Anusha Zahid profiles Vanessa Nabia Muzaffar.
It is Saturday afternoon and peak lunch hour at Espresso Dolmen Mall. The restaurant is full of people, chatter and noise, with a hint of music playing in the background. I spot a young woman sitting at a corner table scrutinising her mobile screen. I am not really sure whether I am approaching the right person – she looks much younger than her age; more like a college-going girl rather than someone who heads the creative department of a multinational agency. I walk towards her.
Clad in dark-blue jeans and a black sleeveless top, her hair is cut into a bob. Wearing a pair of glasses, she is makeup free. And yes, she is indeed Vanessa Nabia Muzaffar, Creative Group Head, JWT Pakistan.
Knowing that she has been feeling slightly under the weather lately, I begin by inquiring about her health and thanking her for taking time for the meet up. “I’m feeling a lot better now,” she says, her voice still hoarse. Yet, she orders a chilled espresso.
Born in Courbevoie (a north-western suburb of Paris), Muzaffar is half-French and half-Pakistani. Although she lost her French mother when she was just two months shy of turning two, she terms her early childhood as “the happiest years of her life; full of laughter and fun, spent among hills, forests, greenery and lots of lavender.”
She fondly remembers the smell of her grandparents’ home in Paris, even the shampoo they used and the food they cooked and her aunt’s massive house in Bollene, next to a forest where she spent all day playing during her holidays with cousins.
At five, her father moved back to Pakistan, bringing Muzaffar along and leaving behind his older daughter with her maternal grandparents. By that time, Muzaffar says she had become quite an unruly child. This was due to everyone spoiling her and indulging her every whim following the demise of her mother. Hence, her paternal grandparents in Karachi had a hard time coming to terms with their granddaughter who only spoke French and just a few words of Urdu.
“If I didn’t get my way, I would throw water at them, lock them in their room and throw the keys in the neighbour’s house,” she admits, somewhat embarrassed.
Everything changed when her father remarried and her stepmother came into the picture. Extremely close to her to this day, Muzaffar says her stepmother not only disciplined her, she also taught and perfected her English.
Following her schooling at the Convent of Jesus & Mary, and A levels from The Lyceum, Muzaffar planned on pursuing a degree in law in Canada. Her dada, whom she calls her guide, wanted her to become a lawyer, “someone like Quaid-i-Azam and who could perhaps go on to become a prime minister! We had great plans.”
The great plans, however, did not come to fruition, which she blames on her own ignorance. As she had a French passport, she assumed she would not need a Canadian student visa and didn’t apply for one. The revelation came to her a few days before she had planned to fly, but by then it was too late and the ‘court’ ambition was shelved. Instead, she enrolled at Szabist.
During her years at The Lyceum, she had developed an interest in media and did a stint at FM91 as an RJ. She liked it because “I could share my opinions, thoughts and whatever my passion points were, be they current affairs or animal rights.”
At Szabist, instead of opting for law, she picked media studies (major in advertising and minor in film studies) as she did not know which path she wanted to take. Although her dada had envisioned something else for her, he fully supported her decision and encouraged her.
“Contrary to my parents who were very passive, he was very keen on knowing what I was planning ahead and treated me like a proper adult.”
During her university days, she continued working in radio, did freelance writing jobs and began writing short stories. She also did her thesis on Islamic Feminism. Intrigued, I ask her why she chose the topic.
Muzaffar loves reading and dystopia and fantasy are her favourite genres. She loves The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones and wishes she were Khaleesi. “There were times when I preferred socialising more than anything else; but now, I do it only over the weekends.” Music also plays a big role in her life and she finds writing difficult without it. “Heaven forbid something happens to my headphones! My brain will just stop operating.”
“Because a lot of people had given me incorrect information about religion and this made me want to research the topic. I literally sold my soul to the project and became a hermit for about six months.”
She points to the grey in her hair and adds: “These grey hairs have been there since my thesis.”
The title of her thesis was: ‘Is Islam the reason why women are treated as lesser beings or is it just a misinterpretation of the religious texts?’
Once finished, she took a break and left for Paris. While there, one of her teachers from Szabist, Umair Mohsin, got in touch with her. He was working at a small advertising agency in Karachi called Media Idee and he offered her a job as a Creative Manager.
She joined Media Idee in 2012. “I was told I would be given all the guidance I needed but I got none. I learned everything myself. I was thrown into the practical word and I really began enjoying the role.” She worked at the agency for two years.
As she had continued to work for FM91 part-time, one day she ran into Salman Abedin, another of her Szabist teachers and who was then working at JWT. There was a vacancy for a Senior Copywriter in the digital wing and he asked if she was interested. “I knew I was cut out for bigger things and not for smaller agencies; I accepted the offer.”
JWT, according to Muzaffar, was a great learning experience and provided the best of mentors. Shakeel Hassan (then ECD, JWT) and Sara Moquim are the two people, she says, who constantly guided her.
“They were not the sort of people who hijacked your ideas. I had only two years’ worth of experience, yet, I was entitled to my own concepts and they would make sure that at least one was presented to the client.”
Although she admits there were times when she almost hated them for making her work until nine in the evening, looking back, she only has admiration for them. Her copy would be rejected, sometimes even 10 times, “but they wanted me to learn, to write copy that worked and had the right impact. They could have easily fixed it themselves, but they didn’t.”
From Senior Copywriter, she went on to become Creative Manager. By this time, Muzaffar was receiving a lot of offers from other agencies and just for the fun of it, she accepted an offer from Orient McCann in January 2016. “I really enjoyed JWT; I accepted the offer to see whether I could function outside that place.”
However, there were several issues at the agency and within a month, she decided to move back to JWT. “I feel bad for leaving them so soon though.”
Now Creative Group Head at JWT, Muzaffar has no plans to quit anytime soon. “I will always be an ad girl and if not, then definitely a fiction writer. Now, as I have gained more experience, my writing is a lot more structured.”
She is currently writing a children’s story/activity book called The Money Club for HBL – another client she enjoys working for.
Muzaffar loves reading and dystopia and fantasy are her favourite genres. She loves The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones and wishes she were Khaleesi. “There were times when I preferred socialising more than anything else; but now, I do it only over the weekends.”
Music also plays a big role in her life and she finds writing difficult without it. “Heaven forbid something happens to my headphones! My brain will just stop operating.”
Pets figure large in Muzaffar’s life; she has two cats and a dog and is an advocate of adopting stray animals and donates regularly for animal rescue. “Had it been a high-paying career, I would have gone into animal rescue.”
Last year, Muzaffar married a banker whom she refers to as her “sanity man.”
As for future plans, she has been toying with the idea of moving to France permanently because lately, “the tug is getting a bit too strong.” Although she visits her sister and grandparents regularly, she thinks in the long-run, it will be a good place for her children to grow up. “But that depends on how much effort I am willing to put into it now!”