Published in Jul-Aug 2021
There is a scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy is running around New York in order to complete a seemingly impossible list of tasks for her ruthless boss, including acquiring the unpublished manuscript of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. At the end of my session with Sumaira Mirza, ECD, Create Think Tank (CTT), I am reminded of Andy’s perseverance in getting the job done. With over 20 years of experience in the advertising industry, Mirza’s passion for creativity and drive to succeed is awe-inspiring.
On a weekday evening, a smiling Mirza joins me at Xander’s Bukhari. She is wearing a button-down check shirt tucked into a pair of dark jeans, thick, black eye glasses placed on a head of dark brown hair and wearing a shade of lilac-pink lipstick that looks freshly applied. After exchanging niceties and ordering food (sriracha fries and a black coffee for Mirza, blueberry pancakes and a cappuccino for me – I insist she order a proper meal but she is careful about what she eats), we get into the life and times of Sumaira Mirza.
A Karachiite, Mirza is half Pathan and half Hyderabadi. She was a bright, pre-med, student (she missed admission into medical college by a percentage or so) who completed her Master’s in Communication Studies from Karachi University, securing third position. After graduating, she joined Interflow as an intern in their media department (she wanted to intern with the creative team but there were no vacancies) and was eventually hired as a media planner. Less than a year later, and much to her uncontained excitement (“I was jumping around like a ping pong ball when I heard the news!”), she became a copywriter and started working on brands such as Emirates, Pepsi and Ponds. She still remembers her first published write-up, a Pond’s campaign called ‘Unveil the Glow’, which was also published in Mag.
Three years later, she left to work at Manhattan Communications as creative manager; a move she feels was premature. “When there is no one to guide you, you tend to make mistakes. Now when someone younger approaches me, excited at the prospect of switching jobs, I tell them not to switch for Rs 10,000 or 15,000, but to make sure their foundation is strong.’ With the proper guidance, I would have spent more time at Interflow.”
At Manhattan she worked on McDonald’s (her favourite brand) and P&G and says the best things about working on those brands was the fact that they expected the creative team to strategise rather than just spout ideas. “I worked on McDonald’s for almost six years; the brand is energetic and vibrant and at the time, my POC there was Jamil Mughal and his understanding of the market and guidance taught me a great deal.”
She also met her husband at Manhattan. I am amused because she is the third creative I have interviewed so far who met their spouse at work. She bats away my amusement saying “yeah it’s a typical ad agency story. And that too between a creative and an account manager... happens all the time.”
As it turned out, Mirza did two different stints at Mahattan Communications, having left in between to work as an associate creative director for Contract Advertising (a WPP venture) and head their HSBC cell. However, this closed down and she went back to Manhattan, this time as a creative director. After a few years, she took off again after a call from IAL Saatchi & Saatchi. She terms it the ‘craziest’ move she has made. When Imtisal Abbasi offered her the job, he would not tell her anything about the package or what accounts she would handle until she accepted. “I really wanted to work with him so I took a leap of faith.” While there, she launched and handled the Volka Foods account.
She then took a break after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which causes incredibly painful, sporadic muscle spasms. Post-treatment, she joined Synergy Advertising but “did not enjoy it at all” and quit within less than a year. She decided to take a longer break and work freelance; her in-laws had moved abroad and her 14-year old daughter needed looking after.
I am shocked because she does not look like the mom of a 14-year old. I ask her what it’s like being a full-time mom and workaholic… “As a young mom it was scary learning how to hold and feed her. Luckily, when she was born, my office was close to the house and I could rush back to feed her, and I had great family support.”
Talking about her current position, she says three years ago, she received a call from her boss, Umar Alam, who got hold of her CV from “who knows where and asked to meet for coffee,” and by her account, once there, Alam said, “since you are so experienced you might be very expensive,” to which she laughed and said “I’m probably the least expensive!” They decided to work on a number of trial projects together – including RB’s ‘Hoga Saaf Pakistan’ campaign for Dettol and Olper’s Special Olympics campaign – after which she told Alam “If you keep asking me to work on projects as a freelancer I will be very expensive.” He eventually offered her a full-time job.
CTT began three years ago in two rooms; today there is an entire floor with 40 people and 22 clients, including Bayer, ICI and IHOP. Here, she pauses to add her appreciation of her colleagues’ hardworking, full-force-ahead attitudes.
“We never say no to a pitch, no matter the time or resources required. We have lost many pitches, but I am glad we go out there and take the big agencies head-on – the industry now knows that we are something.” (For example, although they did not win a pitch for HBL’s corporate account, they secured HBL’s card redesign project).
Mirza has also taught marketing communications at SZABIST and Ziauddin University of Media Sciences. Students would often bring her a Coke when they come back from class breaks because they, and everyone else, know her dream is to work on the Coca-Cola account; all her lectures and case studies revolved around Coke. As it happens, she came quite close to her dream as CTT previously worked on a PR campaign for Coke Studio – and when she flew to Lahore to meet the Coke team, “I had tears in my eyes; it was so unbelievable being there!”
As a final question, I ask how people would describe her. “My daughter, husband and sisters would say I’m a big time ‘saroo’, in the sense that I am moody and prefer a cup of coffee and a book rather than going out.” She is also blunt and straightforward, apparently not a good thing in the ad industry. “I would not take sh*t from anyone, until my father explained that as a professional one must be diplomatic and I need to stay calm to succeed. Plus, when a woman is ‘emotional’ at work, she is not considered worthy of senior positions.”
She is nevertheless a ‘tiger mom’ at work; setting high standards for her team and they know they can’t “topi-karao” her. But they also know they can approach her for support.
Mirza was recently selected as a judge for PHNX and Ad Stars. She hopes someday she will be selected on a panel for Cannes as well... “Khwaab dekhain gaye to kahin pohanchain gaye.”