Face To Face With Aftab Mahmud Khurshid, Group Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Business Development, SSG

Face To Face With Aftab Mahmud Khurshid, Group Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Business Development, SSG

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Aftab Mahmud Khurshid, prominent marketer, Group Chief Marketing Officer of Super Star Group [SSG], reflects on his journey as a marketer, his experience of working in  diverse industries spanning from banking to FMCG, what does it take to design an effective marketing strategy, re-branding of SSG, why we don’t have that many leading global brands from Bangladesh, and the future of marketing in Bangladesh.

Future Startup: I want to start at the beginning of your story. Briefly tell us about yourself.

Aftab Mahmud Khurshid: I was born and brought up in Dhaka, and attended St. Patrick’s Grammar School for my primary and secondary education. Then, I attended Notre Dame College from where I passed my higher secondary.

I completed my graduation from University of Dhaka majoring in Finance. I have two master’s: the first one is in Banking from Dhaka University and the second one is in marketing from the United Kingdom.

I started my career at Advanced Chemical Industries, now known as ACI and then went on to working at several local and multinational companies. 

I have worked at Siemens, the German electronics giant and Radio Today, the first ever private FM radio station in the country, as Chief Marketing Strategist. After that, I moved to the banking industry. I worked for The Trust Bank and The City Bank in two short stints. In both instances, I helped develop branding strategies for these companies.

After that, I worked at Standard Chartered Bank as its Country Marketing Head and also spent a short stint at the NRB Bank at the very beginning of the bank.

Now, I am here at Super Star Group (SSG) as the Group Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and Head of Business Development.

I define a brand as an amalgamation of everything that a business does–the mission it upholds, the corporate strategies it implements and the culture it fosters. Marketing, and branding, you see, is continuous creative engineering and at the same time, it’s a strategic business science.

You studied Finance and Banking. You have a degree in marketing but that came later. Have you always been passionate about marketing and branding?

Well, not exactly. My journey into the world of marketing is more of a serendipitous journey. It wasn’t even a choice until I was recruited at ACI to do the branding. I handled ACI Aerosol, ACI Mosquito Coil, Johnson & Johnson, Dabur, ACI Toiletries, etc. Those were consumer products.

It was quite a tough job to manage marketing for all those products, but at the same time, I found it very interesting. In order to get a better understanding, I pursued the master’s degree in marketing.

As I continued to work in marketing, I started to love the work more. In business, the brand is everything. Branding is business, business is branding. You can’t possibly separate the success of a business from branding. In this new age of business, excluding branding from the equation can be an apocalypse for almost every company.

At the end of the day, people crave brand. It’s the only aspect they think about–whether consciously or unconsciously–when selecting a product from a vast choice of products.

I define a brand as an amalgamation of everything that a business does–the mission it upholds, the corporate strategies it implements and the culture it fosters.

Marketing, and branding, you see, is continuous creative engineering and at the same time, it’s a strategic business science. So, my academic knowledge of marketing combined with my knack in finance and banking helps me understand business altogether more profoundly. 

You have experience of working in a diverse set of industries. How would you describe your experience of working in marketing and branding in different industries? How much has it contributed to becoming who you are now?

The basic, workable knowledge you need, is same everywhere. The thing that creates the difference is the type of the product or service a particular industry do business with. 

Not to sound too boastful of myself, I fit into different industries because I have managed to gather a sound knowledge of marketing and branding. Because of the long period I’ve worked for different companies in different industries, I have developed a knack for corporate branding which, by the way, is quite rare.

My 3 key experiences are in corporate branding, service marketing, and product marketing. I try to combine all of these in my business decisions.

These three elements are not mutually exclusive. Rather they form an integral part of every business. If a company has a good product/service to offer but doesn’t market/brand it well, it will fail to attract enough consumer. It’s equally true for the other way around. So, you need to ensure both of the parts–a great market offering, and an effective marketing and branding effort.

It’s somewhat a holistic approach. We call it total marketing. Having a great product is an absolute prerequisite but it is not enough for the success of a business. You get to reach out to your audience and get their ear.

As I continued to work in marketing, I started to love the work more. In business, the brand is everything. Branding is business, business is branding. You can’t possibly separate the success of a business from branding. In this new age of business, excluding branding from the equation can be an apocalypse for almost every company.Aftab Mahmud Khurshid

How do you design a great marketing strategy from the scratch? What is the recipe?

First of all, you need to find out if there’s a similar company that is already established and determine how the competition would turn out.

Secondly, you need to be concerned about their capability and capacity. You need to figure out where will the company be after running successfully for 2 years at the hands of existing management. Here, capacity and capability beg attention because I can name you a hundred company that has got enough funding (capacity) to run for another 2/3 years but won’t because the people working in it are not capable of it.

SSG has been going through a major marketing overhaul and we have been seeing a lot of new initiatives. 

SSG has been in the scene for over 21 years now. But, surprisingly, I had very little knowledge about the incredible work SSG has been doing before coming here. When I joined SSG, I expressed my concerns to the management and proposed to build a strong brand image which will reinforce trust in people about SSG products and help the company to win in the long run.

A person can’t do everything. An entrepreneur seldom can be good at both running a business and building a brand. When a company is in its infancy, it might not need any particular marketing efforts. But as the company grows and business expands, it is essential to take expertise from different fields including marketing and branding on-board. With the group of experts available in the organization, it becomes easier for the entrepreneur to decentralize and delegate authority.

From the beginning, I have been working hard to either redefine or re-emphasize the vision, mission, and values of the company. We are now working to facilitate a cultural shift. SSG has been going through a transformation phase for the last one and a half years.

At present, we are in the second phase. We have restructured the company. Now the question is how far it wants to go.

Image by SSG

Image by SSG

Can you elaborate the process?

Well, what I realized at the very beginning is that SSG lacked market visibility. It has been doing great business-wise and generating good revenue. It has been growing consistently. It offers some of the best products in the market. Despite all these facts, people don’t know much about SSG. It does not have a strong public perception.

Time is a very crucial factor in building a brand. It takes a long time to build a brand. Yes, people have started to actually recognize this company. Although they have a varying understanding: some believe that SSG is a multi-national company, some think it is totally new in the scene. For now, people know the name.

Going forward, our vision is to become a local conglomerate with a global perspective. 

There were some obstacles, of course. There was a traditional mindset in play that hindered the growth. Initially, I had to convince the management that this marketing overhaul is not an unnecessary expense for the company. 

There is a Chinese saying which goes like this: if you don’t want to communicate, don’t open a shop. I told them that competition is on the rise and if we do not take actions, the market would soon be saturated and we would left alone with good quality products but no customer to buy them.

A strong corporate image, you see, not only help a company to have a sustained success, it also helps to attract good talent to the company. And a good pool of efficient and innovative employees can lead the company to success. Ultimately, competition comes down to people. The upside of having great people is that you can solve bigger problems.

A person can’t do everything. An entrepreneur seldom can be good at both running a business and building a brand. When a company is in its infancy, it might not need any particular marketing efforts. But as the company grows and business expands, it is essential to take expertise from different fields including marketing and branding on-board. With the group of experts available in the organization, it becomes easier for the entrepreneur to decentralize and delegate authority.

How do you measure ROI for your marketing efforts? What metrics are important to you as a CMO? How do you ensure that you achieve those metrics?  

As for ROI measurement, there is not a lot of opportunities to measure the return on investment. For mediums like billboard and TVC, it is hard to get numbers. Then and again, we apply TRP for TVCs and for all marketing campaigns we conduct post-campaign research.

The key metric often comes down to Top of mind [ToP] score and sales where applicable. After my joining, we had begun to develop proper Standard operation Procedures (SoP) and so far, the return on our campaigns is satisfactory.

For now, we are trying to apply SoPs that we have designed and we make sure that everyone maintains it. As I said before, marketing is not only about advertising. It is way more than that. Part of my job is to build the foundation and culture.

We need to ensure that the team is conducting operations in a proper manner, bringing in the right people and maintaining the standard. There is also a special focus on automation and IT recently.

To be precise, I would say that my first priority is to focus on branding which encompasses not only the popularity of the product but the image of the corporation as a whole. Next, recruiting strong, smart, resilient, innovative people. And, lastly, finding out ways to automate operations.

How does marketing work at SSG?

At SSG, the process is quite collaborative. We work together to come up with the best strategy and work harder to implement it.

Marketing is a very superficial thing, right? You can’t just draw a chart and expect everyone to understand it. People need to visualize to understand a marketing plan. Then comes the execution part which is another challenge. Management isn’t always supportive of our marketing plans since we can’t present the ROIs instantly. It’s a long-term process. It needs time.

On that note, I would just point out something here: if the CEO or the top management of a company doesn’t understand marketing–or worst doesn’t believe in its impact–the company can’t grow bigger.

What are the mediums and channels you use to build a strong brand image and reach out to your target customers?

We normally market our product via the traditional trade channels. But we are thinking of using other channels, such as supermarkets and online marketplaces. In fact, we have plans to introduce our very own online shopping platform: E-SSG.

Tradeshows, direct marketing take a large part of our marketing activities. Apart from that, we do TVC and print ads. 

Recently, we have started doing digital at a small scale, spending around 5% of our total marketing budget online. It is pretty nominal now. But we wish to increase the expenditure since we are getting a good result.

We have already launched some pilot projects. In the time of last two Eids, for example, we ran two different projects which were quite successful.

The field of marketing has been going through a rapid change in the recent years. Digital marketing, content, and increasing use of technology have become dominant trends in the space globally. In Bangladesh, though, we are just starting to see the surface of these major trends. How do you think this space is going to change down the line in 3-5 years?

I think digital channels will outrun other channels within a few years. Print and traditional electronics medium will not perish altogether, of course. But they will lose much of their efficacy, that’s for sure.

As for ROI measurement, there is not a lot of opportunities to measure the return on investment. For mediums like billboard and TVC, it is hard to get numbers. Then and again, we apply TRP for TVCs and for all marketing campaigns we conduct post-campaign research. The key metric often comes down to Top of mind [ToP] score and sales where applicable. After my joining, we had begun to develop proper Standard operation Procedures (SoP) and so far, the return on our campaigns is satisfactory.

As a CMO, what kind of challenges do you face?

I feel that the most challenging thing in my job is to cope up with the mindset of the people and their traditional understanding of marketing. You know, most of the companies in the country are still pretty much sales-oriented. They don’t want to grow and reach new levels; they just want to sell.

So, when a competitor arrives on the scene with the same product and also the intention to engage with the customer, the sales of the former companies naturally drops.

This is why companies need to be more customer-oriented now. They need to have visions and think ahead. They need to design innovative, attracting and timely product for the market.

One of the key challenges of my job is to make sure that my company understand these challenges and stay ahead of the curve.

How important is data for you when it comes developing a marketing strategy?

It depends on many things. At times, you shouldn’t waste much time on data mining and analysis. Because too much analysis may create paralysis, you know. You need to have an insight into the market and at the same time go with your gut feeling. You need to take risks because that’s what go-getter marketers do.

In our country, and also in many other, entrepreneurs want instant results. But branding/marketing doesn’t work in that way. It is like a tree. It needs time and effort to nurture and help it grow. A marketer needs to have an objective, a vision to aspire to.

I think digital channels will outrun other channels within a few more years. Printing and traditional electronics medium will not perish altogether, of course. But they will lose much of their efficacy, that’s for sure.

 

We often feel the absence of strong local brands. Yes, there are a few companies that are doing quite well. But whenever a multinational company comes in, these brands fall behind. What do you think about that?

It is because multinational companies are process oriented and very professional at what they do. Many of our local companies, as I have noted earlier, are a somewhat one-man show. They want to do micro-management. They don’t have the intention to spend a cent extra to get good results.

They want to have great people but don’t see a point in paying good salaries. I mean no offense to anyone, but if you throw peanuts, you’ll get donkeys. If you offer low salaries, you’ll get unproductive employees, right?

Our local companies need to standardize their procedures, modernize their management styles and design innovative products. It is also very essential to build up a warm, welcoming organizational culture.

We see a huge lack of it in Bangladesh. Our local companies most often can’t provide this sort of environment and work/life balance. This is why they can’t compete with the MNCs.

You have the experience of working in both local and multinational companies. Can you tell us the differences?

Multi-national companies, you see, have standardized operational procedures. `The people working there are very concerned about their roles in the company and meeting individual KPIs. In contrast, employees in local companies often bypass responsibilities. Professional people find it tough to work in such an environment.

Maybe a few companies in the local market are successful in terms of revenue, but I can guarantee you that if they do nothing to change their traditional mindset, they will not grow in the long run.

Local organizations need to eliminate the one-man show concept. They need to eliminate micro-management styles. If a local company actively attempt to change their corporate mindset and structure it properly, it can easily attain international standard.

For someone who is trying to build a brand from scratch, say, for instance, a startup company, what would be your advice?

Think long-term. Branding is not a short-term or instant thing. You can’t build a brand overnight spending millions in advertising.

Hire the right people for the right job and give them the freedom to work. A great company is all about great people. This is equally true for every department of your company, be it marketing, technology or something else.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the field of marketing?

Most people consider branding equivalent to promotion and advertising, but it is a misconception. Branding is the business. Marketing requires a deeper understanding of business. As a marketer, you need to possess both business acumen and creative talents.

Be open to experience. Diverse experience is an invaluable asset for marketers. The more diversified your knowledge base is, the easier it gets for you to take risks and understand a complex problem and come up with brilliant solutions.

The world is increasingly becoming smaller. Internet is making national boundaries irrelevant. In order to compete, you need to think globally and act locally. This requires a willingness for continuous learning.

Be open-minded and aggressive in respect to taking action. A conservative person can’t do very well in a marketing position. Because that kind of people often lacks a mindset to innovate.

Think long-term. Branding is not a short-term or instant thing. You can’t build a brand overnight spending millions in advertising. Hire the right people for the right job and give them the freedom to work. A great company is all about great people. This is equally true for every department of your company, be it marketing, technology or something else.

This story is made possible in part by our friends at G&R. G&R, the leading platform for advertisers and publishers in Bangladesh, empowers brands in the digital age and helps entrepreneurs and companies to tell their stories to 65 million internet users in Bangladesh through sophisticated targeting and its wide publisher network. You may know more about G&R here.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, transcription by Rahatil Ashekan

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