Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

A man of few words

Published in Nov-Dec 2018

Khalid Naseem, Director Strategy, Firebolt63, in profile.

Up until October 17, the extent of my knowledge about Khalid Naseem was his designation and the agency he worked at – Director of Strategy at Firebolt63. Even though he has been a regular contributor to Aurora, we had only communicated over email. Upon learning that I would be profiling him, I had to rely on his LinkedIn profile and conversations with the people he had worked with to find out more.

Not only does he have an impressive résumé – he has led strategy planning at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, Blitz Advertising, JWT and Ogilvy Pakistan prior to joining Firebolt63 – he is acknowledged as one of the earliest “research and strategy people,” long before this was recognised as a specialised agency function in Pakistan.

Usually, the greatest challenge when working on any story is getting the appointment. In this instance, that was not the case because he agreed to a sit down on the very first call. The challenge turned out to be persuading him to speak about himself and his journey in advertising, subjects, he admitted, as he settled down to answer my questions in Firebolt63’s boardroom, he had never spoken about before.

Naseem did his schooling and higher education in Rawalpindi, aspiring for a career in medicine. As fate would have it, he did not score enough marks in Intermediate to be eligible for admission in a medical college, leaving him disappointed, disillusioned and dispirited. It was during this stressful period that he caught the advertising bug. He came across a TV show in which the male protagonist returns to Pakistan after acquiring an MBA degree and starts working at an ad agency. “I found the working environment of the agency so fascinating that I instantly decided that this was what I wanted to do.”

After graduating, he enrolled in the MBA programme at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, opting to major in marketing. His first brush with advertising came, when as part of the degree requirement, he interned at Orient Advertising. The weeks spent at the agency proved to be a great learning experience and once he had completed his MBA, Orient was the first place he applied to.

Naseem laments that during the late eighties (when he did his MBA), universities typically offered only one specialised course in advertising and “I had no idea which department I wanted to work in.”

In the initial weeks at Orient, he was rotated across various departments so that both he and the management could gauge where he would fit in best. Although almost three decades have passed since, he vividly remembers his first day on the job, and not for happy reasons. “I was asked to sit in the media department and spent the day cutting out ads from newspapers and filing them, and watch the cumbersome process of release orders upon release orders being prepared and sent to clients.”

For a young man brimming with youthful optimism, the drudgery and monotony of those early days plunged him into a depression, with only one question playing on a loop in his mind: “If this is what I will be doing, then what was the point of spending time and money on an MBA degree?”

Thankfully, after a few weeks, his boss, Mahmood Hashmi, having observed his inquisitive nature and his knack for making sense of numbers, appointed him as Assistant Manager Research. This was a time when technology and the internet were non-existent in Pakistan and conducting research for existing and new clients entailed “conducting face-to-face interviews with consumers and retailers, recording them on a Walkman and later, jotting down the insights on paper.”

The two-year stint at Orient gave Naseem the opportunity to observe at close quarters how an agency works, knowledge he believes was critical for his professional growth and career progression.

His time at Orient came to an end when he contracted a serious eye problem and had to come to Karachi for treatment. Once he recovered, his financial situation compelled him to look for work and instead of returning to Islamabad, he went to see Dr Junaid Ahmed at National Management Consultants (NMC), whom he had met during his time at Orient and who had promised him a job if he ever moved to Karachi. He spent a year at NMC when his love for advertising pulled him back into the ad world in the early nineties. He learnt of an opening in the research department at Blazon Advertising, which was then affiliated with Grey.

By this point in our conversation, I realised that Naseem is a study in contradictions. He comes across as a calm and quiet person, not easily excitable and completely at ease with himself. Yet, his career has been defined by transitions from one role to the next, always triggered by “the need for change and risks that would push me out of my comfort zone.”

Naseem was quick to realise the learning potential the job offered, realising that he would be able to learn how Grey conducted market research globally. Even better, he had the opportunity to work on P&G brands such as Rejoice. The client recognised his ability to glean useful insights from research statistics and devise brand strategies, so much so that when Naseer Haider was looking to fill a vacancy in the Research & Planning Department at IAL (which was handling Ariel at the time) he was recommended by the client for the position. The switch to IAL proved to be a career-defining decision because for the first time, he understood the mechanics of strategy planning.

“Creatives decide how to convey the brand message; the media department decides when and where to convey the message but it is the strategy planning people who determine what the content of the message should be.”

Naseem says the three years he spent at IAL were challenging, but thanks to the vision and mentorship of Haider, they were also the time when he was given the opportunity to hone his craft and acquire the new skills needed for research and planning in a changing advertising world.

“The internet had come in by then and we had access to the office intranet, which had international strategy planning papers and case studies. A tremendous opportunity for self-learning was there and I made full use of it.”

As much as he enjoyed working at IAL, towards the end of the third year, dissatisfaction began to creep in. “I had had enough of advertising because I felt there wasn’t enough professional growth and it was time for a change.”

By this point in our conversation, I realised that Naseem is a study in contradictions. He comes across as a calm and quiet person, not easily excitable and completely at ease with himself. Yet, his career has been defined by transitions from one role to the next, always triggered by “the need for change and risks that would push me out of my comfort zone.”

The change, in this case, turned out to be drastic, because he joined Bayer CropScience as Manager Market Research. The fact that he had no experience in the agricultural sector did not deter him and he was confident he would prove his worth and move up the ranks quickly. However, despite the fact that he was earning well, the work soon became monotonous and when a vacancy opened up at IAL again, he didn’t think twice before moving back.

Although he has worked at almost all the top agencies in Pakistan, Naseem considers the four years he worked as Director Planning at JWT (between 2004 and 2008 when Karim Rammal was President) as the best years of his career. In addition to winning accounts such as Olper’s and Aquafina, he credits Rammal for creating an enabling environment and encouraging people to step up and take charge.

Before assuming his present role at Firebolt63 (in 2014), he moved to Doha with his family after being the target of a mugging, and spent two years working at a small agency in an industry still in its infancy. For a man who is driven by challenges, this must have been a difficult period. He, however, has no regrets because “my family was happy even if I was not and that was enough.”

This gave me a glimpse into yet another facet of his personality – Naseem, the family man. Ask him about his daughters and for the first time, I see the glimmer of a smile. Although he usually has to work odd hours, he says that “Saturdays and Sundays are always for the family.” He adds that he is an extremely boring person who hasn’t taken a vacation in years. The only indulgence he allows himself is debating politics with friends and colleagues – the only other subject apart from strategy planning and his daughters that gets him talking.