Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Strategic Thinker

Published in Nov-Dec 2020

Anusha Zahid profiles Muhammad Ali Khan, Associate Director, Creative and Strategy, Spectrum VMLY&R.

Despite the fact that I have known Muhammad Ali Khan for a couple of years now, this is the first time I am meeting him at Haroon House, where I have invited him to be interviewed for this profile. Ali (as we all call and know him), is Associate Director, Creative and Strategy, at Spectrum VMLY&R and one of Aurora’s most active writers. That he never makes excuses to not write is one thing I definitely know about him. As for the rest, I find out shortly.

Around quarter past eleven on a Saturday morning, a masked young man enters our office clad in black jeans, a jacket (or perhaps a blazer) and a light beige striped shirt. “Hi, Anusha! This is Ali,” he says.

As I recognise him and return his greeting, I wonder why on earth is he wearing a jacket in this hot weather and as he settles in a chair in front of me, here is how I pose it to him: “So is today a working day for you?” to which he responds “No, but I have so many engagements on Saturday that it turns out to be a working day anyway” (Hmm… hence the jacket, I suppose).

A young man of 26, Khan has had quite an eventful life. Although associated with advertising for only four years, he has been working since his college days. As the eldest among his siblings (a brother and a sister) the responsibility of earning for a financially struggling household fell on his shoulders early in life.

Born in Karachi, he moved with his family to Islamabad, when his father, who worked for Duty Free Shops was transferred there. According to him, those six or seven years spent in the capital were enough to turn him into an Islamabadi. He loves the city’s serenity and the fact that his maternal grandparents live there. However, that does not mean Karachi is not close to his heart, mostly because he enjoys the hustle and bustle and the pace of life. “I have often considered moving to Islamabad but then I think, if I live there, where would I go for my holidays? I need both cities.”

As a child he wanted to become a doctor. His early interest in the field came from the show The Magic School Bus – especially the episode in which the Magic School Bus explores the human body, which he found fascinating. He also spent his childhood years watching videos of doctors performing surgeries. However later, seeing him develop an interest in computer games and programming, his parents advised him to take up either computer science or engineering instead of medicine.

In 2010, Khan completed his matriculation from Karachi and the following year moved to Islamabad (on his own this time) to do his Intermediate. However, before even a year had passed, he was called back home due to growing problems within the family. Immediately after his return, he began working while at the time enrolling at the D.J Government Science College to complete his Intermediate.

He started working at 17 as a English language teacher at several learning centres in his neighbourhood – “that was the only skill I had back then” but kept looking for better opportunities, and after a few months, applied to the Pak-American Cultural Center and was hired to teach O’ Level English and prepare students (a lot older than him) for ESL exams… commuting every day from Gulistan-e-Jauhar to Clifton sitting on the roof of a bus and wearing a suit (it was mandatory).

As word went round, more people approached him to tutor their children and his earnings improved. He began teaching IELTS to students, which a few years later led him to become a certified teacher at The British Council and teach as their partner. As the business of teaching flourished, he established an English teaching institute in 2013, but after the first batch left, the number of students began to dwindle, and short on cash to keep the business afloat, he eventually shut it down.

However, even while he was earning relatively well, Khan knew that teaching was not a long-term career prospect.

“I now realise that every step I took led me to my next milestone. Everything was connected.”

He spent the next two years teaching in various schools around his neighbourhood – all the while studying at Karachi University, first as a sociology student and then moving on to mass communications. In 2016, he completed his honours in mass communications with a major in journalism. In 2017, he received his MA in Advertising and Public Relations.

It was the summer of 2016 when he stumbled across advertising for the first time. One of his mother’s colleagues (she too was a teacher), whose husband worked at Spectrum VMLY&R told him about an opening at the agency for a proof reader and copywriter. Reluctantly he applied on his mother’s insistence. It was at Spectrum that he met Zohra Yusuf, who was a familiar face and whom he had heard speaking at a conference (Teach for Peace at Dawood Public School) he attended as an English teacher earlier. Recalling Yusuf taking his interview he says she asked him where he saw himself in the next five years. “For some reason I replied ‘Sitting where you are’”. Her response was “We’ll see about that.”

Once offered the job, he resigned from all the schools he was teaching at. He had spent years toiling from one place to another, keeping up with his studies and working at the same time; now, he wanted a break and to focus on his new career.

The first year at Spectrum comprised entirely of copywriting and “most of my captions looked like headlines. But Zohra really mentored me and I learned so much from her”.

His first break as an advertising professional came in mid-2017, while working on a pitch for Yamaha. That is when he also met Shahnoor Ahmed (his CEO), for the first time and whom he found intimidating at first but now describes him as “an extremely charming man.”

According to Khan, he fell in love with advertising from the get-go. However, it was the strategy side that fascinated him most. In his opinion, strategists are the people who do all the leg work, such as study markets, look for insights and decide not only what needs to be said, but what the brand needs to do... and then connect all those insights into a creative thought. Not surprisingly the next turn in his career came when he was promoted to Associate Creative Manager in late 2017, as it was then that he began to strategise for brands.

In 2018, he was promoted to Manager Creative and Strategy and represented Pakistan at Spikes Asia in Singapore (his first trip outside Pakistan) which he terms his greatest achievement so far. Although he did not win the Young Spikes Integrated Competition, he considers the experience and the learning a win in themselves. In 2019, he was promoted to Associate Director Creative and Strategy, achieving year-on-year career growth for three consecutive years.

When I ask him why did he not move completely to strategy, he says, “I still want to develop concepts and write copy, because in this way I can better judge the creative potential of strategies I develop.”

Although he is content with what he is doing, in the long-term, like most advertising professionals, he sees himself working on the brand side. “Director Marketing of an MNC, Food and Beverage” (Hint: he wants to surprise his favourite brand Coca-Cola.) In the meantime, since last year, he started teaching in the Masters of Advertising Programme at SZABIST Karachi.

When he is not working, Khan likes to read, watch TV and spend time with his family; Breaking Bad is his all-time favourite show although he admits to having watched Mad Men about five times.

A young man who has seen his fair share of struggle, Khan’s perspective on life remains positive. His plans include seeing more of the world and although currently he does not have someone special in his life, he has already decided the timing of his wedding: “The first quarter of 2022.” Suffice to say, he plans his personal life as well as he does his professional life.