As I wait at Esquires Coffee on a quiet Saturday morning, browsing through my phone, I receive a call from Sidra Salman, who (as I look up) is hesitantly looking at me, standing about three feet away, casually dressed in white and turquoise.
“I wasn’t sure if it was you. I thought I would check before approaching you!” she explains, instantly giving off a warm vibe. Before we even sit at our table, she apologises profusely for being 15 minutes late, blaming her work schedule and unpredictable chores. You can tell she is a talker – and a captivating one.
After announcing her love for breakfast and selecting a variety of brunch items, she dives into her latest career milestone; her nomination for the Spikes Asia 2019 See It Be It programme.
Sidra Salman is Creative Director at Synite Digital, part of the Synergy Group. She says that one of the biggest changes she made at Synite was to develop a work culture different from the one she experienced in her previous jobs. She emphasises that part of ensuring mental health in the workplace is doing away with unnecessary hierarchies; something prevalent in most mainstream advertising agencies.
“There is a creative manager, then a group head, a creative director, and so on... which needlessly creates tension in a workplace.”
She opines that supervisors should enable their teams to be passionate and nurture them instead of instilling fear.
“It all comes down to good leadership, especially in the creative field, because the work culture impacts productivity. You come into work thinking you are doing a ghulami of some sort. Dar kar kaam nahin hota,” she adds, shaking her head.
When I ask what enticed her into the world of advertising, she says from a very young age she had a flair for drawing, which later turned into a passion to become an artist.
“I knew this was the field I wanted to go into. When I started my degree in Communication Design, which is all about your individual thought process and point of view, I needed no further convincing.”
She confesses how disheartened she was when her application to the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture was rejected and she had to enroll at the University of Karachi’s (KU) Visual Studies department. She, at first, was apprehensive about attending a public university, but once she settled in, she found it a completely different experience to what she had expected. Moreover, while studying art, she felt that “for the first time in my life I wasn’t a misfit in an educational set up! It was heaven.”
After graduating with a double distinction in 2009, she joined Design Matters, a small advertising agency, which according to her “was not like a typical advertising agency, because there was no shosha. My boss, Samina Jamali, was a very down to earth professional and the first woman to teach me that having a career is everything.”
After working at Design Matters for over a year, she hesitantly joined IAL Saatchi & Saatchi as Creative Manager in 2012.
“The leap from a small design house to a mainstream advertising agency was a bit scary. At Design Matters, I had a fixed nine-to-five routine; I was home on time and my parents were happy. At Saatchi, it was exactly how I imagined mainstream advertising to be: on your toes 24/7, late sittings, extremely competitive, but... fun.”
She worked on several portfolios, including Safeguard and Head & Shoulders, which she found to be a very educative experience. Two years later, she developed a “digital ka keera” and joined Creative Chaos.
“They had just won the Jazz account and asked me to join their digital team.”
“However, I soon found that most of my work revolved around creating Facebook ads while my former colleagues and friends were creating ads for billboards and TV, which is why I decided to go back into mainstream advertising and joined MullenLowe Rauf as Creative Group Head, where I oversaw Unilever and EBM, among other clients.”
While at MullenLowe Rauf she married Salman Ali (co-founder, Sandpaper). The two met when she was at Design Matters and he was interning at Evernew Concepts. Although they had never worked together before, after they married they collaborated on a project for Olper’s.
“He was looking after the strategy for offline media and I was looking at the digital side. It wasn’t weird, except when clients would make us feel awkward by saying things like ‘Aap dono to ghar se decide kar ke aye hon gaye ke kya bolna hai,’ she says with a half-amused, half-exasperated expression. On a more serious note, she speaks appreciatively of her husband’s support.
“He constantly pushes me to take risks and I never have to explain why I am late or have to travel at a two-hour notice. I am immensely lucky to have a great partner who always understands.”
She then tells me that while she is a Sunni, her husband is from a Shia family, and then asks me with a grin: “Guess what we eat every year on our anniversary?” I respond “sushi?” to which she high-fives me with a nod.
A few years down the road, she was once again pondering about moving away from mainstream advertising, when out of the blue she received a call from Synite Digital.
“Synergy had just launched their digital wing and had won the Engro Foods’ account (Olper’s, Tarang, Omore etc).”
At Synite, her team consisted of one content writer and two designers working on the entire Engro portfolio as well as other accounts. Today, after four years, she has a team of over 20 people based in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, along with about 30 clients.
As we circle back to her participation at the See It Be It 2019 event, she explains that the selection came as a surprise.
“I came out from a horrible meeting and thought ‘nothing’s going right today’ and then I received an email from See It Be It informing me I had been selected!”
She enthusiastically explains what See It Be It is about and encourages me to apply for next year’s programme.
“I was apprehensive that having only worked in Pakistan, I did not have enough experience to qualify – an apprehension a lot of other people share. However, it was quite the opposite; See It Be It makes you realise your self-worth and boosts your self confidence. We were 10 women from different countries and we became known as the ‘See It Be It Girls’. The best part is that we are still in touch.”
By the time we reach dessert (French toast), I try to prise more about who Sidra Salman is outside the workplace. It turns out she is a sucker for Bollywood’s parallel cinema, frequently does yoga (for “me time”) and has recently started blogging about the barriers women face at work, as well as giving career tips.
“I completed 10 years in advertising in August and thought... why not write about it?”
Breakfast over, she races back to work, set to take on the rest of the day’s agenda with vigour and passion.