Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2018

When no mountain is high enough

Saqib Zia, Commercial Leader Pakistan, P&G, in profile.

If someone describes Head & Shoulders, a brand that they worked on, as their “first love”, chances are that you will think they are being a tad pretentious. But when Saqib Zia, Commercial Leader Pakistan, P&G, does so in his convincing, soft-spoken manner, you can’t help but believe him.

As our conversation unravels, what surfaces is that Zia is anything but pretentious. Although he does fall prey to jargon (something most marketing professionals do, especially if they work at an MNC), he (thankfully) also has a sense of humour. This is apparent when he comments that everyone at P&G receives a book filled with jargon when they join and he can give me a copy.

Zia realised that he wanted to pursue marketing while he was studying at Hamdard University, mainly because the thought of number crunching was not his “thing” and the marketing students there were considered the “cool kids.” After doing his MBA, a short stint in the Client Services department at JWT Pakistan followed. After that he worked at Shell, and describes his time there as one that entailed “pure selling”; he was stationed in Sukkur and spent some time in Multan, Rahimyar Khan and Rawalpindi.

Four years later, he was hired by P&G despite the fact, as he points out, that the organisation usually hires fresh graduates, many of whom interned there.

“I was told that: ‘You’re not at the beginning of your career and as we hire ground up, joining us will mean letting go of your four years.’”

Nevertheless, Zia joined because for “anyone who is interested in marketing, it does not get better than P&G.” But he did tell his interviewers that the four years that he had spent at Shell would not go to waste, as he had learnt a lot there, revealing his intrinsic optimism.

After spending four years at P&G in Karachi (where he worked on brands such as Pur and Head & Shoulders), he was transferred to Dubai as Regional Brand Manager, Female Personal Beauty, for the Arabian Peninsula region. Next, he was posted to Geneva as Global Brand Manager Duracell and later promoted to Regional Manager. In these positions, he worked for different regions including Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, after which he returned to Pakistan in his current capacity in 2015.

Zia is not prone to harping on his achievements. When I comment that his career trajectory is impressive, his response is simply: “P&G has a very clear-cut career progression; we have a ‘promote from within’ culture and they develop people accordingly.”

What is important to him is the ability to have fun and this comes through when he describes many of the projects he worked on, including signing on Shahid Afridi as the brand ambassador for Head & Shoulders (his first love). He says it is “such a solid brand. It has a nice persona; it’s like a confident, smart, young man, who gets things done.”


“I was in New York and someone asked me what I did; I said I work for Duracell and their reaction was: ‘Oh, I just bought a Duracell charger. You guys have changed them completely; they look so nice and are so useful.’”


Another achievement he is proud of is partnering Duracell (when it was owned by P&G) with Lucasfilm. “I was sitting with my team and we were trying to figure out what we were going to do for Duracell’s next Christmas initiative. We started looking at device trends and the research we had conducted and Star Wars – The Force Awakens popped up.”

The concept that was eventually arrived upon was that ‘Duracell Powers The Lightsaber’ and Zia and his team ended up presenting the idea to Jeffrey Jacob Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy (the people behind the film) in the US. Subsequently, in North America, Duracell became the official global battery partner for Star Wars; the Lightsabers and Wookies which were available in stores were powered by Duracell. “The results,” says Zia, “were quite good; it is one of the biggest initiatives we have done on a global level and the success can be gauged by the fact that Duracell continues to have a sustained partnership with Disney (which acquired Lucasfilm).”

Another thing important to Zia is the fact that his work makes a difference in people’s lives. While this may sound slightly ‘out there’ (after all, marketing is all about selling a product, isn’t it?), Zia says that he finds it rewarding when people tell him that dandruff is no longer an issue for them after using Head & Shoulders. He recalls another incident which he describes as one of the happiest moments of his life.

“I was in New York and someone asked me what I did; I said I work for Duracell and their reaction was: ‘Oh, I just bought a Duracell charger. You guys have changed them completely; they look so nice and are so useful.’”

Clearly, P&G is where Zia wants to be; he says that he has made some of his best friends there (he draws his “energy from people”) including his wife, Saba, who works in sales. He jovially comments that being married to her gives him the chance to complain about co-workers knowing that his words will not go further.

He is also, self-admittedly, not a workaholic (he is probably the first person I have profiled to say this); he has a young son and his priority is to spend as much time with him as possible. He has what I would term a ‘paternal side’ and this is apparent when he says that developing people is a “passion point”; he has held multiple training sessions as a global trainer.

“I find the positive impact the training has had on people extremely rewarding.”

He also takes pride in the fact that he returned to Pakistan to head the Marketing Department, where his journey began, something which allows him to “give back to Pakistan.”

This brings to the fore another ‘passion point’ although he doesn’t necessarily describe it thus: Pakistan. He is a self-confessed patriot and a director at the Citizens Archives of Pakistan (CAP). He finds it extremely inspiring to see people like Amean Jan and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy working for the organisation without “any vested interest” and calls it the “noblest” thing he has ever been part of: preserving the country’s history and its culture. That is not to say that he sees Pakistan through rose-tinted glasses; he is too much of a realist – and a control freak (his words) to do so.


Zia exudes a child-like enthusiasm that is almost contagious when he speaks; however, it cannot be mistaken for a lack of depth. He comments that self-doubt is something that stops people from achieving what they want and points out that the chances of him joining P&G were slim, given that he did not intern there; nor did he come from an institution such as IBA or LUMS, yet, he managed to do so. His advice to people is, “don’t let self-doubt prevent you from achieving your goals and make the best of every situation.”


Zia is now the Chairman of the Pakistan Advertisers’ Society (PAS) and this takes up a substantial amount of his time. In the spare moments he has, he will read anything from Calvin & Hobbes and The Iron Druid Chronicles to Atonement. He is also learning to play the guitar as his son is playing the bongo and he is “trying to keep up with him.”

Zia exudes a child-like enthusiasm that is almost contagious when he speaks; however, it cannot be mistaken for a lack of depth. He comments that self-doubt is something that stops people from achieving what they want and points out that the chances of him joining P&G were slim, given that he did not intern there; nor did he come from an institution such as IBA or LUMS, yet, he managed to do so. His advice to people is, “don’t let self-doubt prevent you from achieving your goals and make the best of every situation.”

To illustrate his point, he quotes boxer Muhammad Ali: “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”

Clearly, for Zia, there really is No Mountain High Enough – he will find a way to deal with the pebble, thanks to a determination somewhat camouflaged by his affable personality.