First published in January-February 2009
“My son’s school was doing something on professions the other day and he was baffled about how to represent me because I don’t wear a white coat or a stethoscope,” says Farahanaz Haider Shaikh, as she talks about her life in advertising.
As she laughs at the reminiscence, it is hard to believe that this is the same person, who just 30 minutes ago, ushered me into her office with the most deadpan expression on her face and got straight down to the business of talking about her professional life after the most minimal pleasantries.
Haider is a personality in her own right. If you move in advertising circles, chances are that you have heard something about her. There is the obvious stuff: she is Executive Creative Director at JWT Pakistan; she is married to Mansoor Karim Shaikh, President, JWT Pakistan. Then there are the more subjective observations, that her attitude is very touch-me-not and businesslike.
This means that if like me, you are meeting Haider for the first time, you really don’t know what to expect. Actually it would be incorrect to say that this was our first meeting. I met her initially in the most peripheral manner on the sets of a daily morning show at DawnNews. But if anything, the fleeting nature of that meeting helped to cement rather than contradict the reports of her aloof personality.
However, just 10 minutes into what is technically our second meeting, Haider warms up considerably. Does she improve on further acquaintance or is the warmth a by-product of the passion she feels for her career? Possibly, a bit of both.
As we talk about her various career moves – and ‘various’ really is the right word since she has worked at no less than five agencies: Lowe & Rauf (then R:Lintas), Creative Unit, Blazon, Spectrum and finally JWT (which used to be Asiatic when she joined), the question that keeps revolving in my mind is the one about her relationship with her boss, who also happens to be her husband. After all, let’s face it; if you are a reporter worth your salt, along with the tidbits about her professional journey, this is what you really want to know.
Famed though she may be for her reticence, Haider doesn’t so much as bat an eyelash when I ask how she met her husband and what the experience of working with him has been like. In fact, it is almost as if she was expecting me to ask those questions.
“Mansoor and I have worked together for a long time. We first worked at Blazon together, where he was the account manager and I was the creative manager, so we have had our fair share of professional clashes.”
She further reveals that it was in fact Shaikh who asked her to come to JWT.
“We reconnected at JWT and then just slipped into the role of husband and wife.”
Sounds fairly simple and easy, but it isn’t because as Haider points out, she and Shaikh are both in very high pressure positions and sometimes the real difficulty lies in switching off their advertising brains once they get home.
“I’m very family oriented, so once I’m home, I’m a mother and a wife. But I always have to be the one who draws that line between home and work and that is where the heated arguments often take place.”
She may be drawing lines for her husband at home but at work she has the utmost respect for his professional abilities.
“Mansoor went to Contract (Advertising) for a few years when it was a failing proposition and I really admire the way he turned it around. So when it was time for him to head JWT, I was all for it because I knew he would give this agency a fresh perspective.”
Haider also her own plans to give the agency a new dimension and foremost on her agenda is making JWT Pakistan the first Pakistani agency to win an international advertising award.
“We have to up our game and it is critical for the industry to have competition. In India, there is an award happening almost every month, so there is a great deal of recognition for good work.”
Winning an award may not be as simple as it sounds for Pakistan’s advertising industry which is still stuck in the antiquity that is the 30-second TV spot. Haider is in complete agreement with this saying that in international award competitions TVCs don’t score as highly as new and innovative mediums.
“Life is so interesting and fast-paced these days that consumers have to be hunted and entertained, rather than making them realise that the entertainment has been cut short and the commercial break has started.”
Yet, how does an agency actively work towards winning an award? Is there a method, a secret formula or even a science for this? Haider explains her approach saying that JWT is seriously talking to all of its clients about doing truly 360 degree campaigns, where consumers have the chance to interact with the brand. Additionally several creative and strategic people from the Pakistan office are being embedded into the regional JWT offices to absorb new ways of thinking.
Even as JWT Pakistan takes such measures, Haider is cognisant of the fact that it will not be easy to convince clients to step outside the box in these recession hit times. But she remains optimistic about Pakistan’s resilience to bounce back and believes that if anything, a recession is a great opportunity for cost-effective creativity.
She is equally transparent about her own future plans.
“I have worked my way up and risen through the ranks, so the next step will be to make a regional move – I would really like to see that happen.”
In the meantime, she is very keen to tutor and mentor young creatives saying that she feeds off the energy from young people who have no preconceived notions at all.
Thus ends the chat with Haider and I leave with the feeling that all the talk about her being aloof is just hogwash. Yet when I call and email later to check on a few details, her responses are precise yet detached which leads me to believe Haider is one of those people who are very difficult to really get to know.
That being as it may, her former employers speak of her glowingly. For example, Tannaz Minwala, GM and Art Director at Creative Unit goes so far as to say that Haider is “egoless”.
High praise indeed and perhaps an insight into the enigmatic personality of Farahnaz Haider.