Pearls And Heels: Aleya Kassam


Today is Pearls and Heels where we interview women on their careers and the joys and challenges of their chosen field. Today’s Pearls and Heels lady is Aleya Kassam. Aleya Kassam says that at this very moment she is a writer and a performer. She says at this moment because she has had about 5 distinctly different sorts of jobs in her working life, and finds that she tends to get itchy feet every couple of years and end up traversing a very different path. Right now she is a copywriter with an advertising agency, She is also a blogger at and she gets on the stage whenever she can find the time.

Aleya Kassam

1. Describe your typical day?

Lately I have been very seduced by the idea of the 5am club, which I heard Robin Sharma talking about recently, but I haven’t quite managed to sever relations with the snooze button. I wake up at about 6, do an hour of yoga, wade through Nairobi traffic and am at my desk at around 8:30am. I often don’t know what the day will look like, as it depends on the briefs that come in that day, unless we are working on an ongoing campaign. My favourite days are the ones when you get to sink your teeth into a really interesting campaign, ideating, crafting scripts and then getting into studio for production. On a really good day I will leave the office at 6, wade through Nairobi traffic again and head home. Advertising tends to be very unpredictable, and working late hours is not unusual, so if I can leave the office by 10 at least three times a week, I am happy! I spend the spare time that I have at home either writing, or reading.

2. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Initially I wanted to be Nancy Drew. When I realized that I didn’t quite know how I could do that, I wanted to be an explorer. Then one day someone in the family mentioned that I would make a great lawyer, because I love arguing so much (I don’t think they meant that as a compliment – I have always had a feisty mouth), I got it into my head that that is what I wanted to do. This changed when I met a real life lawyer as a teen and the way that he described the legal scene in Kenya was so dirty, that I was pretty sure I would get eaten up alive.

3. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

I have been reflecting on this a lot lately. I wonder where I would be had I started out in the advertising industry at the beginning of my career. I have jumped around careers a lot, and the disadvantage is that you then have to learn a whole new field every time, and so it is hard to feel like you are really building anything. I do get a buzz out of trying out new things, and cracking the code of how this new thing works….maybe I am living my version of Nancy Drew! The only thing I can definitively say I would do differently is I would have started writing much earlier.

4. What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?

Curiosity. You have to be really curious and nosy about people. What moves them, what frightens them, what scares them and what makes them laugh. Stories are incredibly powerful in advertising, but you have to understand what it is that will connect with people.

Observation. I am shameless. I eavesdrop, I stare, I am nosy. Because if people can see their own little nuances in the ads, they are more likely to relate to them.

Kick ass selling skills. You can have the greatest idea, but if you can’t sell it, it will die in your notebook. Also if you can’t sell the vision of what you want to accomplish, and inspire others to be involved in it, you will be limited to what you can achieve on your own, by yourself.

5. As a professional how is it working in the Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?

Nairobi is incredibly vibrant, and filled with a wonderful energy that keeps working here very interesting. There is also a sense that as a generation, we are part of something bigger. We have the opportunity to shape our city, and even country, in a way that people in other parts of the world do not have. I wish Nairobi was more conducive to artists making a living outside the corporate world. But perhaps that is a global challenge. The advertising world is the graveyard of writers with half written manuscripts in their drawers.

6. What motivates you?

The idea that in some way I could impact the world in some meaningful way.

7. How do you define success?

I hate the word success. I don’t even know what it means. The parameters of what I consider success changes all the time. And I find the word loaded with such value based judgment which I think is entirely unhelpful.

8. Who has been your greatest inspiration?

I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint one person, but I find enormous inspiration from incredible women all around me.

9. What is your favorite aspect of your job?

Having a script I write come to life. It is such a treat as a writer to have your writing produced for TV or radio. I still get an enormous kick out of it, and I love the production process. It feels like breathing life into an inanimate object. There is something almost God-like about it.

10. What would you say are the key elements to being successful?

Even though I dislike the word successful, I think there are some things that do help you get ahead. Have the right attitude, be a sponge and learn everything you possibly can, give your all to every piece of work you do, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Excellence is a habit, said someone wise, once.

11. What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?

Do whatever you have to, to get a foot in the door of an advertising agency that you admire. Then spend the next three years learning everything you possibly can from everyone around you. Throw your ego out the window. Learn the principles of design from the art guys. Pick your Creative Director’s brain so much that they are almost sick of you. Sit in on recording sessions with the Sound Engineer and ask lots of questions. Better yet, learn how to do it yourself so you can demo your own work and not rely on others.

Write a hell of a lot constantly. Read all sorts of things you can get your hands on. Get out into life, watch, listen and make notes. And again, throw your ego out of the window. Your first three years at an agency when you are starting out in your career are like school. You should almost be paying for the sort of experience you could get if you use that time well.

12. What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of career?

If I were to speak of this copywriting career, one moment sticks out in my head. I wrote a script for the Choose Kenya campaign when Obama was coming for GES. When I wrote it, I wasn’t quite sure what the end product would look like. That was an intense month, and I think I finished the script at about 3am in the office, Bob Marley playing in the background and the creative team had (with the help of a lot of Red Bull) flown beyond exhaustion and were just loopy at that point.

I wrote it as a Kenyan for other Kenyans. It was an honest script and captured the nuance of what it is like to be Kenyan, beyond all the ‘everything is rosy’ crap propaganda we often fed. However by the time it was being produced, it had been severely slashed to fit within the time restriction and so almost all of the nuance was gone…that’s the killer about ads, you are a slave to 90 seconds. It ended up being read by Uhuru as the welcome video for the GES. It felt a little surreal, but also frightened me a little. How my words were effectively for sale. That is when it really sunk in, what I do. I have my own issues with this administration, but I believed in the message, and that is why it is probably my most satisfying moment.

13. What makes you happy?

Starting out with a nugget of something and seeing it come to life in whatever form it ends up in. Being on stage. Being in the forest. Being upside down. Being in bed with a great book.

14. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?

I am a voracious reader. I also write for my blog, and try get on to the stage when I can. I have difficulty fitting in rehearsal time, and so I don’t get to do that nearly as much as I would like to. Writing though has really become my life. Even when I am not actually with pen to paper, I am thinking about writing, and massaging ideas in my head trying to coax out the shape of the piece.

15. Where you see yourself in around 10 years?

I have absolutely no idea. The success fanatics would probably tell me that isn’t a good sign. To be honest, I would love to have a little coffee shop stuffed with books and eclectic art, comfy couches, plants everywhere, delicious food and coffee, and really vibrant performances happening. A space for creative alchemy to brew. And a little office in the back overlooking a beautiful garden or valley where I would write in the mornings before my first customers come in.

If you would like to interact with Aleya find her on twitter at .

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Potentash Founder. A creative writer and editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories. Find me at [email protected]