Most people who work in advertising and media circles love to talk. About themselves. About their work (read: about their accomplishments). About how ‘passionate’ they are about their work. And sometimes even about how the love of their life inspired them to be ‘truly creative’ (yes, this has happened more than once).
And then there are people, few and far between, such as Rashna Abdi, Executive Creative Director at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, who remain reticent without being difficult to talk to; who have a lot to say without blowing their own trumpet.
Like most people in the trade, Abdi did not begin her career in advertising. Instead, it was journalism.
“I interned at SHE magazine when I was 18, and worked with Zuhra Karim, who is a very interesting and focused person, and is willing to give young people a chance.”
After graduating from college, Abdi worked at Us Weekly, an in-paper magazine of The News. Abdi then left for London to do a six-month course in TV production. Returning to Karachi, she began to work with Saquib Malik on commercials primarily for P&G and Unilever. And two years later, she joined IAL as a Creative Manager, and has been there for almost 10 years, which in agency terms, is the equivalent of a lifetime, given the hop, skip and jump attitude of most advertising professionals. Clearly, there is something about the agency that keeps her there.
For one thing, she is full of praise for the agency’s CEO, Ruby Haider, and her creativity, and leadership skills. For another, she likes the fact that IAL’s atmosphere is “an open one. People are free to be what they want to be, honesty is encouraged and mistakes are tolerated. Young people are encouraged and given access to clients very soon.”
Perhaps what really keeps her at IAL is the fact that despite being an affiliate office, IAL “works like any other Saatchi office worldwide” and as a result “we also have the chance to work on brands outside Pakistan, such as Ariel or Safeguard in Africa, so we are creating work for other markets.”
What strikes me about Abdi is the fact that behind her soft spoken demeanour, lies a woman who clearly loves her work, not only because “it is the perfect mix between magic and logic” but also because of the challenges it poses.
As she admits later on, “the thrill of the kill” is what keeps her going, and describes, after a lot of prodding that a few of the career highs that she has experienced include “winning a pitch as a wild card entry (we did it twice!), selling a seemingly impossible idea, creating campaigns that transform our clients’ business and taking on a very powerful Anglo-Dutch FMCG multinational (if anyone needs a little help there, contact IAL).”
As our conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Abdi is not only someone not to take at face value, she is also someone who is perceptive about the people she really works for – the consumer. She feels that there is a tendency among advertising professionals to think of consumers “in terms of us versus them”, which needs to be remedied because they “are smart people who can kill your business if they decide not to buy your product. You have to respect them and stay on your toes in order to understand them.”
When I ask her if her quiet demeanour is a weapon she uses to gauge consumers, she shrugs it off by saying, “I’m not an introvert; I can start a conversation with a complete stranger if I need consumer insight… but I like to keep my life private. However, I am prone to sudden bursts of spontaneity, such as agreeing to this interview,” she adds with a smile.
Unwilling to harp on about her accomplishments, Abdi finally opens up about her brand portfolio, when I mention a brand manager I interviewed earlier who was nauseatingly effusive about the brands he worked on. She then, almost grudgingly, admits to feeling equally passionate about some of the brands that she has worked on.
She says that Pampers is one of her favourite brands, and if she ever has children, she will use it. She stresses that Pampers also does “fantastic stuff, like a hospital education programme, providing free medical checkups, setting up mobile clinics in the flood affected areas.”
However, the realist in Abdi doesn’t underestimate the real function of advertising – selling the product.
“When you work on multidimensional brands you become emotionally attached to them; and when you believe in them, you feel passionate about them and end up creating more meaningful advertising.”
Other than her work, what emerges is the fact that Abdi also feels passionate about Karachi, despite having travelled abroad frequently. And clearly, she thinks of Karachi as a person (even a consumer, perhaps), expressing as she does an understanding of the city’s personality – and even optimism.
“I love my city even though it’s a crazy city and makes no sense at times. I love Karachi’s spirit, sheer resilience, diversity, and ability to accept people as they are; Karachi’s eccentricities, chaos, and paradox. We may crib and seem jaded, but when the need arises, people come together.”
When I ask her about her favourite places in Karachi, she reveals another passion – food. In fact, she goes so far as to say that the places she likes in Karachi usually have to do with food, such as bun kebabs from Nursery or a Hanifia burger and a Pakola from Boat Basin.
She adds that once she retires, she would like to open up a khoka – with a twist – since she has an interesting concept in mind for it.
For the time being, however, she has some definite goals in mind that have to do with advertising only. She says that she would love to “work on sustainability solutions and experiment with alternative media, because that is the next frontier. I would also like to work on more campaigns for foreign markets.”
Clearly, the lady has plans.
Mamun M. Adil is Assistant Manager, Business Development & Research, DAWN. firstname.lastname@example.org