See It & Be It: Sarah Fahim – Strategy & Research, ARGONAUT Inc.

“See It & Be It” is part of the 4A’s women and diversity leadership series. As part of this initiative, we invite members to tell us their stories. Here, Sarah Fahim shares her experiences and views.


Women in advertising. What comes to mind when you hear this phrase?


A flood of thoughts. I had a carefully planned career trajectory in communication; I knew I wanted to combine my passion to write with something purposeful and pragmatic. Little did I know that my cultural background from my early life in Pakistan had a deeper impact on my career choices than I had ever imagined. Most of it connects to the gender disparity in the cultural environment that I have grown up in.


In a past life, I wrote a cover story on Pakistani women in advertising for a nationally distributed magazine. I got the opportunity to meet several high achieving women from the industry. From the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan who also supervises a creative department at a leading ad agency, to the woman who singlehandedly started and grew her own advertising agency that now has some of the biggest clients in the country, I met superstars of this realm. I penned down their journeys and in the process, I envisioned a path for myself — improving gender balance in advertising leadership in Pakistan and beyond.


When I came to the United States and started working in the ad industry here, I was taken by surprise at first. Gender balance in industry leadership is still a question mark. Gradually, I got involved with associations like Time’sUp Advertising that are actively addressing the issue. I hope to channel such initiatives to developing economies like Pakistan and pave the way for women to access equal growth and leadership opportunities.


You have experienced the ad industry in the United States and Pakistan. How would you describe the impact of advertising across two cultures?


It’s hard to quantify but easy to describe. The United States is a highly individualistic culture whereas Pakistan is a very collectivistic one. The social mindset is different in the two markets. While Pakistani advertising is highly emotional and reflective of culture, I have a sense that American advertising has a deeper role in shaping culture. One common thread is representation of women and how quickly it has evolved overall. I’d say both American and Pakistani advertising strategies have become more responsible toward gender balance in the past few years. Women are having a cultural moment in most parts of the world. I believe advertising has had a role to play in it and has the power to further its impact.


What inspires you about advertising?


The direct impact that advertising has on collective social mindsets is fascinating. I truly believe gender roles in ads and media have a profound effect on society. I have also been formally trained in academic and scholarly research methods. Inspired by the influence that industry professionals have on culture, I researched gender roles and stereotypes from the perspective of professional strategists in advertising, and published a full length study last year on Texas ScholarWorks. This project is near and dear to my heart.


What do you do to survive and thrive in the industry?


Consistency and patience are absolutely key. I have never said no to a project and always strive to deliver my best. Definitely a cliché – but it has always delivered in the longer run. One other thing that’s so very essential to personal and professional growth is finding the right mentors. It doesn’t have to be seniors, executives and CEOs. Horizontal loyalty is just as important. People who help you aim higher and help you hone your skills and talents are the best resource one can hope for.