CEO Sara Koraishy and national creative director Yawar Iqbal on teaming up with poet Zehra Nigah and the Unilever brand to transform an iconic piece into an anthem for young girls – and persuade the government to enter it the syllabus for thousands of schools
When the team at Grey Pakistan were on the hunt for a poem or song to celebrate the joys of learning, they found a perplexing lack of anything that so much as mentioned young girls. Moverover, they found that the national school curriculum had only 7% female representation.
That inspired the team to reach out to revered female poet, Zehra Nigah, to rework a classic piece by Jameeludin Aali, ‘I am a young boy but I will do great things’. With the backing of their clients at Lifebuoy Shampoo, they took the poem to the Punjab Government Ministry of Education. It’s now part of the curriculum in over 4,000 government-funded schools.
It’s been something of a journey for the team – changing anything at a government level is always a delicate and complex task – but it’s a reflection of the passion behind the project and the agency’s sense of creative ambition. LBB’s Laura Swinton interviews CEO Sara Koraishy and NCD Yawar Iqbal.
LBB> What was the initial spark that led you to the idea of re-writing this iconic poem?
Yawar> The brand, and we at Grey, were discussing a campaign that was about girl child education from the get-go. We thought it would be something special as well as impactful to present the client with a song/poem-based campaign around the joy of learning. The hunt for a song led us to identify the absence of any poem for young girls in our textbooks. This idea came from a place of frustration as to why in Pakistan’s 76-year history no one thought of writing a single poem to inspire young girls. So we decided we would do it.
LBB> For our international readers, could you give a bit of background context about the importance of the poem and where it sits in Pakistani culture?
Yawar> This poem, ‘I am a young boy but I will do great big things’ is not just a poem, it is a reflection of our centuries old South-Asian patriarchal system that we are a part of. A system where the birth of a male child is celebrated and revered as he is the one who will take the family name forward, hence all the dreams, hopes and aspirations are for him. Generation after generation of school going kids are exposed to this poem as a song of motivation and almost everyone knows it by heart. This poem works like a cultural anthem, kids in school recite it on all important events and it’s part of our DNA now.
LBB> And why was girls’ education and female representation in culture such important topics for Lifebuoy to tackle?
Sara> What is important to state is that Lifebuoy Shampoo has been championing this cause, encouraging Pakistani mothers to raise strong daughters for many years now. It was in 2018 that the brand began to leverage education as the key enabler for raising stronger daughters. This year’s campaign, our combined effort is to build further on those foundations and make a bigger impact by triggering a movement; joining hands with the government and working alongside strong advocates of girls’ education. It is our combined belief that only through educating a girl can we open up the possibilities of a better future, not only for the girls but also their families and generations to come.
LBB> Did this idea come in response to a specific brief or was it something that you proactively came to the client with?
Sara> Last year the brand team called for a pitch. They had embarked upon this journey successfully, weaving the purpose of girls’ childhood education into the brand and this had come through in a meaningful way through collaborations with local educational institutes. The challenge articulated to us was to identify an actual tension, culturally relevant insight which could help elevate this message. We pitched this idea to them; we knew it was a bold one – a big one. It gave us goosebumps, and we knew it was the right way to go.
LBB> And how did you go about determining which poet or writer to collaborate with for the re-write? Why was Zehra Nigah the right person for the task?
Sara> For those that may not know the Pakistani landscape, Zehra Nigah is a phenomenal literary force. She is a writer, a poet and for decades her work has embodied a clear element of social commentary – a nuanced cultural narrative. Being a woman in this space, and one of the last remaining greats, she was the most natural fit for this campaign. I reached out to her personally, and she instantly agreed. She was committed to this message from that very first conversation, regularly reaching out to discuss progress, with ideas on how to get it in front of the right people. She is an integral part of this campaign, and I am so proud that her work will live on for many generations to come.
LBB> From a writing perspective, what were the guidelines or boundaries you gave Zehra Nigah?
Yawar> Keep it honest and simple for an eight-year-old to comprehend, inspire and aspire.
LBB> Was it important to stay true to the spirit of the original poem and to make subtle change or to go for bold and radical change?
Sara> Grey’s approach to communication development is to always look at, first and foremost, the local culture and the people. The original poem is iconic and deeply rooted into our local culture. Writing an original piece could never have the same impact in communicating to the audience on just how deep rooted the problem is. This makes one sit up and think – really think how everything that one is exposed to from the age of four or five collectively leads to this problem.
LBB> As well as re-writing the poem, Grey Pakistan also created a film to help launch it – a story that sees a little girl mocked by her classmates, another little girl dismayed by what she sees and a mother inspired to re-write the poem – how did you approach developing the story for the film and why was it important to create some storytelling around the new poem?
Yawar> This couldn’t be a close quarter campaign or a one-off CSR initiative. We wanted it to go across the country to small towns and big cities; to the progressive parents but also to the conservative ones. A film is a great way to communicate as it has mass appeal, and it immediately gets the eyeballs if the messaging is compelling. We aimed to start a conversation about the complete absence of girls from our academic stimuli; the film helped tremendously in achieving that. The role of the mother was also incredibly crucial as we never wanted this to be a solo fight for the girl child, we need to show parents as enablers, which has always been Lifebuoy Shampoo’s narrative, hence we made the mother rewrite the poem.
LBB> How does the project fit into Lifebuoy’s wider goals?
Sara> Lifebuoy Shampoo is a mass brand, and therefore a part of mass consumers’ daily lives. It is a brand which is trusted by millions and one that continues to build upon its commitment to delivering purpose for our local consumers. The MOU that Lifebuoy Shampoo has signed with the government is historic and is just the beginning of the journey to create more inspiration and avenues of opportunity for the girl child of Pakistan.
LBB> You didn’t just want to stop at re-writing the poem, but to create actual change in the syllabus that children are exposed to in schools – why was this important to do?
Yawar> The poem was just the beginning. We intended to make the syllabus inclusive for future generations of girls. No change can happen overnight, but it should never take 76 years. Now young girls across Pakistan are exposed to a balanced syllabus where books acknowledge their existence and not just in traditional roles and stories but as an equal. We owe it to them.
LBB> And what have been the most interesting challenges that have come up during this campaign - and how did you tackle them?
Yawar> The biggest challenge is always convincing the client/brand. Our idea is not validated till someone green lights it and in this case team Lifebuoy Shampoo supported us from day one. It took the might of Unilever and the purity of our idea to convince the ministry to sign an MOU which is a historic one for this country. A developing Muslim country now has a gender-balanced curriculum, a curriculum that will now help young girls to believe in themselves.
LBB> What makes this campaign different to other ones regarding girls’ education?
Sara> I always hesitate from describing this as purely a campaign; it is a movement. That is what makes this different. The launch of this ‘movement’ was via a TVC that highlights the problem that little girls face. What matters is that we do not just leave it at that. Creating awareness is important but delivering on actual change and impact is what brands that are truly committed to purpose do. And this is what we have done. Between winning the pitch to airing the launch TVC it took one year of dialogue and work with advocates and government officials to ensure that what we wanted to do could actually be delivered. The signing of the MOU was such a cathartic release for us all, because it signaled the beginning, and a real commitment to change. This is what makes it different.
Grey Pakistan – CEO Sara Koraishy (sitting) and NCD National Creative Director Yawar Iqbal (standing)
LBB> More broadly, we’ve been seeing a real growth in the creative ambition in the Pakistan advertising industry generally – what do you think is fueling that? And how would you describe Grey Pakistan’s creative evolution?
Yawar> We are just starting and there is a long way to go for Pakistan and for us to get our work recognized globally. Recent years have seen a change in the landscape of the marketing and advertising industry in Pakistan reflecting the global trend of good, purpose-driven work. And also work that builds a connection with the brands’ consumers. This has ignited the hunger for work that makes a difference versus simply just ad campaigns. We at Grey are on a learning curve to balance (business-wise) successful work and great work. We want our work to be effective with a brand’s growth but also create work that brings impact and change.