By Marylou Andrew
In the 80s, Bollywood masala films often contained a catchphrase that was repeatedly used (usually for comic effect) throughout the film; “Mogambo khush hua” from Mr. India is my personal favourite. In much the same way, Omar Alavi (Regional Director of MCom Karachi & Chief Strategy Officer Pakistan and Overseas) has a catchphrase of his own. He randomly exclaimed, “we’re mad, we’re MCom” at least five times (if my math is correct) at regular intervals during the interview for this profile. When he said it for the third time, I laughed inwardly, wondering whether he had lost it or was just very passionate about his job.
I found his strong emotions towards the agency slightly odd considering that he has been there all of four months, and also because prior to joining MCom, Alavi worked with Manhattan International aka. MIL (as Director Strategic Planning) for nearly 11 years; in advertising terms, 11 years is practically a lifetime.
Clearly there is no separation anxiety here. Seated in a spacious office with yellow walls covered with Absolut Vodka ads, Alavi looks comfortable. His hair, which has undergone several transformations in the eight years I have known him – from bleached, shoulder length to slightly trimmed and unbleached – is now short and presumably in its natural colour. This conventional hair-do comes with a rocker-style goatee, which is perhaps Alavi’s way of paying homage to the non-conformist within.
‘Conformist’ is certainly not the adjective one would use to describe someone who views every strategy presentation as a rock concert that has to be performed to the hilt. It is quite commonplace for him to take cues from the musical stylings of Neil Diamond and Bruce Springsteen. His explanation:
“Most of this music was written in turbulent times, but it applies to now as well, because history is repeating itself.”
I wonder how this goes down with clients, but he must be doing something right to have reached this point in his career.
Alavi’s induction into advertising happened late in life. The year was 1997, he was 32 and had returned to Pakistan after 14 years in the United States, initially as a student and then as an industry analyst in the telecom sector.
Although he doesn’t say so, Alavi probably struggled to find his feet in Pakistan considering his fairly short stints (one year or less) at IAL (now IAL Saatchi & Saatchi) and Asiatic (now JWT). He worked on accounts like PTC and Lipton Yellow Label but doesn’t have too much to say about them.
The next move was the one that would establish him on the advertising scene. He moved to MIL as Media Group Head and it was here that he met Wamiq Khairi, the man he calls his “mentor”.
“Wamiq interviewed me and brought me into Manhattan, he taught me the connection between media and creative. When he passed away, it was a very personal loss for me. I took over his position and while I may not have done things as well as he did, I don’t think I let him down either.”
Alavi explains that people are important to him and good people were the reason he stayed on at MIL for 11 years. So why the move at this stage?
“At 46, you need challenges,” says Alavi, “and you need a different work environment. When I looked around, I thought MCom would be a place where I would be challenged in a lot of different ways."
It is obvious that the move to MCom is Alavi’s way of reviving the passion that he may have initially felt for his profession but which, at some point became jaded by the monotony of routine. His feelings about MCom are pretty strong, as evidenced by the “we’re mad, we’re MCom” number, but according to him, this is not an act.
“We’re mad because we have people who are willing to go out there and do whatever is needed to grow the business. This is why in the last two years, when there has been a great deal of lethargy in the advertising business and people have been losing money, MCom has grown. We could not have done this without mad, go-getter people.”
So does the M in MCom stand for ‘mad’, I query innocently? No, he points out a tad sheepishly, it stands for ‘mind’.
Glad we cleared that up.
But underneath all the ‘madness’ (excuse the pun) lies an issue that is close to Alavi’s heart: What makes a good planner?
He says good planners understand where brands stand with people.
“When I say people, I don’t mean statistics, but living, breathing human beings, people like you and me.”
Another quality of a good planner that is important to Alavi is the ability to differentiate between accepted consumer beliefs and insights.
“Consumers will tell you that they do something because... a mediocre planner will stop at ‘because’ and that’s the domain of accepted consumer beliefs; but a good planner will go further and carry that thought through to its natural conclusion.”
Perhaps some of these concepts need to be taught to students studying planning at business schools? Alavi is happy to do this but explains that he will only do it in his own style.
“I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I can stand up right now and give a lecture or a presentation, I don’t need books to do it. If someone wants that kind of [practical] knowledge, I can teach it.”
The implication is that business schools are unlikely to adopt this method of teaching anytime soon. So we switch to talking about Alavi’s plans for MCom for the next 12 months.
“Sohail (Kisat) has reposed his trust in me. As the head of the Karachi office, which is the hub of the advertising business in Pakistan, my aim is to go out and get the best business out there. I will not achieve this by using my name but because we have good people and good systems at MCom.”
After all, we’re mad, we’re MCom, right?
First published in the November-December 2010 issue of Aurora.