Hamza Ali Left Life on the Road, and Ended Up on the Other Side of the World

'Your unique culture and heritage is your biggest strength'

Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Hamza Ali started out as a production assistant in Pakistan, and is now an award-winning art director at Havas New York. 

What were you before? 

I was a production assistant working in northern Pakistan, making documentaries for nonprofits and government agencies. In my two years as a production assistant, I extensively traveled in the Karakoram and Himalayan region, getting inspired by local people, nature and their stories.

What triggered your reinvention?

Reddit. I came across the website for a U.S.-based advertising school, and saw their student art director portfolios. It sparked a creative envy, and that was the trigger. Making ads seemed like a lot of fun. It combined my interests in film, branding and visual arts. I liked my job, but being on the road kept me from growing and pursuing my interests beyond production. It still took me months to leave the job and fully commit to an application. Moving countries was also a tough and scary decision.

What did the first steps look like?

In the beginning of 2019, I had to move back in with my parents for a month because of health concerns. That was the perfect opportunity for me to start applying to portfolio schools. In that time I also looked up scholarships, brushed up my design skills, and most importantly, started watching ads. Six months later, I was halfway across the world studying at the Brandcenter—one of the best advertising schools one can go to.

What was easier than you thought?

When I arrived in the U.S., I felt uncomfortable communicating ideas in English. They would sound great in my head but end up sounding "cheesy" or "unrelatable" when I said them out loud or wrote them down. Funnily, a lot of it was self-doubt. I had amazing friends who gave me the confidence and allowed me to learn from them. I hung around native English speakers as much as I could, and it became a fun and much easier experience than I thought.

What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?

Your unique culture and heritage is your biggest strength. In an industry that thrives on minds that can think differently, you're a valuable asset. So share your culture, your stories from growing up, your unique insights. Never be shy of them.

Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?

My mother, a housewife who picked up calligraphy and painting in her '50s, and worked until she became an expert. Her detail to craft and her willingness to go back to school will always be an inspiration, no matter what stage of career I'm at.

Also, my teacher Thomas Scharpf. A talented creative director, and an amazing mentor. He taught me how to turn inspiration into ideas, be a good listener, and give constructive feedback. He's the role model I aspire to be like, if I ever become a creative director.

What was one hard obstacle to overcome?

Finding a full-time job as a foreigner. Last year at this time, I was working two jobs at a subway and a library, trying to stay in school while I worked on my portfolio at night. Being a foreigner is difficult in the U.S. because you can't get professional work while in school. Many recruiters ghosted me the moment they sensed visa-related paperwork coming. Which is why I was having a hard time getting a job, despite having a good portfolio and great conversations with recruiters.

I'll forever be grateful to ECDs Bharat Kumar and Marcelo Ramirez, who took a chance on me and hired me at Havas NY. That chance changed my life. The feeling—when I quit my part-time jobs, and signed as a full-time creative—was second to none.

What has this fundamentally changed for you?

Perhaps the biggest thing that changed is that before I never asked people for help. I was raised to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness or incompetence. When I did, I was surprised how much people are willing to lend support and how much I can learn this way. I'd be nowhere without the unconditional help of my peers, friends and mentors.

Do you think you could go back/do you want to?

I believe not everything one enjoys has to become a career path. At some point, I realized filmmaking is a wonderful hobby but not a career for me. I love making films, but at my own pace, and about things I'm passionate about. Last year I made a documentary about quitting cigarettes, and it was the most fun I've had on a set in a long time.

Tell us your reinvention song?

"Be the Boss" by James Brown. It's the perfect song for when you're commuting back from work after a hard day.

How would you define yourself now? 

I'm an advertising art director at Havas New York. I work for clients like Keurig, McCafe, American Cancer Society and Ali Forney Center. My diverse experiences provide fuel for my creativity. Which is why my time as a production assistant, foreigner, student and sandwich artist is invaluable. In my first year in advertising, I won multiple Clio Awards, Cannes Young Lions and several shortlists. For many, awards don't mean much, but to me, they are a testament that the journey of reinvention I started three years ago was well worth it.

Reinventions is a questionnaire series with people who are making pivots in their lives. If you're going through a reinvention and would like to be interviewed for the series, please get in touch.

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Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.

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