Of memories past —Mahmud Sipra


I learnt my craft of typography from a maulvi sahib who ran a typesetting workshop in Mozang. Maulvi sahib may not have known a word of spoken English but he sure knew the difference between a serif and sans serif typefaceOne day someone will chronicle the history of advertising in this country, and hopefully devote some time and space to salute the pioneers who came from disparate backgrounds to lay the foundations of this great profession.

The agency heads who stood tall on the ramparts were Abdul Ghafur, the centrifugal force behind two big agencies, United and Adarts; the brothers Bashir Khan and Aziz Khan of Manhattan; Nusrat Bokhari of JWT fame; and Abdur Rauf who I believe still runs Lintas.

The next generation of practitioners who literally rose from the ranks include the much missed Naseer Hyder of IAL and Javed Jabbar, who was one of the founders of MNJ. Both went on to successfully run heavyweight agencies of their own.

Among the great phalanx of writers and art directors was Wares Ishaq, the bugbear and creative dynamo who, in collaboration with Gulgee’s powerful drawings, created one of the most memorable institutional advertising campaigns for Caltex. It was old Wares Ishaq who wrote that great insurance slogan: “We Sell Peace of Mind”. I doubt that we have had a savvier advertising copywriter.

Zafar Mooraj, who wrote copy for Crawfords, together with Agha Sadrudin’s brilliant photography launched a virtually unknown pharmaceutical company at the time called Ferozsons Laboratories and turned it into a household name with the slogan comprising just three words: “People Trust Us”.

His brother Anwer Mooraj is another “fast, furious and friendly” copywriter who helped Shaukat Fancy and Anwar Rammal repackage a little known agency called Asiatic to what it is today.

It was my privilege to have known most of them albeit in an adversarial role.

I, for a while, worked for one of these stalwarts. His name was Shazada Ahmed Shah (Lalmian to his friends) and he ran an agency called SASA — the last letter was for “Associates” — and encompassed people like Masud Hasan and I. Hasan today is CEO of an international agency called Publicis in Pakistan.

I am sure there are many others but we are talking advertising practitioners and communicators here not business men.

This was about the time three visionaries on Madison Avenue named Doyle, Dane & Bernbach introduced a new buzz phrase to advertising called the “inverted soft sell” by launching a memorable campaign for a little known — until then — German automobile in North America called Volkswagen. They urged America to “Think Small” in an era when size mattered — in cars that is.

Shortly thereafter they turned the advertising industry on its head by booking full back pages in Life and Time, only to leave the entire page blank — well, almost. The body copy explained the reason. They had wanted to show the new Volkswagen but it had been sold, but you know what it looks like: the same as it looked in 1966,1965,1964,1963 or 1953. Or even 1943, for that matter.

I learnt my craft of typography from a maulvi sahib who ran a typesetting workshop in Mozang. Maulvi sahib may not have known a word of spoken English but he sure knew the difference between a serif and sans serif typeface. How many young copywriters and account executives today can tell a Times Bold font from a Gothic one?

I shot my first commercial on a 16mm Bolex with Mansur Aye, who taught me the fundamentals of animation. And there were no “non-linear editing machines” then either.

I could narrate some great moments of my association with advertising in general and with Lal Shazada and his agency in particular. One of the most enduring memories I have is visiting Pakistan in the late 70s after a long gap. I remember receiving a phone call from Laila Shazada — Lalmian’s much talented and charming wife.

“Come for dinner, Sip. I will have your favourite dessert made and Kaleem Mian wants to meet you as well.” Kaleem Mian being the Advertising Director of a leading Tobacco company.

Now with Lalmian I would go from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’ and then to ‘okay’. But with Laila it would always be the other way round: ‘okay, alright, I’m on my way!’ I adored her. But then I don’t know anyone who didn’t.

I walked into their home to be greeted warmly by Laila, a very subdued Kaleemudin and a very dour Lalmian. I didn’t want to ask him why he wasn’t his usual cheery self. I was afraid he’d tell me.

It was Laila who pressed the wrong button by suggesting: “Oh Lalmian why don’t you ask Sip here to do your commercial that you and Kaleem Mian have been discussing?”

Lalmian nearly choked and his scowl got even more pronounced. He glared at Laila and said:

“You cant be serious, Lailabi! You know the last time I asked him to do that he almost bankrupted me. He went off to London to shoot the commercial and out of all the models in the world, who does he choose to shoot with but a former Miss India. Now with our relations with India being the way they are, how would I have looked airing that commercial here in Pakistan? You tell me. The end result was that he had to re-shoot the entire commercial with Miss Portugal and we all know why he did that!”

“Oh c’mon now Lalmian. Be fair. Every one loves that commercial, it’s a hit!” Laila valiantly rose to my rescue. “I’ve heard you saying ‘sat-is-fac-shun!’ the way she says it on TV.”

“Laila, you don’t understand, he didn’t care if it was a hit or not, he was quite happy with just the Miss! Tell her Kaleem Mian why the commercial has had to be withdrawn now. Go on!”

Kaleem sahib cleared his throat and explained in the politest terms: “Well it seems that Mahmud Mian here shot the commercial with the lady wearing a very fitted top sitting on top of a sand dune on a beach with a cigarette in her hand. Nobody noticed a particular shot in it, or if they did, no one said anything. Maybe they were…what is that word?”

“Titillated!” I offered, trying to be helpful.

“Yes I guess that would be the correct word! Anyway, the commercial has been running for the past few years. Now it seems that General Zia was watching a cricket match on TV the other day, saw the commercial and immediately gave orders to pull it off air.”

“But why? She is covered, there is no skin showing,” said Laila innocently.

Kaleem sahib cleared his throat and said: “Indeed she was, but a certain part of her anatomy was, uh, shall we say, too obvious!”

Laila looked at me and asked: “Was it, Sip?”

“It was cold that morning on Climping Beach in Brighton!” I explained lamely.

“Point taken,” she said, suppressing a smile.

Mercifully some other guests arrived and I was able to make a graceful exit. But Lalmian (God bless his soul) never let me forget the “loss he suffered” due to my having “given in to my basic instinct, at his expense”. Never mind that when he had first viewed the commercial, he had sent me a cable saying: “Bang on target! Carry on regardless.”

Looking back over the years, I am reminded of a line from that classic song by Ralph Ranger made famous by Bob Hope, which pretty much sums up what I really wanted to say:

“Thanks for the memories.”

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at sipraindubai@yahoo.com

Daily Times, 26/6/2008

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