Behind The Rise of Prothom Alo Digital and The Future Of Digital Media Business In Bangladesh: An Interview with Ahteram Uddin, COO, Prothom Alo Digital

Behind The Rise of Prothom Alo Digital and The Future Of Digital Media Business In Bangladesh: An Interview with Ahteram Uddin, COO, Prothom Alo Digital

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Ahteram Uddin is the Chief Operating Officer of Prothom Alo Digital, which is one of the most visited Bangladeshi and Bengali websites in the world. Mr. Uddin is a digital veteran. Prior to joining Prothom Alo, he built and sold his own digital marketing company, worked at some of the prominent media companies and internet companies in the world including Time Internet Group, Anandabazar and Opera Software.

Since his appointment as chief operating officer of Prothom Alo Digital four years ago, Mr. Uddin has been instrumental in growing Prothom Alo Digital’s advertising business, has built strong relationships with business partners significantly reducing its dependency on third-party networks for ad revenue, grown its international ad business, and built a solid operation to support its growth.

In this wide-ranging interview we talk about: his journey to what he is doing today, the state of Prothom Alo Digital and how Prothom Alo Digital operates as an organization, how Prothom Alo Digital has grown its advertising business, what are the challenges for the company and the ambition of Prothom Alo Digital going forward, challenges of building a digital media business in a world of Facebook and Google, paywall and future of digital publications, and so much more.

This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into two parts. This is the Part one, please check us back later this month for the second part of the interview.

Enjoy this amazing conversation.

Future Startup

Let’s begin with your story first, where did you grow up and attend school? From there tell us about when and how did you start your career and your journey to what you are doing today.

Ahteram Uddin

I was born and brought up in Allahabad, a small city in Uttar Pradesh in India. I started my education at Mirzapur Lions Public School and studied there till grade 12. I went on to finish my bachelor’s in commerce from the University of Lucknow.

Back at that time internet was the talk of the town. Digital technology and software development were two of the most popular areas of study. After my graduation, I got into the master’s program in Computer Management (MCM) at Pune University. To support my educational expenses, I also took up a part-time job around that time at a Technical support center run by America Online (AOL).

Technical care executive didn’t appeal to many people back then, to be honest. Many friends expressed their disappointment when I took up such a base-level job. But that job actually helped me to learn about digital marketing first-hand.

Afterward, I heard about a San Francisco-based advertising company called ZEDO. Their Indian office was in Mumbai. It was actually operated as an R&D center where they were developing a cost-effective ad platform to serve global clients. I initially joined there as a junior programmer, but soon realized that it wasn’t my cup of tea. Instead, I became interested in digital advertising.

So, at one point, I talked to the Global CEO of ZEDO and asked him to send me to a training program on digital marketing in San Francisco. In reply, he told me that he would accept my proposal if I agree to learn the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). I was surprised at first but he explained to me how having the knowledge of SEO and SEM can help me to position myself in the US digital advertising market and help the company to acquire global clients.

In the next 8 months, I read books and watched online tutorials and learned as much as I could. Back then, getting a website rank high on Google was a piece of cake. It was because the competition was minimal and websites were not so much a dime a dozen then like they are now.

I, however, couldn’t pursue that for very long. There were some familial issues because of which I had to cancel my plan to go the states. Add to that, I was becoming increasingly interested in doing something in India. Consequently, I left ZEDO and moved to Mediaturf, the first-ever digital advertising agency in India. It was a pioneer in its field and most of the contemporary hotshots in the advertising and Digital industry in India today, had worked there at some point in their career.

I joined Mediaturf as a manager for digital sales. But I didn’t want to limit myself to it. I had the knowledge of SEO and SEM, and I wanted to implement it in the local context. But the idea was too foreign in India. Banner ads on a handful of websites (e.g. Yahoo, MSN) were still the norm.

Around that time, Mediaturf got a project to run an ad campaign for personal loans from ABN Amro, a Dutch Bank. Our job was to attract people to fill up a loan form by making them click on banners. The cost of collecting one single lead was approximately INR 1,500 then. Prior to digital advertising, our clients used to do TV and billboard advertising which required hefty amounts of money. So they were quite satisfied with our performance.

But I had a different plan. I told my company in a review meeting during the campaign that there’s a way I could lower the cost per lead. Then I proposed the idea of marketing on search engines. They were really surprised to hear about SEM. How about that? The biggest ad agency in the country didn’t know that we could put ads on Google. Although, in their defense, Google wasn’t able to spread its service too wide up to that point.

So I began by requesting to Google to put ads on their search engine. I still remember the moment when the first lead came. It cost INR 500 only, a reduction of almost 67% from the actual cost. The new strategy took a little while to gather momentum. At the end of the first month, I managed to get a couple of hundreds of leads and the unit cost was IR 200-300. And, after a few months, there were thousands of leads being collected and the cost came down to INR 20-30 per lead.

My company was raking in a huge amount of profits. Everyone was suddenly talking about SEM. I became somewhat popular and important in the company. I was given a team and made the head of the department within six months. Many big brands including Citibank, N.A. came to us and flocked to become our clients.

eBay, then the largest e-commerce company in India, was one of Mediaturf’s top-paying clients. They were paying USD 30 for every lead (i.e. registration on their website and selection of a product). It was a very successful campaign, and both my company and the client was happy with me.

Then, one day, the marketing manager of eBay approached me and suggested me to open my own company. He proposed to become my first client under the condition that the cost per lead be lowered to USD 20. It was an attractive offer. So, I took it.

But setting up a new company was not so easy. I had to rent business premises and borrow money from a bank. I had already left my job at Mediaturf. Most of my savings were put into the business. I was only 24 back then and I would have been on the streets had I failed.

I took the risk anyway. I named the company after The Search Avenues. Luckily, I scored my first income of IR 500,000 within three months only. In 2003, I became a certified Google Advertising Professional (GAP). Later on, the company was shifted to Dubai from where I kept serving my clients. There was an army of freelancers working with me. We had no office and were working remotely.

Till 2007, I was sharing an office space in London with a British media company. The CEO was my friend. They were interested in getting into affiliate publishing marketing business and they made us an offer to buy our company. It was too good a deal to refuse. As a result, we sold the company to them.

I returned to India afterward. Upon coming back, I worked at a number of companies as digital advertising manager. I first joined the Times Internet then moved to Anandabazar (the leading Bengali newspaper), and from there to Opera Software.

It was around that time when I first came in contact with Prothom Alo through a personal contact in Bangladesh. They consulted me about their advertising. After checking out their website analytics, I realized that it had a huge potential. They were managing digital ads the same way they manage paper ads. But when I sliced and diced the statistics, I told them that they were getting traffic from over 200 countries and it’s practically a gold mine. But Prothom Alo didn’t have any in-house professional who could take up such a major changeover. As a result, they requested me to shift to Bangladesh and take that responsibility. I had a fairly well-paying, comfortable job at Opera Browsers. But the entrepreneur in me was hungry for new challenges.

So, when Matiur Rahman (Editor, Prothom Alo) and Mahfuz Anam (Editor, The Daily Star) came to Mumbai and laid out the promise of introducing digital marketing to an entire country before me, I couldn’t let that opportunity pass by. There were other factors like tremendous growth in the mobile internet user base and the steep growth of smartphone users that influenced me to come to Bangladesh.

As soon as I joined Prothom Alo, I built a team on my own. I implemented dynamic advertising techniques which made Prothom Alo the first Bangla website to get approved on Google AdSense. We have with us now many international clients who put ads on Prothom Alo’s website. This is briefly how I have ended up here.

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Locally, we are the largest one. And in terms of advertising revenue in Bangladesh, I have no reservation in telling you that after Google and Facebook, we get the largest share of the digital advertising market in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s digital advertising market, as of now, is around north of 250 crore taka annually. After Google and Facebook, we get the biggest chunk of that.

Future Startup

Tell us more about your experience working at the Times Internet Group which is the largest media and entertainment group in India.

Ahteram Uddin

It was definitely a great opportunity for me to work at the Times which is perhaps the one of the most prominent media group in South Asia.

Back in 2009, when I was still working there, its online portal became the most-read English newspaper in the world in terms of page views. I learned a great deal from there, especially about SEO and social media marketing. I also had the opportunity to deal with large volumes of data and maintain engagement with a large audience. Such magnitude is rare to experience.

Future Startup

You studied computer science and began your career as a programmer. But you decided that it’s not your cup of tea despite the fact that programming was the thing at that time. What influenced you to take such a decision?

Ahteram Uddin

It’s true that I didn’t follow the trajectory that most digital marketing professionals follow. While everyone begins with the marketing part and gradually learns coding and programming, I started from the opposite end.

It actually happened during my days at the San Francisco-based company ZEDO. Since it was a Silicon Valley Enterprise, I got a huge exposure to the biggest changes happening in the modern business landscape. That made me believe that a new wave of technological advancement would sweep away the previous imperatives; and that programmers would soon become ten a penny in numbers. So, I figured that I’d rather become a digital advertising expert than a subpar programmer.

Future Startup

Tell us about your work as COO of Prothom Alo Digital which is the largest Bangla Language online media in the world. And also how do you approach your work?

Ahteram Uddin

We are the largest Bangla site. After Google and Facebook, we are the most dominant player in the Bangladesh market. For Google and Facebook, we don’t consider them as competition because they are frenemies for the publishers like us. We have a lot of mutual dependencies.

Locally, we are the largest one. And in terms of advertising revenue in Bangladesh, I have no reservation in telling you that after Google and Facebook, we get the largest share of the digital advertising market in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s digital advertising market, as of now, is around north of 250 crore taka annually. After Google and Facebook, we get the biggest chunk of that.

The good thing about us is that we pay taxes, are generating employment opportunities, creating businesses, and contribute to the local community.

That’s another thing that spoke about it many forums that Bangladesh Government needs to look into it. These big giants are taking away the money from the country without making any contribution to the society and economy.

To answer your question, my role is to get in the morning, talk to my people, solve the problems (Technical/People/Business) and get them motivated of course, and look at the agenda of the day and get things done.

The way we work is, we work with brands and advertising agencies directly and indirectly. I drive my team to work with the brands to full-fill different requirements of our brand partners. We work as an agency when we pitch to our advertising partners. We come in as a partner and create the solutions that our brand partners are looking for.

We have different departments to help manage our work. We have creative department, technology department, ad management department and so on that work independently as well collaboratively to serve our partners. We create solutions. A brand is asking for a marketing solution, we create it for the brand and work closely with them to make sure that they implement it.

I work very closely with my team in terms of technical development, pitching to the brands/agencies and making sure that we get the business.

We work like a startup. I don’t work like a COO. I don’t sit around and dictate people to do this and that. I actually fold my sleeve and get into getting things done.

I’m part of everything that we do. I work with my people as part of the team right from the beginning to end. You can call it micromanagement but that’s how startups are. I don’t boss my employees around. Rather our setup is more like a family where everyone closely works with each other.

Future Startup

What are the products and solutions that you’re talking about that you offer to advertiser partners, brands and agencies?

Ahteram Uddin

Since we are largely a publisher, we offer different kinds of banner and digital advertising on Prothomalo.com. We also provide creative solutions for rich media creatives and technical solutions in terms of ad management, lead management if you will.

We also help our clients to design strategy. We also help some of our clients to do social media strategy.

As you know, we have the largest Facebook page in Bangladesh. Prothom Alo’s Facebook page is one of the top 70 media pages in the world. We have around 14 million people following us on Facebook. I created that page before I began my work with Prothom Alo and then handed over to them. Huge efforts both on my part and from the team have gone into to reach such a level. These are the things that we do.

We have a lot of plans in the pipeline to offer different services to our clients. We want to expand our content offerings as well.

We work like a startup. I don’t work like a COO. I don’t sit around and dictate people to do this and that. I actually fold my sleeve and get into getting things done.

Future Startup

Could you give us an overview of the team working at Prothom Alo Digital? How big is your team? How people work and collaborate?

Ahteram Uddin

We have around 35 people working under Prothom Alo digital right now. We have different departments as I mentioned earlier, like ad sales, planning, research, ad operations and ad management and creative.

Then we have international ad sales, teams that work with international agencies and media on international ad sales. Apart from that, we have accounts and finance. These are the teams that we have.

Future Startup

How much has Prothom Alo digital evolved since you joined almost four years ago?

Ahteram Uddin

Being a digital company, we are always experiencing change. We are evolving every day. We are very different from what we were yesterday.

At the time of our inception, we didn’t have a global reach. Internationally we have expanded a lot.

Our international ad sales have grown significantly. We have received a lot of attention internationally. Now we have an international network and it has reached such a level that some days we can’t provide enough space for clients.

I can tell you that some days we struggle to run campaigns because there is no space left. That’s a very rare situation for any large size online publisher. If you look at the inventory utilization for the publisher of our nature it is about 40-60% at best but we sometimes hit 90-95% which means our inventory utilization is full.

Now we have reached a level where we always get to think how can accommodate more and more brands. At the same time, what is also critical for us is the user experience.

We never compromise on the user experience. One of the problems with digital advertising is that it often hampers user experience. We never do that. Our top priority has always been to ensure best user experience in the first place. We don’t do anything that can deteriorate your experience as a user.

From the beginning, we have been very cautious in ensuring a great user interface. You wouldn’t see a pop-up ad or a banner wrapped around the news on our website. Despite that, we are always sold out and our advertising partners are super happy with us.

The second thing is that we don’t take ads from restricted categories such as gambling, prohibited products, and stuff. We have consciously made these decisions not to run those kinds of ads.

If we are not comfortable with an ad, say jobs abroad which we don’t sure about, we don’t run it.

We will never get into those categories because we feel we have social responsibilities. So we will never do that even if we lose money because of that.

I can tell you that some days we struggle to run campaigns because there is no space left. That’s a very rare situation for any large size online publisher. If you look at the inventory utilization for the publisher of our nature it is about 40-60% at best but we sometimes hit 90-95% which means our inventory utilization is full.

Future Startup

How does the content generation part work for Prothom Alo Digital? Do you have an independent team for digital or it works with main publishing team?

Ahteram Uddin

We have a digital content team that has the main responsibility to generate content but it sits with the main team, which is the print team because there are a lot of overlaps and there are editorial considerations as well.

Having said that, there is a specialized team that takes care online-only content because of digital works differently from print. It is more instantaneous.

We have a round the clock team that is writing and uploading content. At the same, digital and print also collaborate. Digital takes from print as well as print takes from digital. But we work in sync.

Future Startup

As you mentioned, you have experienced a phenomenal growth at Prothom Alo Digital over the last few years, what are the things that have contributed to your growth?

Ahteram Uddin

We identified the market opportunities. We also saw that being the largest publisher we have great acceptance in the market. Then we have a very high engagement rate.

One of the things that differentiate Prothom Alo from any other publisher is that we have a very high audience engagement ratio, when somebody lands on Prothom Alo they almost always end up reading almost everything that has been published last hour.

That’s why our CTRs are very high and our ads are very effective. It’s pretty logical why advertisers love to invest in our website. They give us a budget that is very different from the market.

Future Startup

How do you ensure that engagement? What are the things you do in order to ensure engagement?

Ahteram Uddin

We did nothing new there. We are extremely lucky to have a great brand that people love and read and engage with. Prothom Alo has a very loyal readers base. There is nothing I can do to bring people to our website and make them engage with our content. People have a faith in the publisher and they tend to love reading our content. There is nothing we could do to change that.

The other aspect to it, if we consider it as a two-sided thing, is that people often write to us when they see an ad they did not like or they bought something seeing our ad that they did not find useful. We also deal with these types of things. That’s something that makes us happy. That’s the kind of ownership our readers have about us. That’s something pretty rare in the online media business.

When we work with our advertising partners, we go out of the way to ensure the best return on their investments. We make ensure that targeting is done right and they get the result according to expectation. When we get an ad related to sports, we try to push that ad to the sports section and so on. We do that kind of contextual targeting. These things help us to ensure better ROI for our advertising partners which make us happy as well as make them happy.

We work very hard to get this result. We put intense man hour after man hour every day to make it work for our partners. And we will never stop doing that. That’s something that has helped us come this far and capture the market share that we have today.

One of the things that differentiate Prothom Alo from any other publisher is that we have a very high audience engagement ratio. When somebody lands on Prothom Alo they almost always end up reading almost everything that has been published last hour.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for Prothom Alo Digital going forward?

Ahteram Uddin

The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is the unavailability of market data. Whenever we design a new product or plan a new campaign, we feel the huge dearth of organized data. Similarly, when international brands want to run advertising in Bangladesh they demand some kind of market data and audience segmentation data of digital usage. We don’t have that. That one challenge where I feel research organizations or agencies should step forward to provide a solution for that. There is enough data available in the market on various platforms/ Telcos/ISPs. It just needs to be organized. That’s one area where we see a challenge.

Another concern, which I mentioned earlier, is competition with international players who not have a physical presence in Bangladesh and hence aren’t required to follow any regulation such taxation and all that. As a result, while I need to charge VAT to our customers, these international agencies maneuvered the provision using global payment gateways and they don’t have to do it. How do we compete with giants who get an extra advantage over us?

There is no level-playing field for local publishers like us. But interestingly, despite that, our direct local ad sales have dramatically increased in the recent period. It is more than 50% now and we plan to rise much further. I have been pushing that for a long time.

We work hard to fill our inventory with our directly sold ads instead of going with these automated channels. Over the last three years, our ads through these third-party channels have come down significantly as a result. Locally more and more ads are being sold directly.

Ad networks and others are not our priority. I don’t want to put anything on these networks as long as we can do it ourselves. I cannot give you the exact ratio but we have crossed past 50% in terms of selling our inventory directly a long time ago.

Another key challenge that faces Bangladesh’s digital ad industry today is qualified human resources. There is a serious dearth of digital media professional in the country. There are only a handful of institutions here that offer specialized IT courses. As a result, the academia has failed to supply enough talents to the industry. So, finding the right people will be a concern going forward. Hiring the right talents will be a growth constraint in the coming days.

I think there needs to be more courses and programs on digital skills. We really struggle to find good people at Prothom Alo Digital. That’s one area that leaves me really concerned what will happen going forward.

When we work with our advertising partners, we go out of the way to ensure the best return on their investments. We make ensure that targeting is done right and they get the result according to expectation. When we get an ad related to sports, we try to push that ad to the sports section and so on. We do that kind of contextual targeting. These things help us to ensure better ROI for our advertising partners which make us happy as well as make them happy.

Future Startup

How do you reach out to your local advertisers and brands?

Ahteram Uddin

We have ad sales team who go out to brands and do the sales. We work with agencies as well with brands. So yeah, that’s how it works.

Future Startup

Globally, Google and Facebook control a significant percentage of overall digital advertising spending. In fact, 2017 saw very little growth of digital advertising outside of Google and Facebook. It is increasingly becoming a challenge for publishers across the board. Do you see this as a challenge for Prothom Alo Digital?

Ahteram Uddin

We are trying to work closely with our advertising partners and brands. Trying to ensure precision targeting. Educate them on how advertising works. One thing that distinguishes us is that for brands when they put an ad on Google Display Network they usually have no idea what kind of content is served next to their ads, brand safety is always a concern.

Brand safety is the key and our brand partners understand that. There are ad networks that offer CPM rate of 10 taka why do brands come to us and pay higher because they find us reliable. Because they know if their ads come on Prothom Alo, they can sleep comfortably.

However, you can’t guarantee this when you run it through a network. You can’t guarantee that your ads would not appear on an objectionable site or a content. The thing is not only that your ads are being shown on objectionable sites and contents. It is that whether people who are visiting such a site or watching such a non-serious content. You see this does not serve a brand’s purpose.

Contrary to that, a person who is reading Prothom Alo is aware of what he is doing and is in a mood to look up things that he finds interesting and more important, he has the capacity to buy your products. Most of the people who read us are people with decent purchasing power. They have disposable income, they come from a good background, have decent jobs/professions and came from good educational backgrounds and all. These are the people brands usually want to reach to. These are the things that differentiate us from others and give us an advantage in the competition.

Future Startup

Another development that we have been seeing is that many large media companies like New York Times, WSJ and Economist have recently launched digital subscription services and raised paywalls because of the growing competition in the digital space for ad revenue due to the duopoly of Google and Facebook. Do you think Paywall and subscription for news are going to be a feasible thing in the context of Bangladesh? And what do you think about the future of digital media in the context of Bangladesh?

Ahteram Uddin

In order to sell a subscription, you have to have an exclusive content. The quality of your content plays the key role. If you provide off-the-shelf content, nobody would pay you for it. People only pay for premium content. If you look at the US market, the publishers that charge for their content produce very high-quality contents.

People are paying for premium content. I believe that even in Bangladesh that will happen. In fact, we are working on a paywall for our e-paper which was free previously.

However, to answer your question, I don’t think the market is yet ready to pay for content at scale. And the ad-supported model is working pretty well. Even in India, almost nobody is paying for online content. In fact, advertising is growing. Business viability for digital publishers is there.

I think digital ad business for publishers will grow, at least in this part of the world, for three years. Advertising spending is growing in Bangladesh. Digital spending is also growing and some of that budget will surely come to the publishers. I see there is a bright future for digital in Bangladesh.

Another key challenge that faces Bangladesh’s digital ad industry today is qualified human resources. There is a serious dearth of digital media professional in the country. There are only a handful of institutions here that offer specialized IT courses. As a result, the academia has failed to supply enough talents to the industry. So, finding the right people will be a concern going forward. Hiring the right talents will be a growth constraint in the coming days.

Future Startup

It means Prothom Alo is working on a subscription product.

Ahteram Uddin

Yes, we are putting up a paywall for our e-paper. It will be a monthly or annual subscription basis.

In order to sell a subscription, you have to have an exclusive content. The quality of your content plays the key role. If you provide off-the-shelf content, nobody would pay you for it. People only pay for premium content. If you look at the US market, the publishers that charge for their content produce very high-quality contents. People are paying for premium content. I believe that even in Bangladesh that will happen. In fact, we are working on a paywall for our e-paper which was free previously.

Future Startup

Will you put a paywall, partially on you digital website as well? Because your paper is also available on your digital site.

Ahteram Uddin

Not exactly. Our digital site is entirely different.

E-paper is a replica of our print newspaper online. It is the online version of our print paper whereas digital site is constantly updating. A few lakhs people reading it daily.

We saw an opportunity there. So we are trying a subscription there to see how it goes.

Perhaps, we are the first Bangladeshi newspaper to do that. We are doing it. We know that we have to start somewhere and we are doing it.

This story is made possible in part by our friends at Dhaka Bank, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Dhaka Bank has introduced an excellent mobile banking app, Dhaka Bank Go. Dhaka Bank Go gives you secure access to your Dhaka Bank Accounts and Credit Cards and other exciting facilities from your mobile devices anytime, anywhere. Explore and enjoy the infinite opportunities. Learn more here.


Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Sheikh Rahatil Ashekan

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