Published in Jul-Aug 2019
To say that Zehra Zaidi is a creative powerhouse is to state the obvious. In the 15 or so years that she has spent in the advertising industry, she has established a reputation for crafting insightful communications that have won multiple awards (most recently, four Effies for Coca-Cola brands at the first Effie Awards in Pakistan in May this year) while representing Pakistan on several international platforms. It was therefore surprising that when Aurora decided to profile her, background research for the article became a challenge.
Zaidi has served as the Executive Creative Director for Coca-Cola brands at Ogilvy since 2014 and despite holding such a high profile position, her social media footprint is almost non-existent. This, in itself, is an anomaly in the advertising business where contacts, personal branding and online engagement are indicators of the relevance and importance of people in the profession. However, as her former colleague and close friend Atiya Zaidi (no relation) Executive Creative Director, JWT/GREY, explained, “It is tough to make Zehra talk about her achievements. She doesn’t network and showcasing her accomplishments is an alien concept to her.”
Atiya Zaidi’s remarks were on point because when I reached out to Zaidi to set up a meeting for the profile, her response was: “Are you sure you want to profile me? I mean I haven’t done enough to warrant an entire article.” After much convincing that if her sparse, yet striking LinkedIn profile and recommendations from her peers and the people she had mentored were anything to go by, she had achieved plenty.
As I waited in the dimly lit conference room of Ogilvy, given everything I had learnt so far about her, I was expecting to meet a shy, introverted person who may not want to say much. I could not have been more wrong. Zaidi was a vision in white as she breezed into the room and I found myself caught in a warm embrace followed by a barrage of questions: “Are you comfortable? Did you have trouble finding the office? Have you been waiting long? Is it too dark in here?” For a second, I was flustered because none of the people I had spoken to before meeting her had told me that I would find it difficult to get a word in once she starts talking. As she finally settled, I told her as much. The response? A nervous laugh, followed by the admission that although crowds make her nervous, “one-on-one conversations are so much fun and I tend to ramble!”
There was no looking back from that point on and the conversation flowed without my having to ask too many questions. She has an armed forces background and as a child did not spend too much time in the same city. It wasn’t until her father retired from the army that the family settled in Karachi and she was enrolled at the Convent of Jesus and Mary. A career in the creative arts was always on the cards because even as a child, billboards fascinated her and she recalls telling her mother on the way to school that she wanted to grow up and “put pictures and words together on the big boards on the road.” Perhaps the closest a child can come of dreaming of a career as a creative in advertising.
Given her inclinations, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) was an obvious choice even if her father had wanted her to become a doctor in the armed forces and continue the family tradition, but “medicine was not my cup of tea.”
Although her design degree at IVS proved extremely demanding (she even thought about dropping out every semester), it was during this phase that Zaidi became involved with commercial art and design projects. She credits her teachers (Shahid Abdulla, Noorjehan Bilgrami and Imran Mir to name a few) for spotting her potential and giving her freelance work so that by the time she graduated from IVS, she was set for a career in advertising.
Her first stint was as a creative manager at Lowe & Rauf (now MullenLowe Rauf) in 2000 where she spent three years. During this time, she married and smilingly told me that the story of how she met her husband was as clichéd as ever. “My husband was working for a telco brand which was a client of the agency and we met while doing a project together.” They moved to Canada soon after but returned after a year because they did not adjust to the life there.
“Well, I received a scholarship for a course at the Creative Leadership Programme at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership in 2018 and a few years ago, I was one of Pond’s Miracle Women. And I designed logos for Khaadi and OPTP too, although I am not sure if that is worth mentioning.”
After returning, she joined IAL Saatchi & Saatchi as an associate creative director for a year. It was there that Imtisal Abbasi advised her to develop her skill set beyond designing and start thinking conceptually about brand communications. The advice proved to be invaluable when she was hired at Adcom as an executive creative director. During the six years that she spent there, she was part of several major brand launches including Tarang. Despite the interesting portfolio of brands she was working on, the continuous late sittings began to take their toll as both her daughters were young and needed time and attention.
So she made the choice young mothers working in agencies often do: she resigned. At the time she was not considering working at another agency but admits that when she received a call to the effect that there was an opportunity at Ogilvy to work on Coca-Cola, it was an immediate yes because “Coca-Cola is a brand that every creative dreams of working on.”
She adds that not only did Coca-Cola prove to be a great client that allows creative freedom without budget constraints, Ogilvy proved to be an ideal employer.
“My timings here are flexible and because most of the agency team is in Lahore, all the presentations and brainstorming sessions are virtual.”
However, Zaidi believes that women working in advertising tend to put too much pressure on themselves by not learning to say no to the constant expectations of staying late and working weekends because they believe that a male colleague in the same situation would not do so. She adds that while she was representing Pakistan at the 30for30 Women In Leadership event in Bangkok in May, she learned the importance of speaking up for herself if work pressures become too intense.
“I realise now that you can still deliver quality work on time without staying late every day because creativity has nothing to do with being physically present at your desk. The good thing is that both clients and agencies are starting to accept that now.”
A quick glance at the recorder showed that our conversation had gone well beyond the one-hour mark and I knew it was time to wrap up. Remembering her self-effacing nature, I jokingly asked her if there were any other achievements she might have failed to mention. After a pause her sheepish response was: “Well, I received a scholarship for a course at the Creative Leadership Programme at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership in 2018 and a few years ago, I was one of Pond’s Miracle Women. And I designed logos for Khaadi and OPTP too, although I am not sure if that is worth mentioning.”
And that is Zaidi for you. A woman of many accomplishments who does not toot her own horn and believes that doing good work is enough to make a name for yourself.
One accomplishment that she does speak about is her drumming skills. She has a drum set at home, although she says she has not played for a long time and was never very good at it.
However, by this time point in our conversation, I am well aware that Zaidi has a tendency to downplay her talents and achievements and so I will hold off on making a call on her drum playing ability until I can experience it for myself. This may happen sooner rather than later because now that her youngest daughter has learnt to play the guitar, they sometimes jam together and I have an invitation to drop by for the next session.