Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2018

An encounter with 'advertising's third billion'

The opportunities and challenges for women pursuing an advertising career in the age of the Millennial.

The period television drama Mad Men, set in the high-pressure advertising world of New York during the sixties, was not that far off in projecting the advertising industry as an all boy’s club. Just as Peggy Olsen’s progression from a secretary to a copywriter in the show was fraught with struggles to prove her creative talent and capability before she was taken seriously, women who enter the advertising profession have never had it easy.

When I started working on this story, I was certain that the premise of the article would be that Pakistan’s advertising industry is non-inclusive of women. As I began speaking to women working in advertising agencies, from different disciplines and age groups, to determine if the ad industry in Pakistan is female-friendly, it became evident that my initial perception was erroneous.

There was general consensus on two points. First, the number of men who have reached the highest echelons of power in media and advertising is far greater than the women who have smashed the glass ceiling, despite the increasing number of women who have assumed leadership roles. Second, the industry is far more female inclusive than anywhere else in the world. According to Rashna Abdi, Chief Creative Officer, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, “late sittings are unavoidable at times but that is how the industry works across the world. The advantage is that in Pakistan, if women stay after hours, transportation is usually provided, at least at IAL.”

Abdi’s comment points towards an underlying problem voiced by industry veterans as well as newbies: a lack of structure, benchmarks and standardised policies. This is mainly attributed to the fact that there is no governing body which regulates agency operations. It is this vacuum that has resulted in variable HR and operational frameworks, since agencies in Pakistan are not required to comply with a designated set of rules in managing their workforce. Agencies therefore, have carte blanche in formulating their HR handbooks. At one end of the spectrum are agencies such as IAL Saatchi & Saatchi that provide transportation and other benefits to ensure a women-inclusive culture; at the other end, are a host of organisations that choose not to, without any fear of consequences.


According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) report 2016, women across the world earn 23% less on average compared to their male counterparts working at the same hierarchical level.


The two most significant issues that this lack of standardisation has created concern gender-based wage gap and maternity leave. Tannaz Minwalla, GM & Creative Director, Creative Unit, says, “when I started my career as a visualiser at IAL in 1982, and later as the head honcho when Creative Unit was established in 1987, I had to fight for equal pay.” She adds that people objected to women being paid as much as men on the grounds that “they have no dependents or financial commitments and are far more likely to leave when they marry or start a family.”

The issue of disparity in compensation goes well beyond Pakistan and its advertising industry. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) report 2016, women across the world earn 23% less on average compared to their male counterparts working at the same hierarchical level.

Since Pakistan is typically late in adopting and complying with international best practices, it was almost a given that the ad women to whom the question of compensation inequities would be posed would reaffirm Minwalla’s views.

As surprising as it was to learn from Abdi that our ad industry is actually ahead of the curve in terms of creating a female-friendly work environment, it was even more startling to hear Atiya Zaidi, Executive Creative Director North, Synergy Dentsu, say “gender-based wage gap is just a perception. I am proud to say that I am a woman working in Pakistan’s ad industry, earning as much as my male colleagues at the same level.”


There is no question that the working conditions for women in advertising have improved considerably. However, the ad industry still has a long way to go before they can claim gender parity and inclusion in the truest sense.


Zaidi’s opinion is seconded by Abdi, who believes that the industry is moving towards parity in compensation for both genders. To a large extent, this shift has been triggered by the increasing number of women who have forayed into media and advertising since the nineties, predominantly on the creative side. There was a gradual recognition of the value of their contributions to creative and strategic processes. This in turn changed the perception of women from being ‘HR liabilities’ to a source of competitive advantage for agencies. As women continued to progress quickly through the ranks, their influence in decision-making increased, as did the salaries they commanded.

Zohra Yusuf, Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum Y&R, has a different take as to why women’s pay scales have been on the rise, attributing it to a strategic change in the way the industry operates. She recalls that when she joined MNJ in 1971 as a copywriter, it was the male-dominated client services department that enjoyed better incentives, including higher pay scales. This is because at that time, the majority of accounts were won on the basis of personal relations with clients rather than the big idea and therefore, client services executives were considered the most valuable resource. In the last decade or so, as the focus shifted to creative conceptualisation and execution, it is the women-dominated creative departments that have taken centre stage. According to Yusuf, this is the main reason why there has been an across-the-board increase in compensation levels for women.

Abdi adds that Millennials have played a significant role in changing the perception of advertising as a profession. “Compared to previous generations, young people have a very different outlook and they do not see advertising as an inappropriate profession for women. There are a lot of young women who study commercial and communication art and then opt for advertising because they believe it provides opportunities for independent, creative expression.”

There is no question that the working conditions for women in advertising have improved considerably. However, the ad industry still has a long way to go before they can claim gender parity and inclusion in the truest sense.


“Agencies do not even come close to generating the kind of business volume and revenues that large corporations do. Providing on site child care and paid maternity leave are substantial financial commitments that agencies, particularly smaller ones, will not be able to sustain.”

Zohra Yusuf, Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum Y&R


Nida Haider, Managing Partner and Brand Strategy Director, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, highlighted one of the most pressing issues affecting organisations across the world; the increasing dropout rate of women from the workforce after marriage. In her view, “unless the concepts of maternity leave and flexi-hours are not incorporated into HR policies, working mums will find it difficult to resume their careers, particularly if family support systems are not there to lend a helping hand with children.”

While Yusuf concurs that greater flexibility is needed if agencies want to retain valuable, talented and dedicated female employees after they start a family, she points out that it is not financially feasible for advertising agencies to mirror the benefits offered by multinationals. “Agencies do not even come close to generating the kind of business volume and revenues that large corporations do. Providing on site child care and paid maternity leave are substantial financial commitments that agencies, particularly smaller ones, will not be able to sustain.”

To conclude, it is an undeniable fact that despite the odds, women in the advertising industry have made significant strides by relying on their creativity, talent and grit. While gender diversity in leadership roles and parity in compensation are important wins, there is a long way to go before our advertising industry can claim being an equal opportunity employer for men and women.

First published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.