Interview with Ruby Haider, Chairman & CEO IAL Saatchi & Saatchi.
First published in November-December 2007
AURORA: When you took over as CEO last year, it was almost by default. What has it been like?
RUBY HAIDER: If I was married to Naseer for 36 years, I have been married to IAL for 36 years; that is the extent and the length of the duration of my relationship with IAL.
A: Did IAL ever overspill into the home?
RH: Naseer didn’t really speak about work at home. The only time we did talk about the agency was when he wanted to discuss a creative idea with me. Perhaps he appreciated my turn of phrase or the way I thought, because I sometimes saw something I had mentioned implemented.
A: What were you doing prior to formally joining IAL?
RH: I taught for 10 years at the Karachi Grammar School. I absolutely loved teaching. Of all the things I have done in my life, teaching is my single most favourite field. I did not leave Grammar School to go and do something else; I left because I was completely drained. Teaching consumes you completely. A few months later a recruitment ad from the public affairs department of the Agha Khan University (AKU) caught my eye. Although I wasn’t sure if I met the required qualifications, I nevertheless threw in an application and then I went to London. When I came back, Naseer told me the AKU had called. I went for the interview and much to my surprise I was offered the job. I worked at the AKU for six years and I loved it.
A: Why did you join IAL?
RH: In 1998 the process that was to lead to IAL being privatised had started and it was then that Naseer asked me to join the agency. My reaction was “what!” I was very happy at the AKU and had not thought of leaving. Now, Naseer was never a man to impose his will, but this time he insisted. So I finally joined as Executive Director and I have been here for nine years.
A: From a purely professional perspective, how difficult was the transition to agency head?
RH: During the 65 days that Naseer was in hospital last year, it became my routine to come to the office every day for a few hours. There were so many things happening at the agency; not least that suddenly this huge cellular giant (Mobilink) had smiled in our direction! I was quite apprehensive about (I did not realise it would be permanent) stepping into oversized shoes. Before that I was into my creative strategies. I knew nothing about management. In fact when I opened my first financial sheet, I was like ‘what is this?’ But I could see that the team was right behind me.
A: Were there any doubts about your abilities to take over?
RH: Everybody came together in a way that was unbelievable; something strange happened at IAL. There was this “we are there with you” feeling. Certainly, there is no denying that every iota of respect or consideration I enjoy from the industry, be it the media or clients, is because of Naseer’s professional ethics and perhaps at first there was a degree of compassion; a degree of 'Ruby is trying to do her best, so let’s be around for her'. But you cannot live off compassion forever. Eventually, you have to stand up and do something for yourself. Over this past year I have developed a sense of ownership on my own terms and now it is certainly no more ‘poor Ruby.’ In fact, it’s more like “watch out for Ruby. Where the heck does she think she is going?”
A: What has this past year been like?
RH: So much has happened. We have opened an office in Islamabad; we are, mash’Allah, one of the larger agencies in terms of billing and we are now moving into our own premises. And added to this, we have a creative strength that is absolutely enviable. Clients are approaching us; our communication is not only responded to, it is being been parodied all over the place. IAL is creating a buzz.
A: Why has this year been so good for IAL?
RH: I think it’s a little bit of what is called grace under fire. I believe everyone has the potential to do so much more than what they are already doing. When push comes to shove, you realise that your potential is far greater than you give it credit for. We have been noticed immensely because of Mobilink and the kind of media presence the account brings, especially over the electronic airwaves. Everything we have done for them has been commented upon and has created a kind of benchmark.
A: How much of this success has been due to your leadership?
RH: I don’t know whether I can call it my leadership. If I walk tall, it is because the team walks with me. I am not a ‘boss’ boss. I am very much a team person and if you ask me to name just one strength at IAL, I would say team, team, team!
A: How would you characterise your kind of leadership?
RH: I think that I have brought my own brand of management, which is a mixture of steel and silk. It is not easy to run an agency; it requires commitment, responsibility and the ability to take on more. You need to have gumption and a sense of ownership.
A: Like all agency heads, you must be facing problems of talent retention. How do you deal with this?
RH: The advertising industry has a very fast turnover, so sometimes you have to match, or even exceed the salary package. But retention is also about having a stake in the agency. Recognition is very important and if it can be monetary well and good, but it can also be jut two words: “well done.” Anyone running an agency must know who is doing what. If the end product is successful, it is important to remember that it is the whole team that made it happen. The senior people are standing on the strength of the entire team and one ought to know and recognise every person in the team. If you do that, your team realises that you are very much into their lives. If you are not aware of what the person in front of you is doing, how can you even think of chalking out a career path? I am forever moving around talking to the people working here. What also matters is the environment. People who have come to us from other agencies have commented on the open environment we offer; the fact that their ideas are listened to and appreciated. In this way there is enablement. IAL is not a seth based bureaucratic setup where nobody can answer a question but the seth himself. Our biggest resource at IAL is what walks out of the gate every evening.
A: How does IAL nurture creativity?
RH: The most important thing is the idea. Most of the time, through our communication, we talk at people, not to them. Why do we call people consumers. Surely they are people like you and I? And what do we mean by target audience? It makes it sound like some kind of game or hunt! If we get out of that marketing jargon and see the experience of real people, the ideas will flow, because ideas are there to make a brand live in the hearts of people. And you do that by responding to their needs and meeting their aspirations.
A: How much do you rely on research?
RH: We use research consistently. P&G will not move without it and Mobilink is getting more involved in research. In fact, the parameters of quantitative or qualitative research are changing. I always say that you just can’t have insight, you also need vision. The vision is in finding the differentiation. Look at our Mobilink Jazz campaign. The creative strategy revolves around the idea of ‘Khul kay bolay Pakistan’. It is all about a vibrant, lively Pakistan. You may call it filmy or theatrical, but what is wrong with film music? What is wrong with a bit of dancing? The idea has something for everybody; across all geographical boundaries and social classes. We could have expressed Khul kay bolay as ‘reshaping the parameters of communication for the nation’. But by doing it this way, the campaign has become a buzzword and people are talking about it. An idea is not something that has to be couched within the complexities of language. And an idea is only as strong as the moment it lives in; you lose the moment, you lose the idea. There is no defined process to arrive at an idea, except a whole lot of conversation.
A: As one of the few women heading an ad agency, do you see yourself as a role model?
RH: I have always been biased towards women, not because I am a woman, but by virtue of the multitasking a woman is expected to do so early in her life. However, to succeed you do not need to do things like a man; if I did that, my whole persona would change. I can be the head of an agency as effectively as a man can and perhaps even more! My experience this past year has been interesting. This is a country where you would not imagine support for women, yet if you are able to communicate that you are serious about what you are doing and you have true resonance inside you, then men enable you. This is a very good thing for Pakistan, because we are not a small minded nation. I have found nothing but respect and that says something about my country.
A: Did you imagine when you stepped into Naseer’s shoes a year ago that you would be the confident agency head you are today?
RH: There is adversity, but you can learn from adversity. What is life without challenge? I mean if you want to live a straight life you might as well be a tree, then somebody comes and chops you up.
A: In retrospect, are you glad Naseer asked you to join IAL?
RH: I am so glad he asked me to marry him. And I am so glad that he asked me to come over to IAL. I was really quite the reluctant bride initially, but now I am so glad!