Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

"As an industry, we have to understand that we are a bothersome disturbance"

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Atiya Zaidi, MD & ECD, BBDO Pakistan, speaks to Aurora about her journey to the top and what it takes to be a successful creative.
Photo: Tahir Jamal/White Star
Photo: Tahir Jamal/White Star

AURORA: What attracted you to advertising?
ATIYA ZAIDI: I grew up in Saudi Arabia and when it came to higher education, it was all taught in Arabic so I came back to Pakistan. My parents wanted me to become a doctor and although I was good at studies, I did not want to become a doctor. I preferred reading and writing. I always found a lot of joy in reading; escaping into books and discovering different perspectives. I grew up in a sheltered environment. There were no music stores in Saudi Arabia and books were hard to get. It was a different world from what it is now. When I returned to Pakistan, I was exposed to a lot of stuff I had not been to before. There was that curiosity and the joy of discovery. While preparing for my medical admission test, I volunteered for an event organised by the British Council called From Thames to Indus. I attended some of the sessions and I came across one by Javed Jabbar and other speakers from the ad world. It was like discovering a new world I had no idea existed. I met an old friend of my parents who was working at Dawn, and when he found out I could write, he put me in touch with Asif Noorani, who was the editor of The Star Weekend. So I started going out to interview people and pretended I knew what I was talking about! I was not paid very much, but was 17 and making my own money! Masood Hamid (former Director of Marketing, Dawn) then put me in touch with Adcom, and Imran Syed offered me an internship, and it was so much fun! It was then that I called up my father and said I didn’t want to be a doctor. Instead, I went to Karachi University to do a degree in Mass Communications. In between courses, I interned with Awan & Kapadia. Imran Awan taught me about copy, logos, client briefs, and the basics of design. I did this for two years while studying because I wanted to learn. After completing my degree, I went back to Adcom full-time. Soon after I had the opportunity to do a course abroad. By that time, I was engaged and my father-in-law to be told me to get married and then I could do whatever I wanted to. So I got married and three months later I left for London to do a three-year course at the Chelsea College of Art and Design.

A: Why did you choose the Chelsea College of Art and Design?
AZ: Design communication was one area I felt was lacking. When I had an idea, I didn’t know whether it would be executionally possible or not. Sometimes people say something is not possible because of the work involved. I wanted to learn. To grow, I knew I had to learn.

A: When did you come back to Karachi?
AZ: It was around 2006. By that time, I had had my son. I was lucky enough to be rehired by the agencies I had worked for before. I first joined Awan & Kapadia and later Adcom. Then I was headhunted by JWT and offered the post of Associate Creative Director and later promoted to Creative Director. Firebolt63 offered me the position of Group Creative Director and Partner and I joined them. It was a very interesting time because Firebolt63 were working with accounts in Afghanistan. In 2012, I received an offer from Ogilvy Pakistan to join them as Executive Creative Director (ECD). Then my husband was transferred to Islamabad and I moved there. Although senior positions don’t open up frequently in Islamabad, I was offered a position with Synergy to head all three of their offices. Then I re-joined JWT to work on the Ufone account. When my husband was transferred to Karachi, I moved back here.

A: When did you join BBDO?
AZ: In 2019 I was offered the position of ECD. In 2020 they offered me the position of MD and I have retained both roles since.

A: How has the industry evolved since 2006?
AZ: In 2006, the big thing was the full-page print ads, the TVCs, and the radio spots. In those days, you made the one TVC, and then the adaptations in print and OOH. There was no feedback; audiences had no way of telling us whether they liked or hated a commercial. We worked in the dark; if you were happy, then the job was done. There was a significant money aspect to the agencies then, in the sense that the majority of the big ones had their media wings – it was almost like making money while you slept. Today, agencies have to work harder to earn every buck. Previously, clients were not always aware of what was happening; today because of social media, incompetence is spotted immediately. This is a good thing because talented, ambitious and driven people will rise to the top. Having access to information is no longer an advantage; today, everyone has access to information. The question is what you do with it. The quantum of work has increased; something that works on Instagram may not on YouTube. You have to know how to differentiate between platforms. It is also extremely exciting because creativity is very important. Throwing money at the media does not mean that people will be influenced. Now you have to do the work; think about where your customers are and how they are interacting with the medium. It is fascinating that 85% of the videos on Facebook are watched with the sound off – does this mean that TV commercials are not working? How do you make sure people watch your TV commercial? This idea that within 10 seconds the brand and logo should be visible is no longer relevant. These formulas were made for another time. However, three basic principles have not changed, regardless of how you consume media. One, you need to grab my attention; two, you need to communicate your message; three, every piece of communication has to persuade, otherwise, it is not effective. If you don’t check these three boxes, you are not doing your job properly.

A: Are advertising agencies losing their glamour for young people?
AZ: You can say that agencies have lost their glamour, but do we need glamour? Agencies have to change their point of view. The thinking that people will join an agency and stay there for 20 years is unreal. The expectation that all they have to do is invest in someone and they will stay for the rest of their lives – not happening. Agencies need a reality check. Agencies will always be a bridge for people to go onto bigger things – and what is wrong with that? Initially, agencies used to invest in their talent but they stopped because of this mindset. Yet, that is the charm of an agency. The fact that you get to go on international shoots, rub shoulders with celebrities and meet big directors. Now the pettiness is such that when an international shoot comes up management will go. Young people today have a lot of options and they will not stand for this mindset. The world has changed and the mindset at the top has to change. At BBDO we attract more people than we can hire, and I end up writing more letters of regret than of acceptance.

A: Why do you think that is?
AZ: For the last 10 years, BBDO have been investing in awards and training. All the people from the agency who found jobs abroad did so because they made it to the top lists of the world; Top 50 Creative Directors and Top 50 Art Directors. BBDO sees advertising very differently from the way other agencies in Pakistan do. Our work is awards-driven and young people want that; everyone is looking for fame.

A: Pakistani advertising has gone in for a lot of “reverse stereotyping”, in the sense that brands seem to be constantly focusing on showing that cooking is not the sole responsibility of a woman. Are we in danger of overdoing this and isn’t it coming out as a bit too preachy?
AZ: I don’t think we are overdoing this. We have been exposed to and conditioned by such stereotypes for centuries. If it comes out as preachy, perhaps we are in a preachy phase and that is fine. The problem is that there is “brand speak” but hardly any “brand do”. This is what is missing and why it sounds like short-term advertising goals As an industry, we have to understand that we are a bothersome disturbance and not something aimed at changing behaviour over time. We recently did a commercial for Shan Foods in which we highlighted the fact that 77% of the women who become doctors in Pakistan do so to improve their matrimonial chances and do not even end up practising. This means the population has a shortage of doctors. This is a cultural problem and advertising is good at solving cultural problems. In the Shan case, the brand followed it up with a big “brand do.” They supported Sehat Kahani, which aims to encourage women doctors to rejoin the practice. This is how the change will come.

A: The focus seems to be mostly on cooking/kitchen situations. Aren’t there other situations advertising should be addressing?
AZ: Grocery and kitchen expenses exceed any other expense, and the majority of our brands sell cooking oil, wheat, salt and chillies, which is why it is all in the kitchen. In terms of other situations, take women like me. We are independent and have the backing of our families; why not show us taking a holiday alone? We have earned the money. Banks that target high net-worth individuals always show a man in a suit. Why is it always him and never her? Another thing is showing that women can be independent and that there is life without marriage and it is a happy life. Marriage doesn’t have to define a woman. Advertising needs to work on this. Not to discourage people from getting married, but showing that there is life without marriage or kids. What about parenting? Why is it just a mother’s responsibility to teach values? This mindset prevails even amongst the most progressive of households. We are not treating men right either. We raise sons like prized cattle and believe it is their responsibility to take care of their parents and their sisters. Don’t they have their own lives and their dreams? Why should men not know how to cook or do the laundry? They need to be functional human beings.

A: There was a time when the industry was criticised for its lack of storytelling capabilities. Now, we are getting this, but some of the commercials are so long that they are boring. Wasn’t the beauty of the 60-second commercial the fact that you had just one minute to tell the whole story?
AZ: I think the trend in Pakistan started because a lot of our communication was inspired by Indian ads. They are longer, but they are more successful at storytelling. They have better actors and scriptwriters. In Pakistan, we don’t have that kind of talent pool. Also, the advertising industry takes itself too seriously. Toddlers who are hardly able to talk properly, let alone read or write, know how to find the skip ad button. So who are we kidding? As an industry, we have to understand that we are a bothersome disturbance. The biggest problem is that we do not keep our audiences in mind. Good storytellers understand the audience they are addressing. What are they likely to be doing at that moment and their frame of mind at the moment? Also, advertising is a derivative form of a longer format and one of the reasons why our ads are longer is perhaps because every director here is an aspiring film director.

A: What makes a successful advertising creative in today’s world?
AZ: They need to constantly feed their minds and never rest on their laurels. I tell my team there are two kinds of people in advertising. Those who do the work and those who do the job; which one do they want to be? Advertising is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t enjoy it, leave. If you think this is torture; that you have put in all this hard work and the client has rejected your idea… this is a business of opinion and rejection, and if rejection bothers you, do something else. Advertising needs people who take joy in it and who, in the face of rejection, are determined to try again and do it better.

A: What are your ambitions for BBDO?
AZ: I have lots of ambitions for BBDO. Most are about psychological safety; in fact, this is an ambition not only for BBDO but for the creative industry at large.

A: What do you mean by psychological safety?
AZ: Mistakes and failures are always frowned upon. You failed, so there will be repercussions. You cannot be creative unless your agency backs you up. Creatives need the psychological security that if they screw up in front of the client, they will not be fired, but encouraged to see this as a learning opportunity. Of course, hard decisions have to be taken. Given the economy, every industry will have to make decisions to keep or fire people. I am talking about the psychological safety of not being fired because you tried something different – and maybe failed. If you have creativity at the helm of the industry, it makes a difference. We have seen it with David Ogilvy; the legacy he left behind continues to inspire people. Creativity needs experimentation and experiments fail all the time. Our business is creativity; our product is creativity. This is what we sell. We do not sell strategy or finance. Clients come to us to buy a creative product. To my clients who come back to me and say an idea that is too good, I say, “You have come to KFC and you are accusing us of selling chicken?”

Atiya Zaidi was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: