I met Umair Kazi for the first time a year ago, while doing a story on Millennials for Aurora’s annual issue. As he fell within the right age demographic, he was uniquely placed to speak on behalf of this misunderstood group from the vantage point of being the co-Founder of an up-and-coming ad agency, Ishtehari.
Full of energy, intelligent and refreshingly down-to-earth, interviewing him was a tricky proposition. This is not because he is unapproachable or likely to cancel appointments at the last second, but because he seems to go through a hundred thoughts in seconds and articulates them just as quickly. He takes great pride in Ishtehari’s achievements, is quick to credit the resourcefulness of his partner Iftikhar Alam, and the talent and hard work of his team. Ask him to speak about himself, and his reluctance is impossible to miss.
Born and raised in Karachi, Kazi’s first brush with advertising was when he was featured in a TV commercial for Michelin Tyres in the late 80s, or so the story goes (he confesses to having no memory or proof of this). Growing up, he describes himself as “an artsy kid.” He gave himself the apt moniker ‘cardy’, because it rhymed with his surname and defined his favourite pastime – making cards for everyone, for every occasion. His interest in art never waned throughout his school and college years, during which he started exploring Photoshop on his uncle’s computer, developed a keen interest in photography, and was put in charge of the school yearbook.
One would have expected him to pursue a degree in the fine arts, so it was a bit of a surprise to learn that after his A’ Levels, he enrolled at LUMS for a B.Sc degree, majoring in Economics. His justification? “Most of my friends were going to LUMS.” It is only later that he admits that he did secure admission at a liberal arts college in the USA, but was unable to pursue that option for financial reasons.
Despite a relatively low GPA (most courses were number-based and he claims no aptitude for them), Kazi recalls his days at LUMS as “fun, particularly the hostel life.” This was also the time he formally picked up the ‘design bug’ and began developing logos for university societies. Strapped for cash, this was also when he started freelancing as a designer.
After completing his degree in 2009, he returned to Karachi. Most of his batch mates applied for graduate trainee programmes at banks and FMCGs – an unspoken tradition for business school graduates; however, for Kazi, these were not viable options.
“I did not understand numbers, so banks were out of the question. I can’t balance my agency’s accounts even today. As for FMCGs, I never reached the interview stage because the entrance exam always had a maths section.”
His interest in designing was undiminished. Marketing was a newfound interest thanks to a last semester course, during which he came across Seth Godin’s blog, which proved to be an inspiration. He, therefore, thought an advertising agency would be a good fit and began
e-mailing his application. He was surprised by an almost immediate response from Shoaib Qureshy, CEO, Bulls Eye (now Bulls Eye DDB), and that is how his career in advertising took off.
As surprising as I found his decision to go to a business school, I was even more surprised to learn that he had requested to work, not in creative, but in client-servicing.
“I thought I would be good at working with people, but it didn’t pan out because I was unable to develop the kind of relationships that were expected.” He requested a transfer to a department where he would be more useful, and given his propensity for idea generation and delivering engaging presentations, he was appointed as a Strategy Planner. It was at Bulls Eye that he met his future business partner and co-Founder of Ishtehari, Alam, who was serving as the Creative Director.
Less than a year into the job, restlessness began creeping in.
“Self-employed before 25 was a mantra I had lived by, but what tipped me over was that employees don’t get a cut out of every concept that is approved.
I thought I could make so much more money if I did this on my own. Obviously, I didn’t understand how the industry worked; now I know better.”
The time he made up his mind to resign and start something of his own, happened to coincide with his marriage. I asked him if the thought of being married deterred him from quitting a relatively stable job, and the response, not surprisingly, was a definitive “no”.
“Fear of failure was not on my mind. I knew that if it didn’t work out, I would be able to earn enough through freelance projects until I found a job. So, I went to Malaysia for my honeymoon, came back and resigned. Iftikhar left a month later, and we started Ishtehari towards the end of 2011.”
Initially, it was a two-person set-up and no office. Kazi is quick to recognise that his partner played a crucial role in keeping them afloat during the early days. “Most of the initial work that came our way was because of Iftikhar’s contacts. I may come up with the concepts, but he is the one with the business sense. On my own, I would have failed.”
Since then, Ishtehari has come a long way. Although when I asked him if he remembers the moment when he realised that the agency had ‘made it’, he says, “it is actually a blur when the two-person set-up expanded to the mid-sized agency we are today.”
There were no dramatic wins. Rather, a series of small projects, such as activation events for Dawlance, OOH installations for Capri, a fully-recyclable calendar for the House of Habib and webisodes with Mathira for DKT after Josh’s TVC was banned by PEMRA.
The first time the agency came under the spotlight was when they won the Quetta Gladiators pitch for the PSL 2015. The next big milestone was being appointed as the creative and production agency for the John Hopkins Centre for Communication Planning the same year. Their awareness campaign for John Hopkins was shortlisted for AdAge’s Healthcare Marketing Impact Awards recently, a first for a Pakistani agency. Kazi is particularly proud of the fact that in a short span of time, Ishtehari built up a strong healthcare marketing portfolio, which includes campaigns for Abbott, Bayer, GSK and Marie Stopes.
Talking about his agency’s journey, his clients and their competition, names and stories invariably came up and more than once, he had to ask me not to quote him. He is honest to a fault and is yet to master the art of diplomacy that one would expect from the Partner and
co-Founder of an ad agency, although he prefers just to be known as “a member of the creative team.” “Not even the Creative Director?” His response: “I don’t have the credentials yet.”
As Ishtehari has grown and evolved, in a manner of speaking, Kazi’s personal and professional journey has mirrored it. He is no longer a naive, 20-something who is upset because a creative idea has not been approved. Whether he likes it or not, he has matured into an agency professional, aware that to pay the bills there are times when compromises are needed – although he wants Ishtehari to retain its rebellious ethos, even as it continues to grow in scale.
Knowing that he is never comfortable with the status quo, I wonder, what’s next? “The agency should be able to operate without me so I can spend my days on a hammock on a beach in Thailand with a pina colada. Although I’m pretty sure I will miss the madness then.”
Given his boundless energy, and the ‘creative keera’ that makes him who he is, I’m minded to agree with him.