Gita Ghaemmaghami: “I left the tech industry to build a smoke-free future in the GCC”

Q and A with Gita Ghaemmaghami, Communications Director for Philip Morris Management Services Middle East.

Gita Ghaemmaghami was appointed as Communications Director for Philip Morris Management Services Middle East – the regional operation of the global tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) in December 2019, a move that would definitely raise eyebrows in the PR industry given Gita’s extensive 15 years’ experience in the tech industry.

Q1: What prompted you to make this drastic change? 

As a communications professional, I’m always open to exploring exciting new opportunities and challenges. I firmly believe that anyone in the industry should experience a healthy balance between agency and client life throughout their career.  This provides you with much-needed perspective and ultimately shapes your understanding to make your approaches much more rounded. Change, as a concept, can be viewed as either desirable or undesirable. Ultimately, it is how you leverage the opportunities that present themselves to ensure that you have the most positive impact wherever you work.

You are absolutely right by suggesting that such a shift may ruffle the feathers of seasoned professionals in the industry. The jump from technology to tobacco was not made without due consideration, but I believe that the industry is now at a crossroads where tech adoption plays a significant role in influencing future growth. Philip Morris International is currently revolutionizing the smoke-free alternative market across the globe, and I believe that technology plays a crucial role in this. Within my 15 years in the tech industry, I have seen the rise of many revolutionary products and devices, and it is exciting to witness an entire industry embrace the digital and technology evolution as part of its cultural shift.

It is not often that you are afforded the opportunity to be part of something much bigger than yourself, and affect real change not only regionally, but on a global scale. As a leader in the industry, Philip Morris International has the responsibility to provide its legal age smokers with alternatives to smoking and I am excited at the prospect of driving this journey in the Middle East.  

Q2: Was it a major adjustment for you to go from one industry to the other?

Naturally, communicating a product entails a completely different strategy than that of a company’s vision. With products or devices, you can rely on the specifications and comparisons with market peers to demonstrate leadership and innovation. It’s a much more tangible process. With a vision, however, you need to go beyond this and find a way for it to resonate with your audience. It is imperative todevelop and elicit an emotive response to your company, compared to relying on the cyclical nature of the tech market for ‘hype’. Finding creative methods to sustain engagement is of the utmost importance.

The vision of PMI is universal in scale. It cannot be distilled down into one demographic. The message is simple, yet powerful: If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t quit, change. PMI has the opportunity to change to better alternatives. There are very few people in this world whose lives are not touched by smoking in some form or another, and to bring about such a change is a great undertaking.

In terms of transitioning from one industry leader to another, they are not without their similarities. The challenges faced are often comparable in nature, the mandates are global in scope and the relationships I have forged at previous organisations will undoubtedly serve me well in furthering the regional vision of PMI. Ultimately, my experience with large international corporates with global remits has undoubtedly aided in my efficient transition into the role and I eagerly look forward to supporting PMI in achieving its goals in the Middle East.

Q3: What are the challenges you are anticipating working in communications for the biggest tobacco company in the world? 

Naturally, tobacco is a heated topic in any global market. With it comes a range of restrictions and sometimes scepticism. These challenges provide and exciting opportunity for me and the team that is uniquely available to the tobacco industry. To successfully deliver on embedding PMI’s new vision and culture in the public eye regionally, it is imperative that we innovate on our existing outreach practices and avenues to create meaningful engagements with our audiences.

Another element I briefly touched on just now is the stigma that is currently entrenched within the tobacco industry. A key part of my role will be to create awareness about our smoke-free vision and the science behind it. While we have successfully rolled out our range of smoke-free products in the UAE market so far, there are still many smokers in the GCC who have not yet had the chance to experience what it truly is to live a ‘smoke-free’ lifestyle.  Changing this perception will be no easy task, but I am eager to rise to the challenge it presents! 

Q4: Finally, what is your fondest memory from the tech industry?

Tech industry is so volatile and unpredictable that you experience many exciting moments while you are interacting and working in this industry. My fondest memory is related to contributors specifically women appointment on the board of biggest tech or social media companies, seeing Sheryl Sandberg the first woman on Facebook’s board of directors in June 2012 and breaking other gender barrier was one of memorable moments for me