Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Interview: Rashna Abdi

Published in Nov-Dec 2020

Chief Creative Officer, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, about relevance in the age of Covid-19.

AURORA: Why did you decide to make a career in advertising?
In Pakistan to date, advertising is the epitome of creative expression – writing, design, film, art and music. If you want access to multi-diverse creative expression, this is the place to be. We get to be writers, filmmakers, designers and game-changers every day. I love writing, art and film. This is the only place where I get to do all three. My journey to advertising was not terribly straightforward. I started in journalism, working for She magazine and later left to work at the News under the guidance of Imran Aslam who was then the editor. Afterwards, I went to the UK to study TV and film. When I returned, I worked for Saqib Malik. Around that time, I also felt the need for greater purpose, which is why I worked on a few documentaries on the environment and climate when it was not the subject du jour. During this time, I also worked with Satish Anand at Eveready Productions on TV content. So, a very ‘Millennial’ start to my career. What I am truly grateful for are the mentors who came my way; I have been super lucky that way.

A: Why the switch from journalism to film production?
I love film. It is a lifelong fascination, which stems from my father and my paternal grandmother. Coming from Bombay they were massive film buffs – it is a very Bombay thing. Every new film had to be seen – and seen in the cinema. Even when good films stopped coming to Pakistan, my Dad and I would still go to the cinema and watch all those Kung Fu and karate films that had started coming in. And that just fuelled the love of film. To the point where I would drag my friends to the Sunday matinees of any half-decent Pakistani film that was out. Advertising turned out to be a good fit in this regard.

A: What year did you join IAL?
November 2000. It will be 20 years this year. Though I like to tell everyone that I started off very young and it was child labour, which incidentally is now my standard ice-breaker remark when meeting new clients.

A: Did you join the creative department?
Yes, as a copywriter. In those days I wrote a lot of TV concepts, which I enjoyed tremendously and still do. I love to write and tell stories and I get to do this on a daily basis, which is great. I think it was meant to be; twice before I had been referred to advertising agencies by friends and had bypassed both opportunities in favour of others. I may be the oddest anomaly – hopping from production to advertising when the norm seems to be the opposite.

A: In your opinion what would be the major changes that have occurred since you entered the profession – not least the fact that today agencies no longer handle media?
When I joined IAL, Imtisal (Abbasi) had already convinced the management to move away from media buying and into pure creative work, to structure the agency on international lines focusing on creativity as opposed to making a fast buck on media. IAL was a little ahead and remains so. Nida (Haider Khan) returned after many years working in the US advertising industry and brought greater focus to planning. Her success with strategy made planning fashionable again. Another change has been the inclusion of digital. We had to re-learn the business and adapt accordingly and it’s been super exciting. We have an exclusive capacity building arrangement with Google and much more. Sadly a change that has not been for the better is the level of toxicity in the industry, the desire to tear everything apart, far too many jaded people – to paraphrase Top Gun – whose egos are writing cheques their talent cannot cash; the need to blame everyone else for their own failings. When I joined the industry, it was an exciting place to be, there was hope and promise, the will to experiment and learn; above all, the need to express.

A: What about quality in terms of people and creativity?
The foundation of the value set for a creative is no longer creative expression, it is now simply money. We as an industry are collectively to blame for this. We have not been able to sell them the promise of the industry. I don’t know what the PAA has done to make the industry look cool. Abroad, advertising bodies do this on a proactive basis, collaborating with academia. We are just not cool or desirable to be associated with. Young people would rather head to digital. So the only way to get the right talent now is to offer an obscene amount of money. If we want to truly find and retain good talent, we need to collaborate with institutions at a grass-roots level and perhaps even offer scholarships, have regular open houses and job fairs. It is time for serious introspection across the industry. Another change is the fact that some of the bigger agencies are not as powerful or as influential as they once were, partly because, unlike IAL, they have not evolved.

A: When you say the other agencies have not evolved as much as IAL, what has IAL done differently?
Other agencies have not walked the talk if that makes sense. I still know of agencies that deduct salaries for coming late. This kind of punishment is better suited to sarkari (government) offices not advertising agencies. Agencies need a more trusting environment. IAL has a very generous maternity policy and we had a WFH policy way before other agencies. The truth is other agencies may poach our talent but the same talent does not have the same level of success at that agency. Plus, owners don’t necessarily have to be managers. Professional managers should be running the agency and reporting to the board. Agencies need to evolve with the times. If I have stuck around so long, it is because I have not seen this in any other agency.

A: To what extent have the challenges of attracting talented people been compounded by the so called ‘Millennial’ attitude to work?
The issue is not that they are not smart or talented; they function on the ‘gig’ economy model, going from one gig to the other. The notion they are being fed is that job hopping improves their career path. Make no mistake, I get where they are coming from, having done it myself. Agencies need to evolve and offer more than simply money. They need to keep their talent excited, give them the freedom to fail and remove the BS layers of bureaucracy. When I tell younger colleagues that there is merit in sticking to a job when they find one that makes them happy, I actually know what I am talking about! It’s alright to get restless and feel the need to switch jobs to off-set that restlessness. We all go through this. In fact, I think most of us go through this at least once every year. Truth is, sometimes, what you really need at that point is a good old-fashioned break, vacation, staycation, whatever works – and switch off for a bit. My advice to all those who do decide to quit is to do so on a good note, an honest one. No BS stories about wanting to study abroad or going to Dubai.

A: Who is feeding them these notions?
From what I understand, they acquire these notions from university. Then again, if we haven’t been able to make it exciting for them, then we can hardly expect academia to make it exciting for them. I would love to use this platform to reach out to the academia and work with them. I have spoken to industry peers about reaching out to students, to create greater engagement. It’s time we give back, not just in terms of training and workshops but access.

A: How do you handle their inclination to job hop?
Give them an environment that is enabling and empowering and stop deducting their salaries for coming in late. Give them respect and access. How many agencies have an employment engagement programme or a WFH policy? Give them that space. Start trusting them. We need to start looking inwards and not get into a blame game all the time. There is still good talent out there. Get the ones with the light in their eyes, the ones untainted by the negativity found on some Facebook groups. Teach them, talk to them and empower them. Some of the best brainstorming sessions have been with management trainees. They are awesome and I will play on their side anytime. Experience and pure gumption can make a winning combination. This culture is unique to IAL.

A: Could another reason for agencies failing to attract the brightest and the best be the fact that advertising has lost its zing?
We have to sell them the dream that is advertising. And believe in that dream ourselves. Excite incoming talent and keep them infatuated. Agencies need to be less regimental and evolve to the gig economy. Design the work environment accordingly and encourage self-expression. Here we have senior management who are subject matter experts, so the quality of the dialogue is different. There are ongoing employee engagement surveys. We do regular mentorship connects, talks by experts and international trainings. Collaboration is key and we should be able to reach out to each other. And while the quality of creative communication definitely needs improvement, let’s do it constructively and proactively and not with constant negativity. We will be less and less likely to attract good talent if we continue to be filled with self-loathing as an industry. Whatever happened to intelligent discourse?

A: As Chief Creative Officer of a major agency in Pakistan, do you find that there is sometimes a tension in owning the creative space, in so far as that a media or a digital agency may feel that they are better placed to take the creative lead for a client?
I am surprised to hear this. From IAL’s perspective there are no issues. We work effectively and very well within a multi-agency universe. We respect the media and digital agencies and they respect us – and we work in tandem. It is the accepted norm that when the brief is sent, the creative agency is expected to take the lead. The creative agency briefs the media, digital and activation agencies. Of course, they may come up with suggestions on how to make a campaign stronger, but we have never had any issues with our agency partners. When agency partners lock horns it is to the detriment of the client. The biggest ego in the room should be the brand. It may sound like a cliché, but it is a lot easier to work with them than to work against them.

A: What if the big idea comes from an agency partner?
When it does, we embrace those ideas. This is not happening often right now, although it can and should. It’s about the brand and not about one individual or organisation. If your brands do well and sales are up, clients are happy and everyone wins. Simple. Luckily, we get to work with very talented agency partners, be it digital, activation or media.

A: Hypothetically, if you were to leave advertising tomorrow, what would you like to do most?
Why would I need to leave advertising to do what I want to do most? I get to do everything I want to do while at the job. I co-wrote Ho Mann Jahan, Asim Raza’s first feature. I recently completed a course on the role of geometry in art, nature, music and cosmology. Fascinating stuff and I am currently working on a book as well as a new feature film script for another director. So I don’t need to leave advertising to do what I want to do most.

Rashna Abdi was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: