Published in Jan-Feb 2022
What does one write about women in advertising that hasn’t already been written before? I have done so twice; on how women are portrayed in advertising and tips for women working in the profession. The problem with writing about women vis-à-vis the advertising industry is that it can easily become what we fondly refer to as a bitch-fest. A long diatribe on the ills of the industry and the venting of frustration. The late-sittings impacting home life (they do), the competitiveness, the politics. Yet, all this is an unfortunate part and parcel of this industry, no matter where you work in the world. And it impacts men as well as women, the latter no doubt with greater intensity. Misogyny and inequity are prevalent across the corporate universe, perhaps to a greater degree in Pakistan, but it is certainly not confined to our geographical boundaries.
Nida Haider, Managing Partner, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, makes a relevant point – if women find it difficult to progress in the corporate world, it’s because our social structures are simply not designed to support this. We need our parents, husbands, even siblings, to rally around us. In some of the most liberal of urban households, men are still the decision-makers and women are still responsible for ensuring that their homes and families run on an even keel. This was even more apparent during Covid-19, with women balancing their Zoom calls with their children’s online lessons and working on presentations while monitoring the AC repairman.
Atiya Zaidi, MD & ECD, BBDO Pakistan, once mentioned that she was lucky enough to head off to the UK for a postgraduate degree years into her marriage. However, at the same time, her career changes were often determined by where her husband was posted in Pakistan. Flexibility and adaptability are the default settings women live by. And that is not a bad thing. Flexibility and adaptability come in handy at the office when dealing with sudden changes or unexpected challenges. If anything, the cards that are dealt to women can be an advantage or a tool to fall back on – not a liability. They come in handy when scheduled online meetings are delayed. What do women do? Put that load of laundry in, check that meme posted on the cousins’ group, smell the chocolate cake in the fridge without eating it. By woman, of course, I mean myself.
For all intents and purposes, women in advertising do two jobs, and women running an agency actually run two companies – the second being the home. And you never get to switch off from the latter. Sara Koraishy, CEO, JWT|GREY relates an anecdote about when she landed from a flight at 9:30 p.m. only to receive a phone call from her cook asking her what to make for dinner. When she said, “Just ask sahab what he wants,” the answer was “He asked me to call you.” In my opinion, the default answer to this question should always be aloo gosht. It’s the go-to response. It is also the only reason why it’s a weekly staple in our home. Despite the fact that neither my mother nor I have any fondness for it.
So what then? What on earth should I write about? And then an epiphany struck. Recently I left a lifetime in a top advertising agency to run a start-up and switch from advertising to content – branded entertainment to be precise. Jumping from the security and prestige of IAL Saatchi & Saatchi to the uncertainty of Vitamin C is a journey into the great, exciting unknown. And quite possibly complete madness. However, it did mean I could pick the brains of some of the women heading established and respected agencies and saying, “Behen, advise me please.”
Seema Jaffer, CEO, Bond Advertising, spent every waking moment of her childhood at her father’s agency, Bond. The upside was learning the business hands-on. The downside was being pulled in as a child model, doing voiceovers, etc. Despite having a brother, Seema was groomed to take over. She calls women shying away from finances, a self-perpetuating situation – she says she learnt that along the way. Tell me about it! SST, GST, withholding tax and that particular monstrosity called double taxation, have all become a part of my vocabulary. Her advice is simple: “Choose your resources and clients carefully, don’t compromise on what is true to you, and build a band of people who support you on every level of the business.” She also recommends doing something that is unrelated to the business. Seema is a senior human rights expert and puts her economics and development degree to good use with pro-bono projects every year.
Similarly, Sabene Saigol, CEO, RED Publicis, channels her inner foodie into an artisanal olive oil brand she is currently developing. Her day job is running RED Publicis, which began as a passion project after she returned home with a degree in economics and planning law. RED had barely any work for the first couple of years, yet she stuck to it with dogged determination, now proudly sporting the Publicis affiliation along with prestigious clients. To date, she is the only woman to have founded an agency. With customary frankness, she says she hates women who play the woman card and hires the best resources, disregarding gender. Her CFO and her ECDs are women who are there simply because they were the best qualified. She admits that women lose out on networking opportunities and this means that they have to work harder. Her advice is to hire the right people, never be disheartened and persevere: “When you believe in what you are doing, it will happen. Just be patient.”
Nida returned to Pakistan after spending over a decade working at the best ad agencies in the US. She started the planning department at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi and heads it, while also running the company as Managing Partner and mother to a feisty four-year-old. She says women create their own opportunities because they are hard-wired for success. When you reach the top, she says, make the system work for you. She advised me to take everything with a pinch of salt and unapologetically screw the rules – “Be prepared and keep your eye on the prize.” More significantly, she pointed out that women leaders have the power to do more for women in their companies and to give back.
Not surprisingly, at my former agency, women were given three months paid maternity leave and transport facilities. Does having a woman in the driving seat help? Yes. Seema introduced flexi hours and WFH for women long before Covid-19 decreed it in order to retain good female resources who struggled with home-work balance. Sabene is a big believer in diversity and has mentored a constant stream of interns over the years. She was also one of the first women to give due importance to digital and started Pakka Papita, later absorbing it into her mainstream creative team.
Networking doesn’t come easy. Both Seema and Sabene admitted as much and wished they could have done more. Sigh. Cigar smoker, I am not. Sporting stats are beyond me. Golfer I am, but I am so bad at the game that nine holes with a potential client might jeopardise any chance of the business coming. Note to self: hire a coach and improve your golf game.
I end this piece humbled and heartened, pondering over the advice and cueing Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves on my playlist. Okay Rashna, now go work on a few branded entertainment ideas, prepare a sales pitch and soldier on.
Rashna Abdi is CEO, Vitamin C. firstname.lastname@example.org