How To Think About Digital: An Interview With Arifur Rahman, Head Of Digital Media, Starcom Bangladesh

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Apr 2, 2018

We are living in a time of great transformation. Digital technologies have changed the fabric of our lives at its core. From our personal life to how we communicate to how we consume entertainment, our lifestyle has been going through a relentless pace of changes. Time has particularly become fast paced. Things don’t take much longer to become obsolete. Today’s hot trends go out of fashion in a week. Digitization has been bringing profound changes to our businesses – how we deliver service, reach out to our customers and everything in between. (1)

The Bangladesh market is no different. Over the past several years, from almost oblivion, digital has gained significant prominence and become a mainstream phenomenon. An increasing number of brands are now investing in digital platforms ranging from Facebook, local ad networks to YouTube to other platforms. New digital businesses are taking over many industries. We already have come to realize that digital business can upend old way of doing things.

The central difference between digital and conventional media is in the mindset. The internet represents an abundance mentality and freedom whereas traditional media is about scarcity. This is the central reality of this new world that changes many rules. The way people consume entertainment and news to services has fundamentally changed. (2)

This calls for a deeper understanding of the medium not only to do well in digital but also to succeed in the conventional medium. Because the consumption habit of digital does influence the expectation from and consumption habit of traditional mediums.

In this thought provoking interview, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sits down with Arifur Rahman, Head of Digital Media at Starcom Bangladesh, to pick his brain about the state of digital marketing in Bangladesh, fundamentals of digital and mistakes brands often make, the art and science of digital strategy, the future of marketing in an increasingly digital world and his take on major digital trends in the context of Bangladesh and how brands can take advantage of this new world and his tips for marketers and businesses on how to embrace digital and thrive in this new world.

Future Startup

First off, briefly tell us about your background and then your journey to what you are doing now?

Arifur Rahman

I graduated in 2006 with a Bachelor's in Marketing from East-West University. I started my career at an advertising agency called Red Cell where I worked in BTL part of the communication. I worked there for almost two years before going for my Master's in advertising and marketing from Coventry University at the end of 2008.

Coventry was an incredible experience for me. I not only learned new theories but also received very hands-on learning in advertising and marketing. It was an excellent combination of academic and practical learning activities. One of my academic research on advertising elements and factors titled "Humour in Advertising: Appealing to Consumer for Low Involvement Products" from that time has later been published as a book. It discusses using humor to market low involvement products. The book was published from Germany and is now available on Amazon.

I came back to Bangladesh in 2011 after completing my Masters and joined the Daily Star as a Marketing Executive in their business development team. I worked there for 3 years and gained an extensive experience in how media companies work with advertising partners and vice versa.

Daily Star was an interesting place to work where I could see different aspects of communication spectrum. It was a creative agency that creates content, and at the same time, a platform where the advertisement was being published. I had an opportunity to see the market from a holistic point of view. We used to deal with all sorts of clients and their various types of work.

I left Daily Star in 2015 and joined Lamudi.com as PR Manager. Lamudi was my first opportunity to look at things from a client’s perspective and during this period, I also developed an interest in digital marketing.

Towards the final few months of my career at Daily Star, I used to look after the online site of the Daily Star. Digital was not like what it is today. But we tried and did quite well at that time. I gained a good business experience in managing digital platforms and learned a lot about what drives online traffic and engagement.

My subsequent transition to Lamudi was, in fact, a result of my understanding of digital that I gained from working at the Daily Star. Advertising was evolving rapidly at that time. Slowly but steadily, digital was gaining momentum.

After working for a while at Lamudi, I got an opportunity to work at a digital marketing agency called Melonades. That’s where I started my true digital marketing career.

At Melonades, we were a kind of an integrated digital marketing agency. Melonades continues to operate these days. I worked at Melonades for three years before joining Starcom Bangladesh, an affiliate of Bitopi Leo Burnett, as Head of Digital Media. We manage the digital communication of Banglalink.

What is so interesting about digital is that the objectives can be precise and can be executed as precisely too. You can include numbers of people you want to engage, for example. It's harder with other media.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your work as Head of Digital Media at Starcom Bangladesh? And also how do you approach your work?

Arifur Rahman

Our parent company is Bitopi. Starcom is our media alliance. At Starcom, we currently work with two clients: Samsung and Banglalink. We have a separate unit for each of them. We manage digital marketing for Banglalink and that’s what I look after.

Broadly speaking, there are two parts in marketing: creative and media buying. Creative is basically content and communication materials development which includes TV, radio, paper, digital.

We don't do content creation part at Starcom; we handle the digital execution part of it. We do SEO, SEM, Social Media Marketing, media buying, YouTube marketing, content integration, and innovation.

Let me give you an example. Recently, you saw the launch of 4G. Initially, it was challenging for us to determine the communications for 4G. After much thought, we realized that mere communication would not do. We have to make sure that consumers understand what 4G is and how it can change their lives. We have to educate people first which means a mere banner ad would not be enough. We have to add something more where people could go and learn more about 4G.

Say for example, when people watch a 4G advertisement in the middle of a newscast, we thought about what could be their next action after seeing it. They would probably like to test it out or know more if they're interested and so on. That’s when we decided to add a further extension, we now have a micro-site for this where people can go and know more about Banglalink 4G, how to get a 4G SIM, how to use it, what's in it for the users etc. Our every digital communication now carries this micro-site link and people can simply go and learn more.

There's a theory in advertising called the AIDA model: awareness, interest, desire, and action. You have to create awareness in the market about your product which is the very first stage of the funnel that might lead to interest and subsequently desire in your customers to buy the product.

This is why when you design a campaign, you have to think about how are people going to take action when they want to. Awareness building is a part, of course, but that’s just the beginning.

We have done internet and on-ground integrations programs for the 4G campaign. When we are doing a digital campaign, consumers should be able to take action online.

The point is that the campaign has to be integrated and consumers should have options to take action in every step of your process.

Any strategy depends entirely on the objective of a campaign and the background of a product. Once I know what I want to achieve then I can set forth my plans to achieve it. There are more than one ways to get a certain thing done or achieve a certain goal. It depends on the objective and the available options that you have to achieve that goal. A strategy is about choosing the best possible route to get to where you want to get.

Arifur Rahman
Arifur Rahman

Future Startup

How do you work as a team as well as collaborate with your clients? How do you design a strategy?

Arifur Rahman

Let me start by telling you how we collaborate with our clients. It starts with a brief. We first get a brief from a client and then we start working on it. In the brief, we have the client's objectives - what they want from a particular campaign.

What is so interesting about digital is that the objectives can be precise and can be executed as precisely too. You can include numbers of people you want to engage, for example. It's harder with other media.

We receive certain KPIs and objectives from our clients. We design strategies based on the objectives and then go for execution. We go about the whole strategy in the most cost-efficient way possible. We decide what medium of communication we will take depending on the kind of people we aim to reach and so on. After this, we relay our plan to the creative team and they execute it accordingly.

Future Startup

Since you look after the strategy part, can you please explain what does it take to design an effective strategy?

Arifur Rahman

Any strategy depends entirely on the objective of a campaign and the background of a product. Once I know what I want to achieve then I can set forth my plans to achieve it.

Often, there are more than one ways to get a certain thing done or achieve a certain goal. It depends on the objective and the available options that you have to achieve that goal.

That's where strategy comes in. A strategy is about choosing the best possible route to get to where you want to get. It is about realizing your vision following the most effective and efficient path.

Let me give you an example. In my previous job, we used to do communication for Coca-Cola. That was when Coke Zero was launched for the first time in Bangladesh. We launched a campaign with an objective to create awareness about Coke Zero, to let the consumers know about it.

Naturally, people who are health conscious, diabetic or constantly strive to be on a diet should be targeted for this campaign. That’s easy, right? Not exactly.

There could be multiple angles to this. Do I want to make people aware of Coke Zero ’s health benefits or cater to an already health-conscious group? If building Coke Zero awareness is the target, I would do an awareness campaign where maximizing reach should be the most important metric. On the other hand, If I decide to cater to the already health-conscious group, my approach changes. I could start with collecting data about these people and how to best communicate with them and their taste and content consumption pattern and so on.

That decision would dictate my every other decision related to the campaign including content decisions, channels, TG and so on. That’s how you formulate a strategy. That’s how things work, albeit broadly speaking.

I have worked with many small and big clients. Campaigns often fail because people start without fulling grasping what they aim to achieve. Many clients don't know what exactly they want from a digital campaign but they get on the bandwagon because that’s trendy; they first design a campaign and then decide objectives for it. Most local businesses have Facebook pages and they seem to think that is enough for digital marketing but it is not.

Having a facebook page is not a strategy. You need a website, SEO and many more. And then if your product is low involvement product, a consumer product that can be sold online, it needs that integration. Digital allows you know your customers and what they want and how they want to buy your product, you need to communicate that well through your platforms.

In nutshell, the objective should be clear. Where do I want to go should dictate every decision related to how you want to get there.

Future Startup

Broadly speaking, how do you think about digital considering what’s happening in our market?

Arifur Rahman

I have mentioned the importance of objective and understanding the underlying reason for exploring a new medium. There needs to be more work done in the space in Bangladesh.

Another challenge is the misalignment. In many instances, we see that alignment is missing, particularly in the context of Bangladesh. For example, same brand, same TVC but has no synchronization with what they are doing on digital platforms.

When you relay a message on TVs, billboards, and newspapers, bu relay a completely different message on digital platforms and vice versa, it creates confusion. This cannot happen.

You have to align your communications in such a way that the customer can access them anywhere and still get the same information they seek and see the sync. Many brands miss this connection and often create a disconnect in their communication in different channels.

The other thing is, as I mentioned earlier, you have to be sure what you want from a particular platform.For instance, decide on your goal from Facebook and then only devise a strategy to achieve that.

There is a lack of understanding in the market regarding these things. There are a lack clarity and a tendency to take the easier route. Everyone is doing video or buying likes, we should follow. That’s not a strategy. That’s a recipe for suicide.

I have worked with many small and big clients. Campaigns often fail because people start without fulling grasping what they aim to achieve. Many clients don't know what exactly they want from a digital campaign but they get on the bandwagon because that’s trendy; they first design a campaign and then decide objectives for it. Most local businesses have Facebook pages and they seem to think that is enough for digital marketing but it is not. Having a facebook page is not a strategy.

Future Startup

How big is our digital marketing industry in Dhaka? We have seen a consistent growth over the past few years, what’s your take on the industry? Do you see digital is going to affect traditional TV ad market?

Arifur Rahman

This question an oft-cited question in our line of work. Firstly, there's no official data on this. BTCL gives us one number, media research gives us another and then there are data from Facebook and Google that tells a different story.

We have tried to compile data from all these sources and come up with a number but it's still difficult to be accurate about it. We settled on the fact that there are 29 million users right now on Facebook. And from YouTube, we know that around 20 million people consume Youtube content. Internet penetration continues to grow. Smartphone penetration continues to grow. You can surely bet that opportunities are there.

Having said that, data remains a key challenge for the industry. We are doing a lot of guesswork but somebody has to do the research and come up with the numbers which can help us better understand the reality and invest efficiently.

On the digital marketing side, a convergence between digital and traditional media will inevitably happen. In mature markets like the US and UK, we have seen set-top boxes are becoming a trend where Terabytes of memory can be stored and contents can be stored for later consumption. Digital has been integrated into traditional media and vice-versa. And it is slowly happening in Bangladesh as well.

We have a huge smartphone penetration in Bangladesh. The internet penetration continues to grow. The opportunities are there. If you look at other markets, such as India, they already have come out of this challenge with a beautiful business model. They have made local channels and content for the internet where brands are now investing.

Bangladesh has started following that route but we have a long way to go. The challenge as well as opportunity for our market is that we don’t have enough local content that people would like to view online.

There are a handful of companies trying to break into this space, but we have a lot to do here. Now we serve ads in international content because our people view those content online. If our media platforms can meet this need, there is a big opportunity right there.

There is a lack clarity and a tendency to take the easier route. Everyone is doing video or buying likes, we should follow. That’s not a strategy. That’s a recipe for suicide.

Future Startup

TV and digital platforms are entirely two different mindsets. People consume content digital platforms differently than TV. Digital is about abundance and freedom which gives the consumer a lot of power and traditional is about scarcity and control which allows brands to control the conversation. In digital, content is unlimited, compared to traditional media and we can choose what to watch, in fact, we decide what to attend to what not to, we can block ads when we feel like which was not possible in TV. We had to sit through an ad if we wanted to finish watching a serial. When you're designing a communication material for these two mediums, you have to think entirely differently. This is one aspect. At the same time, the market has become way more cluttered and there is so much noise out that makes it difficult to make your brand stand out. What are the challenges for marketers and what do you make out of it?

Arifur Rahman

The biggest challenge is the mindset of brands and marketers. Brands need to understand that digital is not a mere channel choice anymore. It is a new way of doing things. You have to integrate it into your core strategy. And then you have to have a digital strategy as well.

Many brands take digital very casually. They have a Facebook page and an agency and they do what everyone else is doing. This was okay a few years ago, but not anymore. Brands need to take digital with appropriate importance. Not something that you can do sporadically whenever it fits your taste but with a solid understanding and direction. It has to be integrated with your overall marketing strategy.

Medium-wise, of course, digital has its own challenges. First off, it is a two-way, in fact, many way communication channels. In TV you run an ad and consumers watch it. That’s it. But digital is different. You have to be very careful about what you put online. You have to be careful what you say on digital media because consumers can react and they do whereas it is not the case it traditional media.

We have a huge smartphone penetration in Bangladesh. The internet penetration continues to grow. The opportunities are there. If you look at other markets, such as India, they already have come out of this challenge with a beautiful business model. They have made local channels and content for the internet where brands are now investing.

Future Startup

In Bangladesh, digital marketing has been largely focused on Facebook, most companies allocate lion’s share of their marketing budget to Facebook promotion. But what happened over the time is that Facebook has turned out to be expensive and if you don’t pay, your organic reach remains quite nominal. The recent algorithm changes turn a bad situation into a worse one for brands. What is your take on this? Do you see this as a challenge?

Arifur Rahman

The reason for this is increased competition. The number of ads that brands put out on Facebook has doubled and in many instances tripled over the past years.

In the past, brands invested heavily in building up their page followers. Facebook ‘likes’ was everything on Facebook. However, things have changed over the years. Organic reach of pages has gone down which means your number of followers doesn't matter anymore. In fact, this is what happens when you choose the wrong metric and do things driven by hype instead of real objectives.

Create relevant content for your audience and focusing on the right content can be a solution. Good content almost always attracts eyeballs. Investing in the quality content can be one of the ways of dealing with the algorithm change. This is nothing new. These platforms continue to change themselves. That’s how it works.

But if you build a lasting relationship with your audience through offering value, it should outlast a mere algorithmic change.

Future Startup

A few digital marketing trends that you think will go big in the coming days?

Arifur Rahman

For the last two years, we have seen a meaningful growth of Snapchat, Instagram and Whatsapp users in Bangladesh. Many of these platforms are messaging platforms in nature which means we will see the rise of personalization in communication.

Content is going to be more important. Video content consumption will increase. There are both positive and negative sides to it. Positively, learning will be much easier for customers.

I think we will see a significant growth in our local content. There is a demand for local content and we are seeing people are jumping onto the opportunity.

The biggest challenge is the mindset of brands and marketers. Brands need to understand that digital is not a mere channel choice anymore. It is a new way of doing things. You have to integrate it into your core strategy. And then you have to have a digital strategy as well. Many brands take digital very casually. They have a Facebook page and an agency and they do what everyone else is doing. This was okay a few years ago, but not anymore.

Future Startup

What tips would you give to marketers who are trying digital as well as to people who want to build a career in digital marketing?

Arifur Rahman

Honestly, I'm still learning myself, every day by experimenting and noting the world around me.

What I feel is that you need to have a proper vision and clarity about what you want to achieve from your digital communication.

Those of us who work with brands need to understand the clients' needs and help brands achieve their goals That is our duty and responsibility.

The other thing is, digital is a democracy. Anyone can say whatever they want. But what you need to understand is that whatever you say will have consequences. We as content makers need to keep this in mind. Brands should behave responsibly online and individual users should too.

For the last two years, we have seen a meaningful growth of Snapchat, Instagram and Whatsapp users in Bangladesh. Many of these platforms are messaging platforms in nature which means we will see the rise of personalization in communication.

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Notes

1. Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Shabiba Benta Habib

2. Further reading on the future of communication here.

3. (1) This interview with Mr. Anwar Ehtesham of Dhaka Bank

4. (2) This interview with Mr. Shahriar Amin.


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