive.

So let’s run down that list and see how I do each of those things and why I do them, if for no other reason than because you are already done skimming through this issue of Aurora looking for any article mentioning your agency or brand and now have absolutely no other way of spending the time left on the toilet. I promise to make it amusing by throwing in some jokes here and there.

Creative Director: The fact that someone like me can be a CD in advertising just shows how much is wrong with the advertising industry. Not because I am incompetent, which I am not. I have got the years and the skills and all the résumé requirements for the post. It’s because I detest advertising. To be specific, I detest all Pakistani advertising.

I consider my peers to be buffoons, dimwits and ne’er do wells, I find the entirety of work done in the country to be ranging from offensively bad to mediocre and I think every ad agency in the country is a factory that regurgitates crushed hopes and smashed ideas. Almost every agency I have ever seen considers paying employees on time a burden that is best ignored. Worse, despite not giving a poor visualiser who earns but Rs 12,000 a month his salary on anything approaching a monthly schedule, they will cut his pay if he steps into the office a minute late. My only criteria for choosing a place of employment has been getting paid on a reliable schedule and that has limited me to two or three agencies in the entire country. This would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so normal and so accepted. It’s tolerated because people working in advertising have no self-esteem left. What little bit of dignity the client forgets to assault, their own employers will savage.

Speaking of the clients, can we stop pretending like they know what they are doing? Every issue of this esteemed magazine interviews a parade of egotistical ignoramuses with the kind of seriousness devoted to Nobel Laureates. Most, if not all of them are graduates from IBA or CBM, two institutes that could be shut down tomorrow, and everyone who ever went there hunted down and sterilised… and the intellectual quality of the gene pool might improve. Yes, the public is smarter than you think. No, you are not as smart as you think. Yes, your brand is just another mediocre product that is cluttering our lives. No, you cannot sleep with the model on the shoot. Once these truths are accepted, things might improve, but it is unlikely.

So why do I do it? If I clearly hold the industry and all associated with it in contempt, then why don’t I do anything else? I like to boast that it’s because working in advertising allows me to put my brain in screen saver mode and earn a paycheque while travelling a decent amount. But the truth is it’s because I still have a few micro-ounces of hope left. Every brief, every concept presentation, every pitch, I still walk into these thinking maybe this time we can do something genuinely worthwhile that we can be proud of. So maybe I am the biggest idiot of all, since I clearly never learn.

Comedian: The making-people-laugh thing began with Black Fish. I joined the improv troupe because the girl I wanted to make my wife one day was a member and because they seemed to be doing something original and fun. After the troupe disbanded, a victim of the Pakistani brain-drain with almost everyone moving abroad, I stayed in the comedy game. Switching from working with a team of comedians to standing on stage alone with a mic, I stuck with it. Partly because it lets me blow off all the aggression and frustration my day job accumulates in my soul and partly (mostly actually) because I am an attention-needy brat who doesn’t feel fulfilled unless several hundred people are applauding and laughing at something I said. If comedy hadn’t worked out, I could very well have been Pakistan’s first male-stripper, swapping emotional nakedness for the physical kind.

Comedy is a strange beast. When it works, the feedback is instant. When it fails, the suffering is eternal. No torture can be as intense as standing on stage after a joke fails. Silence can kill. That, coupled with the fact that no brand is willing to sponsor stand-up comedy (or at least my comedy) means I usually do it out of pocket or rely on the kindness of café owners and auditorium managers. Were I to launch a lawn collection tomorrow and invite all the brands to stick their logos on a wall in front of which the same dozen celebrities can pose over and over again, I would be rich. But again, I am an idiot. So instead I go for the path of most resistance.

Columnist: This was an accidental achievement. An editor who had read my blog asked me to contribute to a new newspaper. I did so. Then I got addicted to it. Maybe it’s the opportunity to frame sarcasm in 650 words on a weekly basis, or the creativity of the death threats that result from it, but I cannot imagine ever stopping. My guilty secret though, the same as every columnist’s, is that I dread a week in which nothing happens. Tragedy and disaster are the muses of the opinion columnist and a week in which neither happen is as bad as… as… as being stuck on stage after a joke failed. I feel terrible about this and you will no doubt judge me harshly for it.

I don’t blame you.

Illustrator/News Producer: I did both these things once. I was paid to draw and paid to work in a news channel. What can I say? I was young and needed the money.

Husband/Father: These are why I work in advertising. Why I write these columns and why I go on stage. So that I can earn more and provide better and be calmer and happier. Sometimes you need to remind yourself of that.

There, that wasn’t so bad? I still don’t know if it’s what the editors wanted, but at least it got you through that terrible post-dinner evacuation. But seriously, pay your employees on time if you run an ad agency. It’s not asking for much.

Sami Shah is a creative director and comedian who demands to be paid on time.