Syeda Ayesha Ikram is more than just an executive creative director. She is a female powerhouse that doesn’t let anyone or anything get in the way of her goals. Point in hand is that she grew up in Lahore, undertook a design degree and raises her family while giving 110% to her career.
However, the path she’s gone down hasn’t been all happy moments and recognition. Just last year after working on a campaign for P&G Indonesia, she lost her father without being able to say goodbye. It seems fitting then that she believes this campaign is one of the finest pieces of work, if not the finest, to come out of Indonesia.
LBB’s Natasha Patel speaks to Syeda about this campaign, her early life and being an inspiration for female creatives everywhere.
LBB> Tell us about your early life and growing up in Pakistan.
Syeda> I had a very enriched childhood in Pakistan. I grew up in a traditional Pakistani joint family with many elders and young ones living together. I still remember the long corridors, big halls, tall pillars, broad stairways, high ceilings and the lush green gardens at our residence in the historic city of Lahore.
As a child, I was a wide-eyed wonderer – curious, explorative, and adventurous. From trying to understand the way people behaved and lived within those walls, to interacting with pets, plants, butterflies, birds and all life that I would come across outside of them for hours, I was subconsciously understanding human psychology and nature first-hand.
LBB> How did those early years impact the way your creativity and ideas were formed?
Syeda> Those early years opened my senses to understand life deeper, unlike many of my age who lived on the surface. It taught me to always see behind the veil. My love for nature enhanced my intuitiveness while my understanding of human behaviour taught my mind to reason with my emotions.
In my career, this made me intention-driven, helping me first define an objective before creation. It gives rational foundations to my ideas while keeping them emotionally rooted for the people I create them for.
LBB> You studied design at university - was this a turning point in realising how you wanted your career to pan out?
Syeda> I was always drawing, colouring, and making things with various materials. My mom still has a record of my early works since I was four years old. Growing up, I was fascinated by the visual and performing arts. Seeing my inclination, the elders in my family encouraged me to pursue this academically. I realised that my language to understand and communicate thoughts, ideas and feelings was design. But I never thought of taking advertising as a career, until I realised a design’s power to sell, through different assignments in my university.
LBB> You were part of the team that began BBDO Pakistan – what was this experience like?
Syeda> I was among the first five employees hired to start BBDO Pakistan. This lean team was tasked with handling one of Pakistan’s top advertisers, PepsiCo! We had the flavours and snacks portfolio. Mountain Dew was our biggest brand, followed by Sting, 7up, Mirinda, and Kurkure. Back then, Pakistan was the second largest market for Mountain Dew after the US. The initial months were very challenging, working round the clock in getting the work done.
But there was a lot of enthusiasm and motivation to really do something phenomenal and make our mark. We were David, competing against not one but several Goliaths in the market and all eyes were on us. What followed was growth, a lot of praise from our client and regional acknowledgement for our Work. Those years shaped the future of BBDO in Pakistan and paved the way for the salience that Pakistan was to have in the BBDO network in years to come.
LBB> Has there been a moment during your career where you realised that advertising was how you’d like to spend the rest of your life?
Syeda> Rest of my life is a long way to go for pursuing just one discipline in art, particularly one where the artisan’s magic is restricted by commercial dictation from an amateur spender. I am very clear on what I do best, and what I love to do. Advertising being the former, I am yet to indulge in the latter. Mixing both commercialises passions.
LBB> What has been a career highlight?
Syeda> More than any award, I think the firsts always mean the most. For me, it was my work for Minute Maid as the art director that was adapted by 33 markets. It made me realise that I was capable of much more than what I was taught to expect of myself.
LBB> What prompted the move from the creativity of Pakistan over to BBDO Indonesia?
Syeda> If my work could travel across markets, why couldn’t I? My curiosity to explore more cultures, people and nature urged me to step out of my comfort zone and aim for challenges beyond Pakistan.
What further motivated me was to defy the prevalent perception that female Pakistani creative leaders that have neither studied nor lived abroad cannot go beyond a certain glass ceiling, whether it is in terms of their growth within an agency, or their growth within a network beyond their market.
I began to look for opportunities in Southeast Asia. I was very fascinated by the culturally rich, naturally vibrant, economically growing and digitally evolving Indonesia. Once I experienced the hospitality and friendliness of Indonesian people during my travels, I was convinced to choose it over other markets.
LBB> Has it been a challenge to adapt creativity across different markets?
Syeda> Adapting is a wrong word here. Any Indonesian work (not only messaging) that I create is true to the local consumers and culture. For me, it is about immersing myself in uncharted waters and then swimming through them, rather than to keep dabbling in the same pond.
Perhaps the credit for this goes to my teachers in academia and mentors in the profession. I come from a time when creatives were taught to visualise original ideas, concepts, and designs without the help of references. We did not open a tab, Google inspirations, and adapt (read as copy). That to me, is not creativity.
LBB> Working on so many campaigns and brands must've been such an experience, but what campaign stands out as a favourite?
Syeda> My recent favourite is Maaf Ibu. I am humbled to have led its creation and execution for P&G Indonesia. From ideation to production, this has been an unparalleled emotional journey for me, making me realise and acknowledge the unwavering support of our loved ones that help us pass the tests of life. During its making, I lost a very dear friend, lived through the pandemic and by the time it released, I lost my father whom I couldn’t meet in his last days. If not the finest, Maaf Ibu is one of the finest creative outputs from BBDO Indonesia.
LBB> What have been the biggest challenges throughout the journey to where you are today?
Syeda> My work-life balance. Our industry is rampant with unnecessary urgencies that sadly only apply to agencies and not clients. Every brief and feedback are like a cardiac patient that needs an immediate bypass surgery. If more clients respected agencies as consulting partners instead of suppliers/vendors, and adhered to timelines as much as they expected their agencies to, many mothers like myself would be able to spend more time with their children, and many daughters like myself would be able to spend more time with their ageing parents before they leave this world.
LBB> What are your hopes for the future at BBDO Indonesia?
Syeda> The success of an advertising agency in changing times is in being strategy-driven and solution-first. It is what gives foundation to creative outputs and makes them undisputed. BBDO Indonesia’s management understands this very clearly and is one of the first within the network to create a single hybrid team structure that breaks silos between digital, strategy and account management departments to optimise efficiencies for the agency and deliver effectiveness for clients. Our next goal is to make creatives part of the same structure under the singularity model.
If the spine keeps working, the head and hopes remain high.
LBB> Outside of work how do you spend your time?
Syeda> Exploring Indonesia – people and places, cultures and cuisines.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Syeda> In words of Sartre, when “hell is other people”, be yourself in whatever you do.