Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2017

Wunder woman

Anusha Zahid profiles Mahrukh Shaikh...

Eleven-thirty a.m. It is a sweltering Tuesday morning and Karachi is blazing under an unrelenting heat wave.

I have arrived at Mahrukh Shaikh’s residence to profile her. Completely ignorant of her personality, peculiarities, strengths, blind spots or struggles, all I know about her, apart from her profession is this: she is a good writer, very polite and approachable, and has a knack for making funny expressions while taking selfies (source: Facebook).

Smilingly, she ushers me into her drawing room and apologising for not giving me an earlier date for this rendezvous, seats herself across on a sofa. Our talk begins with an appreciation of the ‘lovely’ weather outside. The sunlight, peeking in and slanting through the window behind me, falls on her face and I notice her loose mid-length hair, bold red lipstick and big red-framed spectacles.

This is Mahrukh Shaikh; former Creative Director, Adcom Leo Burnett, former Associate Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather Pakistan, and currently, the Co-Founder of Wundernerf – an ideas boutique-cum-ad agency she founded with her brother, Sheikh Adil Hussain and husband, Khurram Jaffar.

The youngest of two sisters and one brother, Shaikh was born, raised and educated in Dubai until the age of 18. Passionate about dancing and well-fed on animated adventure movies, Disney classics, cartoons and music during her childhood, her aspirations were anything but to enter advertising. A diehard fan of bands like Boyzone and Spice Girls, she recalls how excited she was on learning that ‘Ginger Spice’ had quit the band.

“I thought, wow... now is my chance!” she chuckles. “I can be a star!”

Her face lights up as she says this, as if reliving those moments.

“Well, that’s the magic of childhood... you believe in anything and everything!”

Back in Pakistan, Shaikh completed her intermediate from PAF Intermediate College, Malir. It was perhaps her fascination for adventure and the unknown that led her to choose history as her major subject, although she did explore possibilities of pursuing astronomy and law. She completed her B.A (Hons) in History in 2004, followed by a Masters in Modern Political History in 2005.

During her student years, she began doing radio.

“We were invited with our mother to one of her colleagues’ lunches. One of the invitees was a lady who worked part-time for FM 101. Hearing my sister and I converse in English, she asked me whether I would like to work on radio, as they were looking for English-speaking RJs.”

Following a successful audition, she started a show called the ‘English Hour’ from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. (a time that didn’t clash with her classes). This part-time job, which she took up just to earn extra pocket money during university days, would continue until 2006.

“Adcom was my home, my comfort zone. My reason for joining Ogilvy was to test other waters. I wanted to see if I could survive somewhere else and I also wanted to experience the MNC culture.

Not long after graduating, Shaikh received her first employment offer – on the basis of her English-speaking skills, a bank hired her as a receptionist.

“I wasn’t sure if it was the right job for me, but as our elders say: aati naukri ko na nahi kartay (one mustn’t say no to a job offer), especially if it’s your first. It can prove ominous – I accepted it.”

A couple of months later, she resigned. Coincidentally, the day she decided to quit was the same day the bank decided to let her go. The bank’s reason: “You are overqualified for the job.”

What ensued next was an opportunity to participate in a brand activation event which involved visiting schools and conducting various activities with children. At one of those schools (Beaconhouse in Gulshan), the principal, on learning she had a Masters in History and spoke English fluently (“at that point I realised how much English mattered in Pakistan”), offered her a teaching position.

She agreed and said she would begin after the summer break.

Fate, however, had other plans.

Around this time, thanks to an acquaintance of her brother’s, her CV had found its way into the hands of Azm Behzad at JWT Pakistan. Soon after, he left for Adcom and took Shaikh’s CV along. Next, she received the call for an interview. Her interviewer was Nadeem Farooq Paracha.

Laughing at her complete ignorance and her naivety about advertising then, she recalls Paracha saying, “we are considering you for the position of a copywriter.”

And how she interpreted this compound word was like this: “a copy is a notebook and a writer is obviously anyone who can write” – and though confused, she wisely answered “okay.”

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“Gulshan,” I said.

“We are offering you Rs 20,000. Will you be able to manage to come from Gulshan to Saddar every day?”

“I couldn’t believe my ears. Twenty thousand! Really?! Are you kidding me? For 20K I will even go to Timbuktu! (that amount was equivalent to Rs 200,000 at that time).”

But once again containing her excitement, she said, “yes, for work, I will.”

And so began Shaikh’s journey into advertising.

“Oh my goodness, it’s one of the happiest accidents I have ever had when it comes to making choices.”

Shaikh says she learnt everything on-the-job; branding, concept, copywriting, communications and strategy planning. She gives credit to Behzad for teaching her Urdu and its correct usage. “I was in awe of his writing.” Her teacher in editing was Paracha.

Adcom was the school that gave her wings; she calls it “a launch pad” for anyone aspiring to be in advertising. Staying there for five and a half years, going from an English Copywriter to a Senior Creative Manager and eventually to Creative Director, she worked on brands such as Continental Biscuits, Nando’s, Tapal Green Tea, Tarang and others.

Jabbar asked her to be one of the panelists and read her article at the conference. She is extremely proud of the fact that once the conference was over Jabbar met her father telling him: “You should be proud of your daughter.”

In 2006, while still at Adcom and still working part-time at the radio, she wrote an article about the emerging radio channels which caught the attention of Javed Jabbar.

“I am a traditionalist; people who know me don’t really like this about me. Perhaps, even I didn’t know this about myself until I worked in radio,” she explains.

What prompted her to write the article was the corruption of Urdu that had begun with the onset of new radio channels. Terms like ‘damagh ki dahi’ and other slang expressions were becoming trendy on radio. Finding this unbearable, she wrote the article opining that in the name of modernism, young people were ruining their identity.

She shared the article with her station manager Nisar Memon, who at that time was involved in organising the conference ‘100 Years of Radio’ (a brainchild of Javed Jabbar).

Memon shared Shaikh’s article with Jabbar; after reading it, he called her to his office.

“He asked me what my thoughts were at the time of writing. He agreed with what I wrote, but said I could have written it better. “It’s a good thing to write, but you should know what to write,” he said.”

“I agree with him now. There was too much heart in it,” she smiles.

Yet, Jabbar asked her to be one of the panelists and read her article at the conference. She is extremely proud of the fact that once the conference was over Jabbar met her father telling him: “You should be proud of your daughter.”

In 2011, Shaikh joined Ogilvy as Associate Creative Director.

“Adcom was my home, my comfort zone. My reason for joining Ogilvy was to test other waters. I wanted to see if I could survive somewhere else and I also wanted to experience the MNC culture.

She indeed survived the MNC culture. Agha Azfar, the CEO of Ogilvy at that time, had just started Soho Square and told Shaikh that it was hers to handle. Although she only worked there for two years, she handled the entire creative direction for Cadbury Dairy Milk, Capri, Kolson Lotten and Habib Oil Mills.

Two years later, she was back at Adcom. Although back among her people, it was becoming hard for her to balance work and family life; she married Khurram Jaffar in 2010.

“I started questioning myself about what I was doing. Am I happy doing this? What more from here? ECD? I will still be writing TVCs.”

Surprisingly, her brother was going through the same existential crisis in Dubai. “We were feeling the pressure, but we weren’t brave enough to take a decision.”

It was her husband who encouraged them to take the plunge and that was when the seed of Wundernerf was sown. Not long afterwards, the three signed a partnership deed and Wundernerf came into being in December 2016.

Shaikh says that although she is doing pretty much the same things she did at Adcom, she now has the freedom to set her own time. Apart from the agency function, she wants to make Wundernerf a training platform for people who do not get opportunities to work in big agencies.

The next plan? To write a big film for Pakistan.