Growing Up with a Pencil in His Hand
Since, after all, we live in the age of technology – and we are geographically unable to meet – Umair Anwar, CEO and Creative Lead, We Are Transmedia (WRT), and I set up a Zoom meeting for our chit-chat session.
On the appointed day, Anwar is considerate enough to give me a heads-up that he needs another 10 minutes before he can log on – unlike most desis who will ghost you until they show up. Once we are connected, an enthusiastic yet slightly tired-looking gentleman, wearing a deep blue button down, circular eye frames and an extended goatee appears in what seems to be an office space, apologising for the delay. After a quick brief about how I am going to craft my observations, I ask him to give me the nitty-gritty about himself.
As a result of growing up with a pencil in his hand (“I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember – probably since age four”), his older brother attending the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore and encouraging Anwar to pursue art, and his parents always being supportive of his creative endeavours, he obtained a Bachelor’s in Communication Design from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) after a short stint in pre-engineering.
I realise Anwar is actually a ‘creative’ creative when we talk about his thesis for IVS – a repackaging of old-school desi games like Baraf Paani and Oonch Neech. He revived the games in a modern way so that a new generation of kids could relate to them more easily.
“I wanted to encourage kids to run around instead of being couch potatoes on their PlayStations. I illustrated the beauty of freezing someone in real life while playing Baraf Paani. I even designed a high-tech sports arena where kids could play these games.”
Interestingly, when Anwar first went in for his admission interview at IVS, the panel was not convinced about whether he was the right fit, and he was put on a waiting list. He proved them wrong, even earning the spot of valedictorian for his class. “It’s like they say, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’” Anwar comments, without the least trace of rancour; rather, he sounds proud of himself for earning his place in the world of design.
IVS completed, he went and worked for Lowe and Rauf as a graphic designer. After about two years, he moved to his hometown, Lahore, and spent nine years working for Soho Square. He started as Design Manager and left as Senior Creative Director. I don’t even need to ask him about his experience working with Coke, a dream brand for most creatives, as he has already started raving about it.
“Coke as a brand gave me very fertile ground to work on – I kept growing and learning, which is why I stayed for many years. I learnt a lot from the company culture, especially since the scale we worked on was so large and international. From collaborations to integrated campaigns, coming up with big ideas and then translating them into different touch points, and creating larger than life campaigns… it was great.”
Yet, he realised he wanted more from his career and set out to explore the idea of higher education in art and although he was offered admission into prestigious schools such as the Parsons School of Design in New York and the Royal College of Art in the UK, financial constraints made it impossible to take these opportunities further. Instead, he decided to set up a one-man-show company – WRT in 2019.
In the same time frame, Coke returned to Anwar’s life in the form of a “side gig”, but in a larger format role, as Design Lead for Coke MENA, working remotely. For about 18 months, he oversaw the brand’s work for over 20 countries, including Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and Pakistan, and worked on product design and visually integrated design systems for Coke’s portfolio across the MENA region.
In early 2020, Anwar decided to fully focus on WRT and began to grow his team. Since then, the company has managed to attract local and international clients and now consists of nine people. Furthermore, although it has only been three years since WRT was fully set up, it has acquired an impressive portfolio of brands that include British American Tobacco’s Velo Sound Station (branding, visual design, brand identity, naming, tagline and packaging), Unilever’s washing powders and Knorr Noodles (they developed/conceived the Blazin Bulletin videos for Blazin Noodles), Dasani water (they launched the product across the MENA region), Schweppes, EBM, Cheetos, Wall’s and more.
Anwar says WRT is structured more like a creative studio rather than an agency and this essentially means that instead of having clients on a retainer basis, WRT works on a project-to-project model. The advantage, he says, is that “I can work on any brand in whatever capacity. I take on projects as puzzles/games rather than as ‘work.’ So, every project is dear to me – one project opens the door to another.” Here, he cites the example of how working on Velo Sound Station, which involved Bilal Maqsood, led to WRT working on a music video, Zalima, for the musician.
I ask what the future may hold for WRT. “I think we will be among the largest creative companies in the next few years and doing a lot of work for foreign brands – which we are already doing. Perhaps we will open WRT offices in different parts of the world, especially as we live in a very fluid world.”
I ask him his thoughts about the current advertising landscape in Pakistan. He replies that “We are in a good space, on the cusp of getting to the interesting part of advertising; brands are recognising the importance of good content.”
I counter this by asking why many people dislike Pakistani ads, to which he makes an apt observation: “As a nation, we are not clear about our own identity. Indians are very clear on who they are, judging by their ad content alone. For us, sometimes we are desi, sometimes we are angrez, so an idea may connect with one group of people but not with another. But the future is exciting.”
Thinking to myself that it would be quite tough for Anwar to imagine himself in any other profession, I ask him what he would be in a parallel universe. Before I even finish asking the question, he grins and says, “Doctor! I would love to be a doctor! My wife always says I would make a really good doctor.”
Anwar in a parallel universe may or may not actually be a really good doctor, but in this universe, he has accomplished several feats. He was one of the first people from Pakistan’s advertising industry to receive Design Thinking training in Kenya at the International Development Design Summit conducted by MIT’s D-Lab. He is the first award-winning GIF artist from Pakistan, and his work has been displayed in Brazil, Dubai and the US.
Despite, or because, of this, he is still searching for the next big thing. “Perhaps creating a company that is completely different from WRT.” By his own admission, he is a very “restless person which is why I like the arrangement of doing a project and then moving on.” He would like to expand WRT and create off-shoots; for example, one that creates content and another something else.
“I’m very happy with the way things are going for WRT as we have had a chance to work with major brands and they now come to us to develop work. My team and I are passionate about our work; we take a lot of ownership in the work we do, and our clients see that.”
Nevertheless, Anwar does try not to let work engulf his entire life and to make time for other pleasures, especially family time with his wife and four-year-old son. He believes there is no need to “keep hustling” and encourages his team to maintain a work-life balance too.
This is as close to his personal life as I get, despite multiple attempts during our conversation to encourage him to tell me more, and although he is ever-ready to talk about work and career-related topics, family and personal interests seem to be a no-go zone as he diplomatically shifts topics.