Meet Shahnoor Ahmed

Shahnoor Ahmed, CEO of Spectrum Y&R and Chairman of the Advertising Association of Pakistan, talked to us about social media, Katrina Kaif, chicken karahi and more.

With what seems like the experience of having given a hundred interviews, Shahnoor Ahmed begins answering our questions seamlessly, flowing from one topic to the next without pausing to think. Perhaps our questions are too generic. Or perhaps he is just that passionate about what he does.

We jump right into the customary background check. When did he first get sucked into the world of advertising? In the 1970’s. And what was it like back then? “Well,” he takes a deep breath and sighs. “A long, long time ago… it’s like a fairytale!”

It’s a cloudy day and the fickle sun moves in and out of view of the window, setting the scene for a trip down memory lane.

1970’s to Present Day: How Times Have Changed

Shahnoor Ahmed began his career with a clean slate. With no agency to inherit but armed with a deep love for advertising, Ahmed started off at Asiatic (now JWT Pakistan) with Anwar Rammal and went on to SASA. After an unsuccessful startup that he claims “crashed very badly” and a very, very brief stint at Paragon, he joined Javed Jabbar’s MNJ International, where he worked along side many of today’s advertising giants. Spectrum Communications was born in 1978.

“The advertising landscape has changed dramatically in many, many ways,” he says. When he started out, television had just come to Pakistan. Everything was done by manual typesetting and getting material and putting things together was much harder. Clients’ expectations, too, were equally suited to the times.

Now, clients want instant gratification; a turnover of two hours is two hours too long. “Why can’t you just email it to us?” he mimics.

Nevertheless one thing remains the same: “Everyone is still looking for the big idea.”

Social Media: The Way Forward?

In the 70s, agencies were responsible for film production, media buying, outdoor and print media. All these functions have since splintered off into separate pools and many current agencies have a solely creative-strategic function. Now, they need to have a social media function too. “It is not that they are becoming irrelevant,” Ahmed clarifies, “They need to keep themselves updated.”

“Some things you can judge by looking at the writing on the wall,” he states. “We can see that digital is the way forward just like we could see that media buying houses were becoming a reality. You have to admit that it’s a reality especially when you find current small businesses using digital media.”

He seems impressed by 14th Street Pizza, a Karachi-based pizza delivery service. “Twenty or thirty years ago, you could not open a pizza place and say that I will reach the kind of clientele I want and not waste money targeting anyone else,” he says, referring to 14th Street’s policy of delivering only to select neighbourhoods.

So is it now time to step down and hand over the reins to somebody from the Facebook generation? “No!” he disagrees passionately, “The only option left is to learn or die. If something new comes in you have to learn it in order to survive. If someone resets the button and upsets your whole apple cart and some of your apples are in the air, you have to gather them back and in that process a lot of people take your apples away. That’s just the way it is.”

In fact, one of the first things you’ll notice when you walk into Shahnoor Ahmed’s office is his Sony laptop open to Facebook. This is a man ready to jump through the digital divide.

Creativity at Work

He recalls his first ever campaign with a smile. It was for a headache pill containing three different ingredients. They split the screen three ways for the print advertisement. Back in those days, this in itself was an achievement.

Now that he’s got a whole team that deals with the actual generation of ideas, he is more involved in the strategic side. Even so, a great idea is a great idea, and when creativity strikes he’s ready to put it in motion.

“Right now creatives are found on YouTube,” he says candidly. “It’s a shortcut as clients are not investing enough money into research, which is very important.” As a result, marketing is greatly intuitive in Pakistan. Still, he feels that trying to get actual consumer insights is very important for a successful campaign.

As far as memorable campaigns go, he is particularly fond of Slice’s efforts featuring Katrina Kaif during cricket season. “As a man, I loved it!” he says with a grin and chuckles as he tells us about how his young interns seem to have opposing views.

Up Close and Personal

Ad Geek Daily: What was the last movie you saw?
Shahnoor Ahmed: Oh my God. In the last month I’ve not really watched any. I watched every one of the Oscar nominated films last year. I wanted to go see Thor. Avatar was brilliant. I hadn’t seen Indian films in a while and someone recommended Dabangg. Itni bakwaas thi (it was so bad) I couldn’t go beyond ten minutes.

AGD: Do you watch Mad Men?
SA: No I don’t but I’ve watched some episodes. I haven’t been sucked into it but I’ve watched a few.

AGD: Because of entertainment or its link to advertising?
SA: Entertainment. I like the idea that it looks like the 50′s and 60′s and I know because our agency’s headquarters are in Manhattan on Madison Avenue and they have a couple of floors that I’ve been on that are exactly like that… the old wood finish and tables and the stuff they haven’t refurbished. [The show] is very entertaining to watch.

AGD: Do you cook?
SA: I love cooking Thai and desi food. I do a great chicken karahi, Pathan style! I’m currently trying to collect old family recipes for a relative who is putting a cookbook together. I’m videoing a lot of it.

AGD: Cats or dogs?
SA: I have a dog. I didn’t like cats initially but lately there were some mice in the garden so we’re trying to attract a few cats back to the house. I have a labrador called Trigger. I’ve had him for two years now but I have always had a dog.

AGD: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
SA: Cornflakes, toast plus green tea.

AGD: No anda paratha?
SA: No, unfortunately. I’ve always said that if you have a breakfast that’s fit for a king then you sleep like a queen.

AGD: Tell us about the worst boss you ever had.
SA: I’ve never had a bad boss, or maybe it was that my passion for advertising went beyond such things. My quest to learn continues and when you have that passion to learn you can’t really have a bad boss.

AGD: Do you think it’s a good idea for married couples to work together?
SA: I work with my wife who handles the social marketing side of the business. We do a lot of pro bono work in the health sector. I thinks it’s a wonderful idea to work together and share each other’s burden. Now my son’s also working here.

AGD: Do you work over the weekend?
SA: I used to, a lot. I’m not doing it as much but if there is work running then yes. If deadlines have to be met and things have to be looked at then I will definitely be in here.

AGD: When do you typically come in every morning?
SA: Not later than 9.30. I leave around 7.30-8 in the evening. I go to the gym from here. I spend an hour at the gym. In the summer I come home and swim for half an hour. This is life and not a party!

AGD: If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
SA: The power to heal.

AGD: If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?
SA: A BMW sports car. [Laughs]

AGD: There’s an article about you on the front page of today’s newspaper. What does the headline say?
SA: Shahnoor Ahmed elected as president.

AGD: President of what?
SA: The rest you have to read! You only asked me what the headline would say.

AGD: How many petrol stations would you say there are in Pakistan?
SA: About 4500. A little less than 5000.

AGD: You sound very sure about this.
SA: We handle Chevron.

AGD: That explains a lot.
SA: The largest number is about 3500 PSO pumps, then there’s Shell and Caltex and the other little ones. I can cross check for you.

AGD: This was actually an exercise to test how quickly you could come up with an estimate. You threw us off completely! Any future projects we should know about?
SA: My new project is to learn the digital side of the business that is developing and be able to apply it effectively in time and not after everyone else. Don’t want to miss the boat. That’s something which is a target for myself so let’s see where it takes me.