The national planning director at Wunderman Thompson India on her passion for creativity and why she believes the industry is more gender neutral than first thought of
Shaziya Khan believes that with a high quality nudge and a ‘give it a go’ attitude it is possible to achieve anything you put your mind to. She cites this mindset for the number of recognitions the creative industry has given her over the years.
She began her career as a teenager and always knew she’d enter the creative industry thanks to a marketing stint whilst studying. Since then she has gone on to work with brands such as Unilever, Johnson& Johnson and Kellogg’s. Nowadays she’s national planning director at Wunderman Thompson India. Shaziya is also a seasoned writer despite laughing off hints to write her own book.
LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Shaziya to hear about her career and why she believes the journey to making good work is more important than the awards that come with it.
LBB> Your advertising career began when you were a teenager - talk us through this.
Shaziya> I had a fascination for conceptual and creative stuff. I discovered it in college. My advertising career began as a teenager, making hand painted posters for college events and projects. Even conceptualising an annual exhibition theme, making several hundred posters for it, for various related topics under the overarching theme.
In addition to studies, there were a host of communication related activities, across college organisations and teams. I engaged in all these, quite happily, it never felt like extra work. It was fun and fulfilling.
LBB> Did you always want to be in the creative industry?
Shaziya> Yes, I studied economics and statistics, had stints in marketing. And there was a turning point, when applying for jobs, and also getting offers, that I chose something a bit more creative.
LBB> Growing up did any campaigns catch your eye?
Shaziya> None. Umm, my nose was buried in comics and books. But I think all the jingle-based ads I could recall if prompted, jingles are sticky.
LBB> Do you feel like there is being more done to diversify positions of power in the industry in terms of gender equality?
Shaziya> I think, thankfully, our industry is gender neutral in a very wholesome way, relative to several other industries. Perhaps it is for historical reasons.
I also think it has been and is an industry with progressive thinkers, who were ahead of the curve. Why? Because their notions of work were anchored in ‘ideas’, rich and empathetic and great ideas. A focus on ideas, naturally ensures that ideas (and not stereotypes) rule. And the spectrum of ideas is very broad from bread to limousines and so our industry thinking is quite agnostic to the irrelevant factors, early on, relatively speaking.
Also the leaders of this industry, historically and in present times, have been great role models and been gender neutral. The men had progressive notions about women and the women themselves had progressive notions too anyway. And the business of ideas, in its nuts and bolts, of daily work and processes is utterly gender neutral. Everyone can write, present, draw, plan, edit etc. so relatively speaking the path is free of usual gender barriers too.
Also, where ideas (and not personalities) rule, everyone flourishes. Personalities, even great ones, are ultimately finite, and so in a way, subtly or not so subtly, formally or informally they limit, set the tone, lay down unspoken rules, eg a masculine culture or a ‘pleasing’ culture etc. whereas ideas, are intangible, limitless, they liberate, including liberation from gender stereotypes.
We can always, always do more to diversify, it is a progressive and expansive journey. Embracing it with generosity, sensitivity, rigour, and keep evolving it, in a progressive way, matters. Diversity percentages are a starting point, not the end point. After the percentages, are processes, then culture, then career paths and so on. And then new percentages. The percentage is the start of the job to be done.
LBB> What do you look for when hiring team members?
Shaziya> A gift for insight and empathy. I naturally happen to have a diverse team, because the rest can be different, that is okay. So many of them were trained in other fields, who themselves shifted gears to join. And they all have these gifts, even though in unique and different ways.
LBB> You've written so many articles for so many publications and contributed to a book, is this something you hope to do more of in the future?
Shaziya> Could well be, perhaps. Would love to. It has been suggested to me by several people, out of the blue, on the way to a meeting, or having a coffee in a cab. They say “hey Shaz, why don’t you write a book” or “I just want to tell you, you should write more, just the way you speak or something like that”. I have just laughed it off, but maybe I should heed what was said!
LBB> You've won a host of awards and have so many accolades, how does this recognition in the industry make you feel?
Shaziya> Actually, we have such amazing brands to work on in WT, incredible clients and teams, and a unique culture. WT has been described recently, by some as a culture that combines intelligence and kindness and a family atmosphere. All these factors provide a “richness of space”, I think, in which all this stuff emerges.
Some of these awards, when I entered, I did not know of them, somebody just mentioned the name, gave me a nudge eg. “there is xyz award”, the name was a nudge, I looked it up, saw the entry form, read the rules, read the past winners, and gave it a go. I am eternally grateful for these nudges. All everyone needs is a nudge. A high quality nudge. And then an attitude of giving it a go.
I tell everybody, give it a go. People look at me zapped, who me? Never done, cannot do this, blah blah. I feel, more and more people and teams should give it a go. And they will be amazed at how well they can do. Many awards and stuff were won working with folks who had never quite done something like this before and then went ahead with the idea of giving it a go, and won, simple.
Also, it is not about winning, in a way, winning is a by-product of good work. I know everyone says that, but it is true. When good work happens, it is rewarding in itself, and teams creating it can bask in that. Also, it is not about winning at another level. The journey of getting to good work, (muddle-huddle-cuddle) is where the learning and filtering and choices happened. Some consciously, some very quickly. But when we step back, and write about that journey, as a case study, the key steps stand out like neon signs. Like a runaway, to land future high flying ideas.
And that is why the story needs to be told, and it needs to be told well. Sometimes a separate set of skills tell the journey story better, along with those who were part of it. Because they see the game from a distance. They see the full chessboard and can describe the moving pieces and how victory was gotten at a more elevated level.
That story of the journey, contributes to the field of marketing and advertising. Winning is a by-product of consciously knowing and sharing the story of the journey to good work, with the world, with the whole field. All these awards, in essence, are about advancing the field of brand building. About distilling the signal from the noise and progressing the field.
LBB> Tell us about the Financial Culture Muscle Study.
Shaziya> We work on several financial brands, across banking, investing, insuring etc. Spending several hundred hours of field work we saw first hand, that attitudes towards financial matters were shifting. And these shifts impact financial brands of course, but also several non-financial categories and brands. Purchasing power affects and impacts across all categories almost. So we took the initiative to study this shift using a special approach called Culture Muscle, a team in India working with the team in NYC and studied and produced the study and shared it.
LBB> Tell us about some big projects you're working on at the moment.
Shaziya> Am looking at reskilling the team in a whole new way of working.
LBB> What about after work, how do you wind down?
Shaziya> I paint, I find it cathartic. Creating something rather than watching something, feels liberating, helps completely switch off and get immersed in a fresh activity.