Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Coming a Long Way and a Long Way Still to Go

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

Looking back over a span of 50 years, Zohra Yusuf reflects on the positive changes that have benefitted women.

I am tempted to start this article with a line which would now be considered sexist and politically incorrect, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” This is from a campaign for Virginia Slims in the seventies targeting women smokers. Today, I can happily quote this for Pakistani women in the media (minus the ‘baby’ reference).

My own story of entering advertising will probably sound quaint to many in the profession today. I joined MNJ Advertising as a trainee copywriter in early 1971, as the 10th member of the agency and the first woman. The agency was named after the three founding directors – Majeed Ahmed, Nafees Ghaznavi and Javed Jabbar. I was not out to break any glass ceilings. My ambition was limited to learning how to write advertising copy. At the time, advertising was considered to be a profession where one could indulge in some creativity and earn a living. I must have shown some potential for creative writing as after a month I was confirmed as a copywriter with an increment of Rs 15 (no, that’s not a typo – it was Rs 15).

Situated on the first floor of a building known as Central Hotel (diagonally opposite Hotel Metropole), my desk was placed near the only window in the large hall. Since I shared the space with two other colleagues who received a lot of visitors, Javed Jabbar thought it appropriate to place a screen before my desk – either to put me in purdah or to ensure I had some privacy. It was Majeed Ahmed who eventually decided that the screen was a hindrance to my learning. He had it removed and suggested I spend time in the art studio which had three designers, all non-English speaking – and it became my responsibility to explain the concepts behind JJ’s English copy to them. I also took on the task of cutting out letters as captions for print ads that were manually pasted and sent out to a studio to be filmed and printed.

Apart from learning the thankless (most of the time) art of copywriting, my initial years at MNJ toughened me. It inculcated in me a “can do, will do” attitude which has stood me in good stead throughout my excessively long career. MNJ did not make allowances for the fact that you were a young woman, new to a big city. When required, I would hail one of Karachi’s dilapidated cabs to visit a client in SITE or Korangi. Or be at work until the early hours of the morning when needed, with no second thoughts.

JJ proved to be a tough taskmaster and a great teacher. The grounding I received in copywriting helped me in writing for publications later, as well as in editing. It taught me to be economical with words and despite the exaggerated product claims associated with advertising, made me wary of the use of superlatives.

Advertising gives one the opportunity to learn about other businesses and sectors of the economy. Anyone working on a fertiliser brand, for example, will need to know about the industry and its unique demands. The challenge of working on products or businesses you know little about opens the mind and stimulates curiosity and it is this diversity of experiences and the knowledge imbibed in a career in advertising that often opens up myriad opportunities. I moved from advertising to journalism and then back again to an ad agency. My colleague at MNJ, Mariam Ali Baig, currently editor of Aurora, switched from advertising to marketing a publication and then to editing a professional magazine that covers both advertising and marketing. Another colleague, the late Saneeya Hussain, ventured into the then rare field of environmental journalism, training many journalists in Pakistan. Other women I know have taken the plunge by going into film production or joining the marketing team on the client side. In all cases, their grounding in advertising was an asset in adjusting to the new demands of their career choices.

In marriage, there is an affliction known as the ‘seven-year itch’. My fatigue with advertising started around that time as well. However, it took me three more years to leave MNJ – and advertising – after completing a decade in the agency. With little idea of what exactly I was looking for in terms of a career, I ended up as editor of The Star’s magazines – sports and weekend editions. The media in the eighties was struggling against the heavy censorship imposed by General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime and when new guidelines related to women in commercials were introduced, it became an uphill battle to have a campaign passed by PTV’s censor board, whose members seemed fixated on women. They often displayed an unusual imagination when they claimed, for example, that a close-up of a woman’s face under a shower (for Rexona soap) implied she was unclothed!

The hurdles to press freedom seemed insurmountable at the time. At The Star, we settled on a policy of temporarily withdrawing from the hard-line we were taking against the military regime when the pressures reached a dangerous level and then returning to the attack when the situation cooled down somewhat – or so we believed. If the outside atmosphere was hostile, within Haroon House (where the offices of all Dawn publications were located) it was friendly and supportive. The editorial staff of two publications – both political and critical of the military regime – Herald and The Star Weekend consisted almost exclusively of women. The management had a women-friendly policy. The working spaces for women were considerably better furnished and, in a rare case of positive discrimination, women were paid better than men at The Star. However, it was a return to advertising for me in 1986 when I realised I could no longer cope with censorship and I joined Spectrum Communications (now Spectrum VMLY&R) later that year.

The opening of the electronic media in the early 21st century saw an unprecedented opportunity for women. In sharp contrast to the cheerless PTV ambience, private channels introduced live and lively talk or entertainment shows that crossed the boundaries set by the state-owned channel. This not only required looks and glamour but sharp minds and the gift of the gab, too. Women were hired not just to compere breakfast-type shows but as hosts of political shows and as analysts.

The stardom (plus the excellent fee and perks if you made it big) promised by the early years of the private TV channels attracted many women, several of whom had made a name for themselves in the print media. The highly competitive environment of the private channels also saw anchors channel-hopping for popularity and money. Loyalty, a quality generally associated with women, came under strain as none could resist the carrots dangled before them.

However, two decades down the line there is a discernible audience fatigue with TV talk shows. Nevertheless, the women who gained entry into the highly-guarded male territory of political reporting have made a name for themselves strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of changing viewer expectations. Many have ventured into social media where the more critical voices among them have to confront online trolling and threats. Sadly, this kind of harassment largely goes unaddressed in spite of complaints.

Another dimension to women’s presence in the media is the image projected, whether through entertainment programmes or advertisements. There has been criticism of the exploitation of women and the stereotypical images reinforced and one organisation, Uks, has been meticulously documenting the portrayal of women in the media. Surprisingly, there is more evidence of a positive change in advertisements rather than TV plays. Long condemned for exploiting women for crass commercialism, advertising has lately shown a spirit of reform. It is now common to see working women in commercials with men lending a hand with household chores. Advertising is setting a trend which entertainment segments need to emulate.

It is a tumultuous time for the media in Pakistan. However, in the midst of the chaos and the uncertainty, it remains a welcoming field for women. Today, unlike the time when we learned all the skills on the job, there are professional institutions offering training in all fields of the media. I would encourage young women in particular to walk through those wide, open doors and break as many glass ceilings as they can. My advice (unsolicited) would be: Be fearless. But be responsible. 

Zohra Yusuf is Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R.