Adil K. Mirza, the co-founder, business partner and the heartbeat of the agency that bears my name, was the richest person I ever knew.
He dressed like a prince. Walked like a king. Spoke like a pharaoh. In every way, he was a tycoon. You could trace the provenance of his immeasurable wealth to a fleet of golden ships that were anchored at the heart of his empire: Friendships. Leadership. Relationships. Fellowship. Guardianship. Curatorship. Salesmanship. Showmanship.
But most of all, it was his spirit of partnership that underscored every single day of the 27 years I knew him – until he died, suddenly, of a brain haemorrhage on July 13, 2017. He was 48. Adil and I launched The D’Hamidi Partnership almost a week after being introduced to each other by a common friend. We were both in our early 20s. Full of the unfettered idealism of youth; proud in our arrogance of possibilities.
“What do you want to do in life?” he asked, with a philosophical egging on that I knew was beyond his years. “Well,” I said, fumbling along the edges of a future I had no idea about, “I guess, when I turn 40, I’d like to have my own agency.” “So why not start one tomorrow?” he declared. And so we did. I lettered the name of the agency in Goudy Old Style to look like an old lawyer’s firm so that, on the surface, we would be taken more seriously.
We had no office. No staff. No clients. No money. Just a telephone and a connection to audacity. To get the name of the agency out, Adil and I created our own brand of irreverence. First we partnered with Shakeys (an international brand of pizzerias located in Clifton franchised by a former BCCI executive and which was suffering from low sales at the time) to convert the place into a discotheque open to friends and company exclusively on Thursday nights. I would tear pictures out of old National Geographic magazines, typeset my own headlines and be at the printers over the weekend to get the ads/invitations printed. Over the photograph of a gloomy Mongo elder from the Bantu tribe of Congo, the headline read: ‘Due to an adverse language barrier, Kantu Ngong will not be able to attend our disco.’
We couldn’t fathom the number of people who kept showing up week after week. It was certainly Adil’s first introduction (and my reaffirmation) of the persuasive power of putting the right combination of words and pictures together. Adil even managed to get a notorious group of troublemakers to become our bouncers. Problem solved. An agency was born.
I was lucky that a friend of mine decided to take a sabbatical from modelling for two and a half days in order to join a canned foods importer and then asked us to carry out research on their bestselling brand of honey. So Adil got the same bunch of bouncers to take a shower, comb their hair and stand outside some of Karachi’s busiest stores and conduct primary research. The boys were excellent – considering, that for many of them this was the only day’s work they would do in their lives. We earned our first Rs 10,000. Just enough to print our first batch of business cards and letterheads and register the company as a partnership. We were in business. Well, sort of.
Our first pitch was for the newly arrived Schön Bank. The owners had initially invited us to give them a name for their TV channel. We came up with ‘Televischön’. They loved it. After the presentation, they suggested we develop a logo for Schön Bank.
“When’s the pitch?” asked Adil. “Tomorrow,” they replied. I had less than 45 minutes to design the logo. As we had no office, we used a bureau service that rented Macs by the hour. We had Rs 1,000 in our pockets: Rs 500 for the rental; Rs 500 for a single, colour printout that resembled a high-grade bromide. That was our pitch. The next day, when Adil went to present the logo, he walked into a hall with several ad agencies taking turns to present their case.
“I have never heard of your agency...?” someone said. “That’s because it was born yesterday,” replied Adil. “How big is your team?” they asked. “You’re looking at it,” said Adil, who had walked into his first spectacle of agency life, where scores of suited executives arrived, piled high with art-boards and options and deals and influence and contacts and discounts and connections and invitations and all that other fuel that gets business done. We had a single printout in a brown manila envelope.
I told Adil that our first work out in the world had to be outstanding – otherwise we would forever be cast in that special Pakistani mould of mediocrity that continues to smite creative talent. He took this to heart. When he entered the boardroom, he began building up a case that was larger than life. Then he slowly pulled out the printout, presenting it like jewellery. There was pin-drop silence. Everybody leaned in. Then they passed it around. Then they rejected it.
“Maybe you could come with more options tomorrow?” counselled one of the bankers. So the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, Adil went back and sold and re-sold and re-sold that same logo until the client believed in the power of its story. Once the logo went up at the top of I.I. Chundrigar Road, we ended up handling every single bank that was interested in advertising. At one point, we were handling nine different banks. We became so entrenched in the financial sector in the first 15 years of our agency life that we yearned to advertise anything tangible. Like socks. Or muffins. Or nooses.
That was the power of Adil’s belief in our work. Or maybe it was the power of empty pockets and a bureau service that kept upping their rental every time they felt we were getting closer to our goals. Of course, I’m oversimplifying. But that is the magic of the past. You can write it off in a single sentence.
Those were the first three months of my association with Adil. The next 27 years could easily account for the same intensity of passion, diligence and irreverence to the dictates of the world. There wasn’t a single rule that we did not break. I could recount one thousand and two nights worth of stories. Stories that could fill volumes about our firsthand exposure to the trials and tribulations of a couple of twenty-somethings doing business in Pakistan, and the piercing wisdom that erupts within when you come to grips with (in)human nature – but that would defeat the purpose of this (let’s not call it an obituary).
The burn of an unexpected death leaves you vulnerable. It’s like a train engine, slowly colliding into your belief system, hitting and splintering – in slow motion – the history of your personal world. Death can result in a continuum of parallels; the ups and downs, the rights and wrongs, what was said and what was left unsaid. It’s all part of the process of grieving, which is both a wound and a journey, with many realisations along the way – so long as idealism is not lost.
As sentimental as this may sound, I believed Adil to be the classic (ad)man. Whether it was his addictive charisma, larger-than-life personality, or a ferocity that was at once daunting yet affable, he could persuade without the need for words. Moreover, he could easily have trademarked his life as an example of living with fearless authenticity. Professionally, it was his relentless energy and intense devotion to hard work, the pursuit of creativity, and a commitment to intelligent, thoughtful design for all brands alike that generated a unique brand of loyalty among clients and colleagues – for whom he was a trusted confidante, motivator and a demigod of inspiration.
Adil was a rebel with a cause. A thinker, dreamer and believer. A sartorial icon. An advertising outsider whose presence, confidence and flair for making the unthinkable and the unimaginable possible, put him leagues ahead of his contemporaries. He will be remembered for 25 years of unimpeachable personal and professional integrity, flawless speculative ability, irreplaceable laughter and warmth, and a wisdom that can only come from having stared at the sun long enough.
I have often been asked why Adil never wanted his name on the door. Why he was always the ‘partner with the ship’. Initially, I thought it was because he never wanted to be exposed to the glare of a fickle limelight. But now I know better.
The door always belonged to Adil.
—Faraz Maqsood Hamidi, 2017