The former associate creative director at BBDO Pakistan and co-founder and creative director at Contentory Inc. speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about her views on gender-based discrimination in Pakistan’s workplaces, going viral and learning to deal with cyberbullying
Creative, director, artist, viral sensation, mother. These are just a few words to describe BBDO Pakistan’s former associate creative director Huma Mobin. As someone who has always stood up for what she believes in from a young age, Huma’s zeal for being valued as a female has stuck with her throughout the changes in her career.
Ever-adept Huma rose to the challenge of leaving a job without a plan B and after a conversation with a friend she became the co-founder of boutique agency Contentory. She also became a viral sensation due to a twist of fate that meant her husband wasn’t able to travel to Europe with her for their honeymoon, so Huma went alone, took pictures at famous landmarks alone and before she knew it had been featured on countless global news outlets. However, this led to backlash and as a way of channelling the negative energy she received into something positive, Huma hosted her first TEDxTalk on cyberbullying.
LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Huma to hear about her creative career, travelling solo and just why she believes a change is needed for women in Pakistan’s working world.
LBB> Let’s go back to the beginning and your childhood in Pakistan.
Huma> My childhood was very typical for a Pakistani girl growing up in the ‘90s. My father was a government officer working for Pakistan Railways so we'd move around a lot, you can say I was able to pick on almost all the provincial cultures because of this. I used to live with my grandmother in Karachi for a long time as we couldn't compromise on education and Karachi in those days had the best education to offer.
After getting my primary education sorted we moved to Lahore for good. Lahore was a strange city for me, I couldn't find myself anywhere close to relating with the kids my age here. You could say Karachi has a New York pace of life and Lahore is more LA, all about the glitz and glam. But moving to Lahore was the best decision my father ever made, I got the best education, the most amazing social circle and found my husband here. So now I use this to my advantage since I'm the best of both cities; Karachi and Lahore. I can fully understand the two main hubs that are part of ANY brief that we get. Also having connections, family and friends in both the cities help getting work done.
LBB> When did you decide that a career in creativity was for you?
Huma> I think I was in my O-levels in Convent of Jesus and Mary, I never thought I was creative or an artist. But I had to take art as one of my subjects and I had a teacher who truly believed in my talent. She asked me to make a detailed painting of a rose with a magnifying glass and when I finished she told me to take a walk around the school. When I got back to the class I saw the same painting but did not believe it was mine because it was beautiful. She made me believe in myself and really think of myself as an artist and someone with creative flair.
Once I got into one of the oldest art colleges in Pakistan, National College of Arts, it was like I had finally found home, finding people like minded and as crazy as me. The culture of NCA further cultivated the mindset to push boundaries and do something different. After graduation I took a year to experiment to see where I am better suited, as a graphic designer, a copywriter, a creative, a media manager. After experimenting, I found my true calling, which is being a creative.
LBB> You were at BBDO Pakistan for just over four years and then left to start Contentory, why was it the right time for you to leave and what was it like setting up your own agency?
Huma> BBDO was home for me. I knew my strengths but truly utilising them was taught to me by my mentors: Ali Rez, Assam Khalid and Faisal Durrani. When we started the campaign #BeatMe, our first campaign around domestic violence that won awards across the globe, I was not only the creative but account manager too. Using my network to execute the plan and that too with minimum to almost no budget was something I'm extremely proud of.
After 1.5 years, I left and despite being in a senior place and I couldn't find a job opportunity - the one that I did saw me being a mother as a disability and rejected me on that basis. Such is a sexist market that we are in. So after quitting I stayed home, focused on my child, went for a trip to Sri Lanka, and decided to make a channel for girls. Suddenly my friend called me for a pitch and within a week we had locked a client and so Contentory Inc. was made. The objective was simple; MAKE AMAZING CONTENT. Also after working for more than 10 years in the industry I saw the gaps which agencies never fulfil, and this is where we come, to fill those gaps and make a mark in the market, which is why Contentory Inc. within a short span of time has made its mark. Here's a campaign we recently made to encourage people to live safely during the pandemic.
LBB> I'm so interested in your perspective on gender equality in Pakistan’s workplaces.
Huma> There's a general perception of girls not being serious about their jobs and just plain more homely. However, the truth is that women are stepping out of their homes to make a living for themselves and become more independent, in doing so they have this fire to prove to themselves, their families, all the societal standards and then to the office how hardworking, talented and worthy they are. But in the end, it's a man's world. I've seen such successful women being so afraid of taking more leading roles because they feel they might fail, on the contrary we have men who give advice to get the job first and then figure out how to do it, till then fake it till you make it. Because of this, hardly any women reach the top and when they do, they are scared of not letting anyone else take that away from that so instead of lifting other women up to their own parr, they end pushing other girls further down because again they are made insecure by the BRO-CODE at the top.
Even though I come from a very privileged class, I am quite blunt, I had faced this unfairness, when I was leaving BBDO I was told of this opportunity to be the creative director at an advertising agency. When I reached there, the people who had come in for the interview jokingly said, ‘we have no idea why we are here, you with your expensive portfolio and awards that no one in Pakistan has’, yet I was rejected from that firm only on the basis of being a mother. I was never ever told by the firm but informally was informed by an acquaintance that "Oh they think a mother on board will complicate things!"
LBB> You’re obviously so proud of being a woman and a mother to your daughter, and there’s been times where you’ve taken her to work with you. As someone who has been aware that being a mother has been viewed as a hindrance for career progression, this is a bold move.
Huma> I am blessed to have a very social, very chilled out kid. She's been going to the office since she was three months old! I used to let her play with all my colleagues and bosses, she grew up in the arms of my colleagues at BBDO. So, she somewhat understood the office environment. She also knew that my mom was not just my mom but she had things to do which she couldn't be part of, she knew I couldn't be there for her ALL THE TIME, as it would be disparate my own identity as Huma, which would make me resent her.
She's been on work trips with me, she stayed with her father while I've been away for work so all these have somehow helped her understand my absence. But now that she's growing and thanks to Covid-19 and quarantine, I feel the umbilical cord has grown back! You have to juggle, you need your partner's support and for him to know that there are two people who are parents and two people who work. Even then, it doesn't stop me from working, having her on my laptop, while I make presentations or mute my phone during a Zoom meeting due to a tantrum is just the new normal and I've never ever apologised for being a mother and I will never do so. It's part of me and if anyone of my clients or colleagues do not understand they can well walk out the door.
LBB> A few years ago you went viral after going on your honeymoon alone! Tell us more, why did you do it and what did your husband say?
Huma> It all started when Arsalaan and I got engaged, he left for Budapest immediately after and I was left sulking here in Lahore. So he sent me a picture of himself with empty space to show me how much he missed me. Now as cute as that sounds, it's really not romantic at all because he had the views and well, he was in BUDAPEST so sending me a picture did not in any way make me feel better.
Fast forward two years later due to some technicality, he did not get his Schengen Visa and I did. It had only been four months since I was married and well here I was going on a ‘honeymoon’ without my honey but with the rest of his family so I had my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my uncle-in-law and my aunt-in-law going to the amazing place called GREECE. So it was an internal joke that I started sending Arsalaan these empty pose pictures with me crying to him, and I sent the same batch of pictures to my friends group, one of my friends who is now my business partner and co-owner of Contentory Inc. suggested I make a series and post them up. I came back and posted a few pictures on my Facebook profile and the rest they say became history. The reason why it took off the way it did was because it was unbelievable to see a Pakistani Girl TRAVELLING ALONE and having fun with it. My husband was really depressed when I was away but once I was back and it got viral we just had immense fun AND ended up getting a sponsored honeymoon by Intercontinental Hotel Group and went to Rome, Paris, Spain and Portugal! So all well when it ends well.
LBB> Your TEDxTalk is somewhat linked to the trip, tell us more.
Huma> My TedXTalk is about cyberbullying, as much as I got viral for going on my honeymoon alone, I was cyberbullied like crazy. Thankfully at that time, my mother-in-law and husband told me not to read the comments and just enjoy being talked about and having articles published. But I just had to read the comments when the dust settled and it was extremely triggering and uncomfortable, I was getting so much hate but I also got a huge following, it so happened that this app called Sarahah was launched which lets you post anything anonymously about anyone, I got massive queries about how to’s on life and career path and people struggling with depression. Now I knew when I had done nothing, I was bashed like crazy, maybe I'm going to get bashed again if I say something. But it so happened that I ended up getting over my fear of being trolled and decided to pass some kindness in the dark dark world of the net.
LBB> What are your hopes for the future in your career and at Contentory?
Huma> I hope, I pray I get to establish an office of my own with its own daycare facility so I can help women, young mothers to step out and be independent, to provide a safe space for women to explore their highest potential! This is my target!
It is my dream that if some woman anywhere in Pakistan thinks about leaving a toxic situation and feels she wants to be independent she thinks of Contentory Inc. as a place that will help her in achieving her dreams and independence. I also hope to launch a girls only channel that caters to all the talks revolving around women and speak the truth unabashedly.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Huma> I am truly humbled and grateful for LBB to cover my story, I am literally just a girl from Pakistan whose head is full of ideas and dreams and one of the dream came true, of being the highest ranking creative in Pakistan, so you can say 2020 wasn't all that bad for me!