Published in Nov-Dec 2021
After Hussain Ali Talib, Head of External Affairs at Unilever Pakistan, agrees to let Aurora profile him for this issue, it occurs to me that this is the first time I will actually meet him in person, rather than texting a cartoon sketch of a wavy-haired male with a cheeky smile (his WhatsApp picture). For the past many years, every time Aurora has a Unilever-related query, we reach out to him, whether to get in touch with someone or ask for Unilever’s take on a topic. He has been a swift and proactive resource.
With the cartoon sketch in my mind, I assume him to be a typical Karachite in his early thirties, who spends his weekends hanging out with ‘the boys.’ So when Talib appears before me in Unilever’s main lobby, to escort me upstairs, I do a double-take. I see a rather tall, courteous gentleman (with strands of white in his beard; note: not calling him old) whom I later discover has three children and 20 years of work experience under his belt. He orders breakfast (an éclair and coffee for me; he says he will ask someone to bring him tea later, but never does), and we sit at a bar-style table to chat. While his height makes him conspicuous, his soft, low tones and relaxed demeanour signal that his temperament veers to the quiet type and I am not surprised when he later admits to being an introvert in an extroverted industry.
Talib grew up in the UAE and moved to Pakistan when he was about 17. He planned to join the Pakistan Air Force, but “thankfully it did not happen as I am not really one for following rules”. Nevertheless, he decided to remain in Karachi because he found more freedom here. “Life in the UAE was sort of mundane... at best we would hang out with our parents on the weekend. In Karachi, it was more of chai at two in the morning and college a few hours later, while the weekends were about playing cricket and going to the beach.”
So, despite his father urging him to return to the UAE to help run the family business – he is the eldest of four siblings – he demurred. “I knew I could not do a job that involved sitting and waiting for something to happen.”
After trying his luck at chartered accountancy, he took his parents’ advice to “do something with your life” and opted for a Bachelor’s in Commerce. After graduating, he worked for a publication house for five years and then joined CMC, a PR agency and his first foray into what would become his chosen field. He had actually applied for a post in copywriting, but CMC wanted someone who could deal with advocacy and public policymaking. It was during an event organised by CMC that he was approached by Taher Jawaid, senior VP for HR and Public Affairs at Engro, who offered him a job. After two years at Engro, Jawaid encouraged him to “get a proper education”.
As Talib puts it, “TJ said something along the lines of ‘jitna karna tha tum ne kar lia, if you want to achieve more in life, get a proper education.’ It was an eye-opener; I realised my academic credentials were not strong enough and I needed a good business degree to boost my profile.”
His wife, Alefya, encouraged him to apply for the Executive MBA programme at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), where he was accepted in 2011. Shortly after joining IBA, a former CMC colleague, who had joined Mobilink (now Jazz) in Islamabad, asked him to apply for a position in internal sustainability and CSR. He took a break from IBA and moved to Islamabad. However, soon afterwards, his line manager took off on a sabbatical, leaving him in charge. Things went awry when his peers, believing they had more seniority, left en-masse a month later, and he suddenly found himself a one-man corporate communications and media relations resource.
“I had no resources and therefore was unable to deliver anything. However, within a few weeks, I rebuilt the team. Alefya introduced me to a concept from Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter – a life lesson that has stuck with me ever since; one should hire people better than ourselves because eventually, they can take over seamlessly. In less than a year and a half, my team won a highly coveted global award.”
By then, his former CMC colleague had moved from Mobilink to Unilever and asked him to join her there. He did not hesitate to move back to Karachi. “I was already under an ultimatum from Alefya to move back; we were expecting our second child and needed family support.” Ever since he has been at Unilever (this is his eighth year at the organisation). Unlike most desi husbands, Talib never misses the opportunity to mention the significant role his wife plays in his life. Theirs, he says, was an ‘arranged’ love marriage. When I query this, he says that as in our society it is rather difficult to meet young women, his friends were in the habit of organising annual picnics at the beach and everyone was asked to bring as many friends (read: girls) as they could.
“It was all very respectable and it taught us how to interact with women. I met Alefya at one of these gatherings. She was a very gung-ho sort of person, not scared of anything and with a real ‘Karachi attitude’ (the ‘I will speak to you if I want to speak to you’ sort). When I turned 25, my mother started the ‘larka jawan hogaya hai, larki dhoondhni hai’ conversation, and a cousin – who is married to Alefya’s cousin said she had someone in mind ‘who is as insane as you are’. It turned out to be Alefya. When we formally met, I had decided to marry her and she had decided our first child’s name.”
Family is one of the reasons why Unilever is the longest company he has worked at. He says Unilever encourages a healthy work-life balance. His schedule involves getting to work around 8.30 in the morning, working out while listening to a Conan O’ Brien podcast and then delving into the news, before he starts the formal workday. “We are encouraged to take ownership of our work – being a team lead is not about being the boss; it is about hiring the right people and telling them ‘this is the end goal; do what you need to do to get here.’” He takes particular pride in the fact that he and his team are not associated with any ‘big names’; they are “run-of-the-mill, average Pakistanis; “we learnt how to do our jobs the hard way.”
He says this with reference to how PR is perceived in Pakistan. “A newspaper recently published an article on advocacy and lobbying, which made it sound as if PR is about people knowing the right people. This perception is made worse by the fact that people in PR themselves tend to say things like ‘yaar meri bohat achi PR hai’, ‘mein falanay ko janta hoon.’” Countering this perception is important to Talib and he is working with a group of like-minded peers towards encouraging more people to take on PR-related roles, especially because a career in PR and Corporate Communications is still not part of the mainstream professions discussed at the college level.
“The value of PR is subjective; people evaluate it on the basis of how many centimetre columns the press release was, or the number of newspapers that published it; they do not understand that what is more important is who read it and what was the value taken from it.”
At home, Talib is very much a family man; he wants his kids to “do as I say, not as I do” – referring specifically to his “nine-going on 40-year old”, who questions his every move, such as “why are we watching a cricket match, when we are not allowed to watch TV during dinner?”
As for any future plans, the priority is to play a part in changing prevailing perceptions about PR and corporate affairs and from what I gauge, as a husband and father, he wants to invest his free time with his family. Suffice to say, my initial impression of Hussain Ali Talib (my assumption based on his WhatsApp display photo) does not remotely resemble his courteous and intelligible self.