Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Rebellious Storyteller

Shahrezad Samiuddin profiles Nagin Ansari, CEO, Backspace.
Published 17 Jan, 2024 04:50pm

Nagin Ansari’s creative journey is a tale of rebellion, resilience and a commitment to intertwining personal and professional spheres. Backspace’s recent #WhoFriedItBest campaign for KFC was a daring venture which showcased Ansari’s bold approach to storytelling. Not only did the campaign stir up controversy, it highlighted Ansari’s ability to flex conventional agency-client relationships.

Born in Germany, Ansari spent her formative years in Karachi, in an environment steeped in literature and art, where it was the norm for “uncles to recite a shair and explain its meaning.” Her rebellious spirit emerged early when faced with the rigid constraints of a traditional art education in her O’ Levels, she chose to experiment with multiple media.

This early awareness of multidisciplinary art led to her avoiding specialising when she was only 15. “I was too young to decide what I wanted to do.” Inquisitive and eager to understand the world from multiple perspectives, she clubbed together diverse O’ Level subjects like history, literature, chemistry, biology and accounts.

Her school commute to Saddar – Karachi’s visually rich and culturally intense city centre – provided her with what she calls “lessons in humility and social privilege.” She speaks fondly about the nurturing education she received at St Joseph’s Convent, including the staples of a convent education, such as bonfires and Christmas carols.

Books became her companions during her teenage years, and at one point she was writing a poem a day. She was given plenty of encouragement from teachers who nurtured her budding talent. The deep dive into literature paved the way for her exploration of Urdu and English literature while doing her A’ Levels at the Karachi Grammar School.

Much against her will, she enrolled at the Indus Valley School of Art (IVS) after her A’ Levels. “I wanted to go to the National College of Arts to pursue fine arts, but my sister was at IVS and I was ‘tricked’ by my mom into going there as well.” The IVS admission may have been one of the first times she would find herself at odds with destiny, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

Ansari’s final thesis at IVS was on the Arts Council. “I chose the Arts Council because I felt that as an institute that called itself ‘The Arts Council’, it should be inclusive of everyone who is an artist. So why did no one from IVS or from educated circles ever feel the need to go there or be represented there?” Her thesis caught the attention of the advertising industry. “I was at my convocation, still in my gown, when Imran Syed of Adcom offered me a job.”

This was to be the next step in her journey and typically the resistance bubbled up again. “The last thing I wanted to do was join an ad agency. One of my teachers at IVS had asked us to write on whether a good advertising professional can also be a good human being, and I had argued they cannot because if you have so much money and there are poor people who need food and medicine, ethically, you should feel guilty.”

However, egged on by both her mother and Imran Syed, who assured her that she would be able to pursue her love for writing, she reluctantly joined Adcom. The realities of advertising hit her when she found herself having a “meltdown in the bathroom when I had to comply with a client on a gaudy design.” There were breathers as well, like working on the Nando’s account. “For three years I worked with Imran sahab on the copy and it was a really fun brand because it was all about words.” She progressed quickly and soon became a creative manager.

Meanwhile, Adcom too was growing fast and the dynamics of the team were undergoing significant changes with the influx of accounts like Engro. However, her discomfort with the evolving environment became more pronounced as she observed the sacrifices made by female colleagues who were juggling demanding professional roles with the responsibilities of motherhood. Witnessing their personal crises left an impact on her. She was married by now and wanted to start a family. “I was not okay with people making the kind of personal sacrifices they were making.” These experiences deepened her resolve to seek a work environment where personal priorities were respected. “I have my own business now, which is amazing because I get to make decisions. So if your cat is sick and you are teary-eyed, you should go home, and if you are sleepy, please sleep.” In 2009, she left Adcom. “I look back and think it was a bold move. There was no financial plan and I didn’t know how I was going to make a living.”

Post-Adcom, Ansari took on freelance projects and was coasting along when a relative told her to meet Ahsan Idris at Blitz DDB. Typically, she began resisting yet again. She found out she was pregnant just as she joined Blitz DDB and stayed there for exactly nine months. After her son Azlaan was born, she tried to work out a part-time role with the agency but found that she was talking to a brick wall. “That was a refrain in my head that went: I am talented and hardworking, so why are you saying there is no policy for part-time and not even having a conversation? I saw others in similar situations and realised that this is a big fight for me.”

Once again, Ansari found herself at home, this time with a baby. It was while she was navigating the intricate dance between motherhood, creativity and the pursuit of financial stability, that her sister ran into Irfan Aamir who was running Idea Simple and looking for a creative. That led to a part-time role. Three times a week, she would drop her son at daycare before going to the office for an hour and a half. “Irfan would call me to a meeting. I would have a conversation with the client who would say, ‘We need this’ and I would say, ‘Don’t you also need that and what about this?’” She had her second child while at Idea Simple. “Irfan was always very flexible. He demonstrated that it is possible to be flexible and efficient in our industry.” She refers to her Idea Simple days as “a time of learning the business of creativity.” Five years in, Idea Simple shut shop and she was at a crossroads again.

She found a teaching gig at Cedar College, which evolved into consultancy work. She began collaborating with the college dean, Bilal Hameed, as a brand consultant. Hameed introduced her to Asad Hashamali who was running the digital media team at Cedar College. “We were at the Serena for a conference and it was like a movie scene where the vision for Backspace was penned down on a napkin.”

When she became CEO of Backspace, she was also teaching part-time at IVS and was simultaneously roped into the corporate world by an old client. She became the Group Marketing Head at Ithaca Capital. The corporate role lacked immediate creativity, but it was an opportunity to learn marketing.

Around the time the pandemic broke out, she left Ithaca. “It was because I left Ithaca that I was able to see Backspace as a proper unit on its own.” She stopped doing other jobs and decided that all jobs would be related to Backspace.

“At Backspace we were trying to stay afloat during Covid. It was a new world, and it was difficult because we didn’t have FMCG and healthcare clients. We worked day and night to keep Backspace alive.”

Backspace emerged resilient and Ansari strategically brought adman Zain Rizvi into the fold. Together, they navigated economic upheavals and pursued creative projects. The (infamous) collaboration with KFC started with a chance conversation which led to some audacious copy being shared with the fast food giant’s marketing team over WhatsApp. The KFC campaign epitomises how when you bring Ansari and her team on board, you cannot relegate creativity to the periphery. She doesn’t create for fleeting amusement and instead channels creativity where it becomes a force for profound impact.

A multifaceted professional, Nagin Ansari’s story is an inspiration for those of us who dare to challenge conventions and carve unique paths unapologetically.

Shahrezad Samiuddin works in communications and is an agony aunt.