Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2018

Arriving at Syed Ahmed Ali’s residence for the second time, I find him sitting precisely in the same corner of his room where I saw him last; in the same chair and almost in the same posture, watching television. I glance at the TV screen and recognising Colm Toibin and Kamila Shamsie in conversation on a BBC show, I figure it’s something pertaining to books or literature, a subject I know Ali is extremely fond of. I apologise for having disturbed him in the middle of the show and sit on the corner of the single bed placed next to where he is sitting (with his legs resting on a footstool and covered with a comforter). He is clad in a similar white spotless kurta I saw him in earlier, his silver hair combed in place. With his double-bridged spectacles on, he turns his head towards me, all attention to hear what I had come to discuss this time.

Ali is an advertising veteran who co-founded Fourays Advertising with three advertising colleagues: Mukhtar Azmi, Masood-ul-Haq and Khaula Qureshi.

Ali has served the advertising industry for nearly half a century. I paid my first visit to him earlier in December to interview him for The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017), a Special Report on 70 years of advertising in Pakistan. That conversation was more focused on his career. This time however, I aim to take him further back in time, long before he became one of Pakistan’s pioneers in advertising... towards his childhood, growing up in Lucknow, migrating to Pakistan and setting up Fourays.

Born on July 21, 1935, Ali was the second son of Syed Mashooq Ali, a successful lawyer in Lucknow, who practised in the chief court (equivalent to the high court) in Uttar Pradesh. Ali was the second among his siblings (three brothers and four sisters) all of whom were the products of Mashooq Ali’s second marriage to Syeda, daughter of Syed Zakir Ali, one of the signatories of the Pakistan Resolution, 1940, and in those days, the Joint Secretary of All-India Muslim League.

As his first wife did not have children, Mashooq Ali had to wait 18 years to become a father, as a result of which he brought his children up with extreme pampering.

“We didn’t know the word ‘no’. However, being coddled did not mean we could take liberties; we were equally disciplined.”

Unlike his siblings, Ali developed a keen interest in poetry (English, Urdu and Persian) as a child, a love he retains and says there are about 10,000 stanzas of Urdu poetry he can quote verbatim and which can fit into any required situation. He continued to read Persian poets long after it was no longer a part of his curriculum. His favourite poets remain Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, all of whom he read during his graduation days. Not surprisingly, he did his Master’s in English Literature.

Nor was I surprised when he tells me that from the very beginning, he felt an aversion towards science subjects; arithmetic in particular. “It drove me to the wall.” Sports though was an activity he did give his time to and played hockey, cricket, football, volleyball and badminton until his matriculation, after which, he switched entirely to cricket.“The game became my obsession.”

He says 1956 was a “momentous” year. He secured a first class Master’s degree, married and a few months later, lost his father.


“I took to advertising like a fish takes to water... it was a complete plunge.” Moreover, “my boss seldom asked any questions because he had complete faith in me. They knew I might be at fault here and there but I was not a crook or someone who would take the company for a ride.”


The following two years were spent in search of employment but “Independence had just been acquired and there was a lot of Hindu-Muslim tension. Many of my friends had migrated to Pakistan and were doing well there. I was in touch with them and they encouraged me to migrate and find a decent job.”

Ali left for Pakistan in August 1958, leaving behind his 18-month old son and expectant wife, both of whom (with their second son) eventually joined him in Pakistan later, where he landed a job as a lecturer in English Literature at Jamia Millia Government College in Malir. A few months later, he moved to Usmania College in Nazimabad, where he taught two sessions – morning and evening and earned Rs 400 a month; “it was a fortune in those days.”

And then came destiny...

As if designed by Providence, a family friend, Commodore Khalid Jamil, introduced him to Jamil Siddiqui, the head of Stronachs (a British advertising agency), who hired him. It was at Stronachs that he discovered his creative writing skills. Within days, he was copywriting, visualising and involved in every process of the business. This earned him an important position in the organisation.

“I took to advertising like a fish takes to water... it was a complete plunge.” Moreover, “my boss seldom asked any questions because he had complete faith in me. They knew I might be at fault here and there but I was not a crook or someone who would take the company for a ride.”

Then in 1961, he joined Adarts (owned by Wajid Mahmood) as Account Executive. The agency was later bought by Abdul Ghafour.

“I left Adarts because there was little work to do; I began looking for other options and since I knew someone at JWT (then Pakistan’s number one agency), I requested a meeting with Nusrat Bukhari.” The meeting proved fruitful. Bukhari took to Ali and hired him.

“I could tell that Mr Bukhari was not disappointed with me. He was conscious of the fact that I had the capacity to train people and correct them when need be, but he also let them use their initiative. You don’t want babus in executive positions.”

Ali’s growth at JWT was phenomenal. In 1969, he was selected by Bukhari as the person best suited to go for further training at JWT’s offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Manila and Tokyo.

Shorty after his return, he learned that Bukhari, due to disagreements with JWT New York, had decided to quit the agency. It was then taken over by Hasan Nawab Effendi. Then, after the loss of East Pakistan and to Ali’s disappointment (“it was a matter of pride to be a part of that establishment”) JWT closed down operations in Pakistan.


“This goes for any profession... one has to be an all-rounder to be successful. Take hunting for instance. It’s an entirely different ball game when you are shooting ducks and shooting partridges. If you are a hunter worth your salt, you should know how to shoot both. Both are shot when flying, although partridges are small and slow and ducks are fatter and fly higher. You require different ammunition for both.”


Having gained enough experience, Ali set the foundation of his own agency, Fourays, along with his three colleagues (mentioned earlier) in two rooms located on the ground floor of the annexe of the Palace Hotel in January 1972. Since the Haroon family (publishers of DAWN) were close friends, they eventually provided him with more spacious premises in the Al Haroon Building on Garden Road later.

“For any new setup, one needs finances, premises and people. I didn’t have the first two but my partners and I decided to contribute something regularly and put it in the bank. Also, visiting our clients, we honestly told them that it was a new setup and we were hard up and needed payment upfront and they agreed.”

“In all honestly, I didn’t have any teething problems, thanks to my friend up there (he points his finger towards the ceiling, referring to God). Ali was able to secure a number of major JWT clients, including the InterContinental Hotel chains.

Ali ran Fourays for almost 40 years and retired in January 2010. Despite some unpleasant experiences towards the end, he says, “I am very proud to have been in advertising and loved every minute of my association with the profession. If given a second lease of life and God asked me what I wanted, I would ask him to give me advertising again.”

This well-spoken, old school, charming gentleman (and a once debonair and avid hunter and golfer) is content that he has spent life ‘his way’. Now, he says, is the time to sit back and reflect. He spends most of his time watching TV or reading and sitting in that very chair.

“There is no cure in this world for old age,” he remarks smilingly (which he seldom does).

Before leaving, I ask him if he would like to say a few words to aspiring advertising proefessionals.

“This goes for any profession... one has to be an all-rounder to be successful. Take hunting for instance. It’s an entirely different ball game when you are shooting ducks and shooting partridges. If you are a hunter worth your salt, you should know how to shoot both. Both are shot when flying, although partridges are small and slow and ducks are fatter and fly higher. You require different ammunition for both.”

He ends with: “One must know everything about a required field, not only for your own satisfaction but also to give others the opportunity to stand up and clap.”