Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Flying Through the Glass Ceiling

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

Marylou McCormack profiles Batool-e-Azra, Chief Client Officer, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi.

At 32, Batool-e-Azra is possibly the youngest person and perhaps the only woman to be leading business operations at a major advertising agency in Pakistan. As Chief Client Officer at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, an agency that has several accolades to its name (the most recent being named Campaign’s South Asia Agency of the Year for 2021), Batool has her work cut out for her and by all accounts she is up to the challenge.

Her rise through the ranks at IAL (better known as Saatchi) has been remarkably swift. In seven short years, she has traversed the full spectrum of client service roles, starting as account executive in 2016 and doing short stints as account manager, senior account manager, associate account director and business director to finally arrive at where she is today. What is even more extraordinary is the fact that she has done it all at one creative agency, instead of jumping from agency to agency for the sake of promotions and pay raises as many ad professionals are wont to do.

“Saatchi has a culture of promoting from within,” explains Batool, “and I firmly believe that if you are sincere to your work and the company you work for, everything will come at the right time.”

This isn’t just lip service; it is a philosophy she holds sacred. But it wasn’t always the case. As a young graduate, Batool wanted to become a chartered accountant because “I am good at finance and numbers.” However, her family discouraged her from pursuing this route and suggested a career in HR. Bored at the prospect, she instead found herself a job in brand activation at Helium and managed nationwide in-store marketing activations for P&G.

“Being in the field and organising those activations gave me a huge sense of achievement; I was happy to be out there,” she says.

However, when the opportunity presented itself a little over a year later, Batool left Helium and joined Saatchi to “understand how a creative agency works.” She fondly reminisces about her first day at the agency and says she still feels the same excitement coming to work as she did on that day. She then reveals with a slightly mischievous glint in her eye that she tried to leave Saatchi once and move to the brand side.

“It lasted all of two days and I was back at Saatchi. The brand side was not for me. I am a born hustler. I like to be out and about doing things and keep on my toes. Advertising works for me because every day there is a new goal, a new calling, and a new purpose.”

Batool lights up when she talks about her work, whether it is her first client, Toyota Motors, which also proved to be the most challenging because “I had to coordinate with 30 people on a daily basis” or her favourite client, National Foods, because this is an account she has worked on at every stage of her journey with Saatchi. It’s obvious she loves her work and is not only passionate about what she does, but also about the changing role of client service in the industry.

“Client service used to be about glorified dispatchers, but now it is so much more. I always advise my team to first understand what the client wants, then make the relationship with the client very strong by understanding their business and, finally, have a strong grasp of the competitive landscape, because the client service team is really an extension of the brand team.”

The team that Batool refers to was until recently a group of 12 men. Traditionally, men have been the preferred choice for client service roles because brand managers can often be quite demanding and expect to be catered to even at odd hours. However, Batool is keen to instil a sense of gender balance in these roles and recently hired a woman on her team. Building a strong team – which she points out, is one of the youngest in the industry – is an important part of her professional goals.

Batool has plenty of personal ambitions as well. “When I started out, my job was all about meeting deadlines, then it evolved into nurturing relationships and now it is about how I portray myself in the industry.”

In an effort to put her best foot forward, she has been extremely active on LinkedIn over the last few years, a move that has resulted in international ad professionals reaching out to her and asking her to be part of the jury of four different international awards: The Dragons of Asia Awards, the Global Content Awards, the MENA Agency Awards and recently the New York Festival Advertising Awards. Very much a people person, Batool treasures her jury experiences; she says they have given her lots of exposure and a better understanding of how other agencies and markets operate.

Flying high on the strength of her confidence and achievements, Batool is adamant that there is no glass ceiling for her whether it is within Saatchi or outside of it.

“There are GM or COO roles that I could transition into or I could maybe get into a regional role, or even become associated with another company. Who knows? But everyone likes to say I am a hardcore Saatchi person.”

This last statement is accompanied by a laugh and when I query if she thinks she is a workaholic, the only explanation she offers is “my family says people are more likely to find you at Saatchi than at home.”

Batool genuinely enjoys being in the office and the pandemic proved to be quite difficult for her. “When my boss Imtisal [Abbasi, Managing Partner, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi] asks me which year was the best one, I say 2019, because we did campaign after campaign for Mondelez, for National Foods, for Tapal, you name it. Although we managed to execute almost 80 to 85 campaigns during the pandemic, it was personally quite tough as I like being in the office and out and about.”

Recently, however, Batool has realised the importance of spending time by herself outside of work. Four months ago, she joined a gym and she spends her weekends hanging out with friends and family. “I love work but I need to give more time to myself. I need to find that one hour in the day which is just me time, where I can think about the things that I haven’t thought about in a long time,” she says cryptically.

Marylou McCormack is a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.