Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Thoughtful Strategist

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Mamun M. Adil profiles Salman Ali, Director Planning, MullenLowe Group.

You wouldn’t think that stand-up comedy and brand strategy have much in common given that the former evokes laughter while the latter doesn’t (at least, it shouldn’t). However, Salman Ali, Director Planning, MullenLowe Group, pursues both in earnest. In his opinion, both require the ability to be insightful and gauge people.

“You have to be observant and able to see through people,” he says. “Sometimes consumers say one thing but actually mean something completely different. As a planner, if you are to help position a brand successfully, you have to be able to figure out what they really mean. Similarly, in stand-up comedy, the routines should be based on what people really mean – not necessarily what they say – so the audience can relate to them.”

This comment highlights Ali as being analytical, self-aware and insightful. Traits that must have helped him during his career in advertising, which was not “accidental, unlike most people in the industry.”

Speaking about his career path, he is quick to reel off a list of people from the profession who helped him along the way. They include Hira Aslam, whom he met while interning at Evernew Concepts in 2011 after he graduated from Iqra University. “She told me that if I wanted to make a career in advertising, I should target strategy.” Nida Haider Khan who taught him the value of empathy at IAL Saatchi and Saatchi (he joined them as Strategy Planner in 2012) and in the importance of believing in people even if they are inexperienced. Shazia Khan for turning him into the professional he is today. He worked with her across his two stints. First, at Ogilvy Pakistan from 2015 to 2016 as a Senior Planner and then JWT Pakistan (as Associate Planning Director from 2016 to 2018), where they did “some kickass work together, such as winning and working on the Ufone account.” Yawar Iqbal, with whom Ali worked while at IAL and who recommended him to JWT Pakistan (“he is a creative beast”). Kiran Murad with whom he currently works with at MullenLowe. He holds her to be receptive to strategy and research, unlike most creatives who “tend to be inspired by Sanjay Leela Bhansali rather than tangible insights.”

I ask him about Sandpaper, a boutique agency he co-founded with Umair Ahmed and Fahad Bombaywala in 2018, in between stints at JWT and MullenLowe. He analyses this decision with: “I thought I had become a big sh*t; that agencies needed me and I started to take myself too seriously. I thought that because the market needed to be strategic, the only way I could make this happen was by cofounding my own agency.”

As it happened, Sandpaper secured work from clients such as Lifebuoy Shampoo, Easypaisa and Habitt. “We were quickly on the map; people noticed us.” However, things came to an end in 2020 due to several factors, but mostly financial constraints that were further exacerbated by Covid-19. “We were using our savings to keep afloat; none of us had ‘daddy’s money’.”

An offer from MullenLowe came along in 2020 and he promptly joined; he has been there since, nearly three years later. “The people at Lowe are among the nicest in the industry.”

At MullenLowe, he has worked on various brands, including Dalda, which took a leap by featuring a stepmother in one of their TV commercials. “Dalda had been advocating motherhood for such a long time and it was time to explore its other facets.” He also worked on Josh Condoms. He says his insights stemmed from answering the question “why is the Pakistani man such a douche?” This led to the ‘Josh Man’ which addresses toxic masculinity (the commercial will be released soon). “I felt that we needed to produce a ‘new man’ who hopefully will become aspirational for Pakistani men – someone who is chivalrous, comfortable with feminist values, does not objectify women and is responsible, and uses condoms.”

Speaking more generally about his work he says he finds planning “fascinating”, because it attempts to “bring method to the madness” with tangible data and insights. On a broader level, he is critical of the industry because advertising is based on “visibility and salience” rather than on solving a “business problem” or meeting a specific target. This, he says, is reflected by the fact that the penetration of branded products remains relatively low, despite heavy advertising in the last two decades. “We have become a very creatively-led industry and don’t look at the KPIs or the end objectives.”

This may be the right place to write that Ali is described as a “thinker” by at least three senior professionals in the industry I spoke to. I would add earnest to this, given his commitment to what he does.

However, it is not all work. Ali has varied interests, including sports and Hindi films. In terms of the latter, his knowledge is impressive. He has seen eighties kitsch films such as Sau Din Saas Ke and lesser-known ones such as Jeevan Dhara. He attributes this to having grown up in a household in Saudi Arabia where Best of ’88 was played regularly.

Then, of course, there is standup comedy. “I was a Jauhar boy who studied at Iqra University and came from a conservative family (although I am not) who then entered the ecosystem of advertising. It was a bit of culture shock. I am from the Shia community, a liberal in a conservative family and a muhajir living in Karachi…” All these “minority” tick boxes give him the fodder to script his stand-up comedy sessions.

Ali is married to Sidra Salman who currently heads Synite Digital. He is clearly proud of her, including the fact that she held the fort at home when Sandpaper was struggling financially. He attributes their successful marriage to the fact that they are “two people who are hardly home. We chat while we drive home from work and as we are both in advertising, we understand the profession and there is no pressure to be home early. She can text ‘pitch’ at 7 p.m. and I know it will be a late night for her and vice-versa.”

While there is no doubt that Ali loves what he is doing, he feels strongly about not working too long at an agency and in giving the people he has trained the room to grow. For him, staying in one place for too long leads to stagnation – something which in his opinion is affecting the industry; people tend to “remain at the top forever.” He thinks this is a partial symptom of the fact that young professionals are given fancy titles too early on in their careers and they later cling to their positions due to the insecurity that comes with not deserving these positions in the first place. “We need to develop a culture whereby an ECD has won 40 to 45 awards, has travelled, and has reached a level of experience that they can bring to the table, rather than having creative directors who are in their late twenties and in positions they haven’t earned.”

What is next for Salman Ali? He is clear about opening an agency of his own (again), but this time it will be a strategy consultancy, specialising in independent solutions for clients. He also wants to take comedy more seriously and create a YouTube channel, monetise it and not have to work nine to five. He may have to strategise his path to getting there.