Published in Nov-Dec 2021
Every day, on the dot of noon, Yahoo Messenger would ping with messages from Blitz Advertising in Karachi to Afia Salam’s home in Hong Kong. This was in the nineties, Salam’s year away from her hometown. She would turn on the video camera and connect with her colleagues at Blitz, later writing copy and sending it off, in what was a forerunner of remote working. A critical creative resource at Blitz, Salam had managed a way to continue working from Hong Kong, where her husband had been posted.
Advertising was Salam’s third career after a love affair with journalism and a short tryst with aviation. She entered each career in a similar vein: open to what came her way, following her joys and quickly becoming a key resource. She had made her mark in her previous careers by becoming Pakistan’s first woman cricket journalist as well as a member of the first-ever batch of women air traffic controllers, handpicked by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). “I used to passionately discuss cricket with my friends at Karachi University, and a friend who became a journalist asked me to write down what I said for the sports pages he was overseeing. I taught myself cricket through second-hand books, bought off the footpath, and here I was writing articles on cricket in Urdu and English.” Salam is reminiscing while sitting on a cushion in her living room.
She left journalism somewhat abruptly to become an air traffic controller, a decision she confesses was “taken in a moment of madness.” The foray into aviation was short-lived and ended when it was ‘discovered’ after eight months of training that she wore glasses. She chuckles at the memory and happily recalls running back to journalism, this time to become the editor of The Cricketer where she worked for three years. In between she edited Wings, an aviation magazine, putting her training with the CAA to use.
Next, it was the advertising industry that beckoned. Another opportunity, another chance to make her mark in a new field. “I had done some freelance work for Blazon Advertising in 1990 and when their creative head left, they invited me to take his place,” she says. By then she was a mother of two and not contemplating full-time work; nevertheless, the team at Blazon roped her in with subterfuge. As she had worked on their campaign for Toyota Corolla, they asked her to accompany them to the presentation. Unbeknownst to her, that act of support would propel her into a career in advertising that lasted over a decade. As she tells it, “After we presented, the Blazon team asked me to join as their creative head. My children had started school and I was not keen on a full-time career.”
It was the option of flexible hours that finally won her over, providing her with the experience that would allow her to become a valuable resource for the many advertising agencies she would work with later, despite her husband’s foreign posting, her pregnancies and the ups and downs of child-rearing.
Cricket journalism, aviation and remote work sum up Salam’s attitude to her career: ‘break new ground.’ Yet, because she is old-school, she mentions the major markers in her professional life casually, unaware of her pioneering contributions – Blazon created its maternity policy because of her. She laughs: “Ten days after I had my baby, my colleagues came to visit and before leaving they handed me a paper saying: ‘Here is the brief; please come to the office tomorrow.’” Dedicated mom and member of the workforce, she frequently ended up taking the baby to work – or in other instances, she would bring her older children home from school, and leave for the office while they took their afternoon naps. “For a little while, my children were not even aware that I was working anywhere,” she adds.
Working on the Indus Motors account, she travelled to Japan and her impressions were that “Japan was nice... they were all so polite, but they would get so stressed with the Pakistani propensity to do everything at the last minute. We Pakistanis are real jugaroos.”
In 2000, Salam joined Argus as a creative consultant. “Again, I was not looking for full-time work, as I was looking after my ailing mother.” Her colleagues from Blazon, whom she considers to be lifelong friends, had set up their own advertising agency, Blitz, and asked her to join and “for a short while, I was working at both Argus and Blitz. Of course, on accounts where there was no conflict of interest.”
After Blitz, she left advertising to go back to journalism and joined DawnNews as a senior copy editor. She later became head of the culture desk and content, in charge of the morning show and at one point, even had an issue-based talk show called The Afia Salam Show. She then left journalism to enter the development sector as a communications specialist.
Talking about which of her careers is closest to her heart, she admits to being “a different person at different times. Currently, I look at things from a journalists’ eye, because I train journalists.”
These days, she often turns her journalistic lens on her former profession, especially to call out gender stereotyping in the media, a topic she is vocal about. “The impact of imagery in advertising is far greater than we realise. When you see ads for milk supplements, boys are mostly represented, yet the social reality is that girls are often malnourished, which is unfortunately also socially mandated. I am not saying don’t cast boys, but there has to be a balance. There was the K&N’s ad where an uncle was shown flipping burgers for his nephew; that was breaking gender stereotypes and we need to see more of that.” She firmly believes the advertising industry needs to demonstrate responsibility.
Salam likes the way advertising is progressing in India. “For journalism and media, I would not encourage anyone to look there and learn from their Arnab Goswamis. However, if you want to study advertising, I say look at India, because their society is similar to ours.” She counts the groundbreaking ‘The Unfair Advantage’ campaign which featured Nandita Das among her favourites. “Unfortunately, even now people are still hung up on a gori bahu; advertising has a duty towards society to play a role in breaking such regressive values. And yes, I know the client has to be on board with the messaging, but the agency can play an important role in guiding the client and the narrative.”
Shahrezad Samiuddin works in communications and is an agony aunt. email@example.com