It’s not very often that a copywriter comes to be celebrated in our times. Music bands? Sure. Cricketing heroes? Absolutely. Film stars? You bet. Models? Too often.
Sure, they are the darlings of the agency. The first to open a conversation about ideas and the last to close a pitch. Yet, like moths to a flame, copywriters are drawn to the illumination of incandescent ideas, but are all too often singed by the glare of mediocrity that reduces their best efforts into commercial fodder. That is why few last. Fewer are heard of. And even fewer stand the test of time.
So it was a fortunate stroke of serendipity when I came across a book about one of our best copywriters. Ever. Compiled and edited by S. Abid Rizvi, Meet Our Friend JJ: An Anthology about Javed Jabbar is a collection of anthologised personal tributes paid to Javed Jabbar by people in his professional, public, and personal life.
Each chapter begins with a short biography of the contributor – ranging from village leaders to international personalities, from childhood friends to professional colleagues – through to an endearing recognition of JJ’s unexampled role in their lives. But, most interestingly, you will find it peppered with people we have taken for granted in the industry. Reading about them, in relation to JJ, suddenly gives them a provenance too. And ends up being just as much about them as it is about the subject – creating a wonderful tapestry of fortitude, experience, humour and a deeply shared humanity.
Take renowned columnist, Irfan Husain, who shares how as teenagers, he and JJ decided one summer to pool their meagre pocket money into a design start-up they called ‘Artemis Associates’. They rented a flat on Drigh Road (Shahrah-e-Faisal, today), assigned one big room to each other, and waited for work to pour in. It never did. The war of 1965 had slashed advertising budgets.
Ruby Haider, CEO, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, a contemporary of JJ’s agency, MNJ, describes him as the “quintessential Renaissance man” who is “liberal, enlightened and profoundly wise” to the extent that he has “channelised his ideas and intellect into diverse fields of human interaction.”
Azra Babar, long-serving CD of MNJ, reminisces how she begged her aunt, a photographer, to accompany her to an event she was covering at the BVS Parsi School in the mid-‘70s where JJ was due to speak. Inspired by JJ’s natural word facility and faultless delivery, she sought admission in Karachi University’s department of Mass Communication, intent on working at MNJ — which she did, for 13 years, leading its commercial and charitable work.
"Javed Jabbar is the portrait of a man who takes a decision and corrects it as he goes along. His story is not one of someone who waits for the right moment."
Mariam Ali Baig, Editor, Aurora, also started her career at MNJ. She reveals, “JJ was my first real boss in my first real job” way back in 1975 when MNJ “marked the watershed between the agencies established post-1947 and those which emerged in the 70s... (JJ) was the man of the moment in the Pakistani firmament of advertising.” He was the first creative to head an agency by changing the paradigm of a client-driven approach to a creative-driven one. “If you get the creative right,” she explains JJ’s philosophy, “clients will follow.” And they did. Putting JJ’s young agency on the global map. She concludes her tribute by attributing her formative professional years to JJ because “embedded in my mind were the tools I needed in order to take the next step in the journey that would become my career. Those tools were (his) gift to me.”
If there were one lesson you could take away, it would be about creative risk: JJ is the portrait of a man who takes a decision and corrects it as he goes along. His story is not one of someone who waits for the right moment. For shit to settle down. For kids to grow up. For work to free up. For the rupee to stand its ground. For the economy to get better. Or for bad luck to let up just a little...
People who make a difference never wait for just the right moment. They know it won’t arrive. So, they make their presence felt when they are sleepless, or broke, or hungry, or in the middle of a crisis, or even inside an empty room, with no business, on a busy road, when the war planes are roaring overhead. Whenever.
As long as whenever is now.