Published in Nov-Dec 2021
"I’m a third culture kid! I never felt like I belonged anywhere,” says Hira Mohibullah, ECD, BBDO Pakistan. This is a big claim to make in a country where identity is everything. Mohibullah stands apart – completely comfortable in the identity she has carved for herself. She grew up in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, returning with her family to Karachi when she was 14. “My parents wanted me to do medicine,” she recalls. But with an aptitude for ‘something else’, she ended up defining her academic future.
“I was in A’ levels and I had a weird assortment of subjects – and doing what I wanted to do. I was trying to balance it out with the real world.”
In 2006, she landed up in Lahore at the National College of Arts. Entering the professional arena, Mohibullah started as a copywriter at Adcom. There is very little room for innovation, with job roles given the standardised functions and operational methods in the corporate sector. Yet again, she refused to be limited, instead of looking at what was available and applying her essence to create change.
“What I loved was that instead of bottling myself up with a few brands, as a copywriter, I could work across the different brands on the company’s portfolio,” explains Mohibullah. It was this flexibility that she would apply throughout her future career. Why limit oneself when she was viewing the job through a lens that was free from conformity? If the basics were being done, then all she had to do was take the reins and map out a journey.
At Ogilvy, in 2012, Mohibullah took two strands of herself – the creative and strategic – and applied them on a major account, Coca-Cola. This is when she began to hone her skills in a way that enabled her to define her own individual approach.
“People think creatives have no process, but for us, it is about putting together several pieces of the puzzle.” Creative strategy for her is that “sweet spot, between what the consumer is seeking and what the brand wants to say.”
BBDO, which she joined in 2015, was where she finally had the chance to assimilate into a workplace where teamwork was a priority and there was the pursuit of a united goal. Did this mean an end to the ‘third culture’ mindset? Not really, as she found like-minded people. “There was a single vision and I felt part of a team who held to a singular North Star. There were no speed bumps when it came to working together and for the same goal. That is what is so special about BBDO; we wage war against mediocrity together.”
For all her passion, insistence on finding new ways to produce creative work and stave off mediocrity in advertising, Mohibullah found herself having to deal with the realities of life as well.
“This journey was linear, as I went from copywriter to creative manager, from associate creative director to executive creative director, but in the midst of all this, my role as a woman kept evolving too, and was not as linear.”
It was during her second year at Ogilvy that she discovered she was pregnant. Facing the same conundrum every Pakistani woman faces – career versus children – she decided she was not going to choose between the two. Instead, she went to the CEO and told him she was pregnant and she wanted a spare room in the office. This was where she would work and keep her baby nearby, merging her role as a professional and mother into one, refusing to ignore her maternal side, but also not letting herself be defined by her gender.
Unknowingly, she was making space for more women to follow suit, but what pushed her to place herself in such a work-intensive situation?
“Inspiration comes when you have hit rock bottom. It is the best place to have any kind of idea; it is then about survival. And to survive, your brain works at max efficiency,” explains Mohibullah.
Looking after a baby and completing project after project, it then dawned on her that she was overcompensating for something that she deserved. “You need to ensure there is some sort of a support system, but you also need to know the constraints and limitations of it as well.”
That is when she realised she still had not created an identity for herself beyond work. For Mohibullah, life as a working woman is akin to being in the middle of a web, managing different components.
“I do assign an identity to who I am at work. During the pandemic work came tangibly before me in the form of a checklist, ranging from priority tasks to miscellaneous and I realised my other life, as a mother, wife and daughter, was not making it to the checklist. In advertising, you may not switch off but you need to. Children are adaptable but why should they be? They deserve their time with me.”
Acknowledging her privilege and support system, she has been able to keep up with her interests, which include television shows and literature. She bonded with her sons over Harry Potter as a means of building a deeper connection with them. “I’m a huge Potterhead!” From reading the books to throwing a Harry Potter themed birthday, it all boils down to a “full circle moment. There was this paragraph that I found really funny and my son Zayef asked me to read it to him thrice! He was experiencing something that I had experienced years ago.”
Given her natural instinct to plan, she sees the possibility of the lines of various disciplines associated with advertising blurring and the functions of the communications space merging, but again, she sees it as part of the process rather than an eradication of a profession’s fixed method of working.
“Ultimately, it is about knowing you have a liquid idea which has to trickle down to all the touchpoints there are, whether it is an activation, a creative outdoor or the digital space. As creative custodians, we ensure the idea remains intact. In silos, creativity can take place but when it comes to brands, there is a need for synergy and a cohesive story.”
This strength, she believes, lies with the advertising agency, as at the end of the day they are the ones reining all the disciplines in, in order to conduct effective storytelling, which is the heart of a successful advertising campaign. Personally, Mohibullah’s thought process is rooted in her sense of survival, which stems from her childhood.
“I am an introvert. I was a very quiet, shy child and I couldn’t think on my feet. I was never a risk-taker. So what I would do is always think ahead.” This trait turned into a professional strategy. “I am the most prepared person in the room, but I started to view my introversion as my strength only three or four years ago.”
It is clear she is comfortable with the space she has created for herself professionally and personally. Having navigated the pandemic professionally by focusing on specific work-related needs whilst doing justice to the role she plays biologically and societally, Mohibullah is the piece of the advertising puzzle that may not conform. Yet without her, the puzzle could well be incomplete. From a third culture kid to a third kind of strategic force, she has certainly created a third path as a working woman.
Mehr Husain is an author and publisher based in Lahore. email@example.com