Life’s Work: An Interview with Rabeth Khan, CEO, MACOMM/Dentsu and MediaAxis/Carat
For those who don’t know Rabeth Khan, he is the Chief Executive Officer of MACOMM/Dentsu and MediaAxis/Carat, two of the successful and fast growing advertising and communication services companies based in Dhaka.
From a modest beginning of a 3 person agency, over the past years, he and his team have built an entire group of mission-driven communication companies – having businesses in media buying, creative, music and experiential marketing and digital marketing – from scratch, which continues to experience tremendous growth while staying true to its core values of conducting ethical business. And Mr. Rabeth is just getting started.
Mr. Rabeth, in his early 40s, is an extremely driven-person. As you go through the interview you will see that his journey is a story of being relentlessly resourceful – exactly what you look for in an ideal founder. And he is a deep thinker and takes a deep interest in learning and is a voracious reader.
Building a consequential business is a lot of thinking job. Conventional wisdom would not take you far. You have to see things beyond the surface and understand that most things are not what they appear to be. These are not easy jobs.
On the other hand, the story of Mr. Rabeth and his companies answers many pressing questions related to entrepreneurship including how to be relentlessly resourceful, build a great team and company culture, how to persist in the face of obstacle and challenges and so on.
In this insightful and intellectually satisfying interview, Ruhul Kader sits down with Mr. Rabeth to learn about his personal journey to what he is doing today, how he came into the world of advertising and the beginning of MACOMM, developments at MACOMM over the past years and to pick his brain about the strategy of MACOMM, and how he has grown the business over the years and build an empire from scratch and much more.
This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into three parts. This is the first part of the interview. Please come back later this month for the second part of the interview. Happy reading 🙂
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Could we start with your background, how was your childhood and from there when did you start your career and your journey to what you are doing today?
I came from a middle-class background. My father, a Civil Engineer graduated from BUET, served in the Government until his retirement in the Communication Department. We, I and my sister, grew up with middle-class values of our time. I spent the first five years of my childhood in Chittagong. After that my father was sent to Iraq on deputation. We spent five years in Iraq, between 1982 and 1987. I grew up in a close-knit family environment because when you live abroad as an expatriate, you grow dependent on your family and people you know.
Growing up I picked up many of the values and traits from my father. One such trait that I try to live by even these days is ethical integrity and honesty. It has been one of my guiding principles in life – something that I think is important in every profession, be you are an entrepreneur or a professional.
I’m a product of the early day’s English medium schooling system in Bangladesh. My first school was Maple Leaf. However, the five first years of my school, I could not attend the regular classes because we’re living in Iraq and I used to come to attend the exams only. My parents were my teachers at home. When we returned from Iraq, I went to South Breeze. I completed my O Levels from Sidduqui’s Tutorial. I did my Intermediate from Radiant. I then went to Singapore for my Bachelors.
The first major turn in my life came while I was doing my undergrad in Singapore. We had a family business – a handicraft business – that my mother used to run. In fact, that was my first close introduction to entrepreneurship and probably where I got the seed of entrepreneurship. This was a time when women entrepreneurship was not a thing yet. But my mother was doing it full time. She had a special skill set and was working on an innovation to create something at the intersection of Jamdani and Nakshi Katha. She attempted to bring innovation at the intersection of the two and in fact, did it to some extent. As you mentioned, women entrepreneurship was not an easy feat to accomplish in those days. When my mother wanted to expand her business, she faced a huge number of hurdles from various fronts starting from finance to execution. On the top of that, business requires you to wear many different hats. She was great at innovation but in order to run a business, only innovation is not enough you need many other things including financial skills, operations skills, management skills, and many other small things. It’s a package that makes you successful. This is one of the challenges that startups often face. My mother, like most startup founder, faltered in some of these areas.
My father was a government job holder – he was a devoted one in that – and he had little interest in business let alone the know-how of running one. I and my sister were too small to help. Naturally, my mother ran into troubles which were too big for her and us. My plan at that time was that after completing my Bachelors in Singapore I would go to the US for further studies. But life does not follow any plan. There are always turns and twists in your life that are beyond your plans. As the saying goes, life happens when you are busy planning. Eventually, our handicraft business faltered and with it came a lot of issues with financial consequences. As the business came to an end, a lot of hurdles came to surface. There were bank loans and other issues. I still remember many of those days. That was the turning point in my life because I made a consequential decision at that time that would eventually change the entire trajectory of my life.
My father used to share these family matters with me. When I heard about the problems due to the failure of the business, I decided to return to the country. I had two options at that time: I could either have been selfish and pursued my ambition to study in the US or return to Dhaka and stand beside my family in dealing with the impending challenges. I chose the latter and it made all the difference.
It was a very difficult decision. You usually don’t have that much maturity at that age. People of that age usually operate by emotions but I’m happy that I finally decided to come back and help out my family. I returned from Singapore in 1997 with the intention to support my family but I did not know what to do and how to support my family. I was lost. I did not finish my bachelors when I returned home and I was doing a major in Marketing for which there were not many opportunities in the market. On the top of that, in order to get a job, having previous experience was crucial at that time which I had none. I was at a crossroad. I realized that until I complete my graduation I would not be able to pursue a full-time career because no one would hire me, which means I have to find alternatives. Instead of sitting idle at home, I spent a few days reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses – trying to find out what I’m good at. I realized that I was good at English. At that time my TOEFL score was 627, which was one of highest score TOEFL benchmarks in Dhaka at that time. So I decided to continue to pursue operating a fashion and lifestyle magazine Style & Grace which I started before I went to Singapore days.
There were many entertainment magazines at that time but there was no lifestyle magazine of high-quality which we have a handful now in ICE Today and a few others. I thought what if I could publish a magazine that would cater to high-end customers. That’s how it all started. I did not have money to set up an operation, hire a team and start the magazine. So I ran the magazine as a one-man army. I then reached out to a few of my friends who could write well and asked them to contribute.
I did the 70% of writing in the full magazine in almost all issues we published in the two years that we ran the magazine. I was the key contributor. I was the only marketing person because I did not have the money to hire a salesperson. I was good at presentation. OHP slide presentation was the norm at that time. I used to prepare presentations and then go to all the agencies and clients. I even went to Unilever when Unilever headquarter was in Kalurghat, Chittagong. I just landed there and went on to pitch them for ads.
Of all things that I lacked, I had an abundance of courage. I had no fear of rejection. If you want to be an entrepreneur you can’t have the fear of rejection, you have to try on. I went to every place where I could manage an entry and where I got an opportunity I gave a presentation and gave my offer. And something clicked. Some of the people I pitched to, believed in me and gave me ads and some people did not. In my first issue, if I’m not mistaken; I got 7-8 ads. Per ad at 8,000 to 10,000 taka, my revenue in the first issue was around 80,000 tk. It was a lot of money at that time.
I did almost everything of the magazine myself. I would go to Palton and sit along with the person responsible for printing and guide the designer, taking positives to the printing press and then understanding how it works. I did all of those things. I was the only person to manage the entire operation starting from writing to marketing to printing to distribution. I took the verandah in my house as my first office. I partitioned it with putting in some glass. In the second month, I hired an office assistant to answer the calls because otherwise, it would not look professional if there was no-one to answer client calls. I hired my first employee at a salary of BDT 3000 per month. It felt great that I employed one person. He used to coordinate calls and communications and I was responsible for everything else. That gave me my first earning because I wanted to support my family. And that was my first attempt at entrepreneurship.
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I did the 70% of writing in the full magazine in almost all issues we published in the two years that we ran the magazine. I was the key contributor. I was the only marketing person because I did not have the money to hire a salesperson. I was good at presentation. OHP slide presentation was the norm at that time. I used to prepare presentations and then go to all the agencies and clients.
How did you arrange the money for the first issue of your magazine because you needed money to print and distribute the magazine, I’m assuming that advertisers did not pay you any advance?
Yes, advertisers don’t pay in advance and it was the same for me as well. I was lucky that the owner of the printing press agreed to provide me service on credit. He believed in me otherwise I would not have been able to do it. The design house and printing press, everyone supported me. They told me that you start publishing the magazine and pay us later.
As the saying goes, when you start an entrepreneurial endeavor, you need some good people at some point in your journey to support you. People make magic happen. After much ups and downs, we eventually published our first issue.
What happened after that?
Then I landed somehow at Grey Advertising (Trikaya Grey back then). Grey just started their Bangladesh operation. There were four Indians and they were looking to hire Bangladeshi team members to look after brand and accounts. City Cell just launched at that time.
I went to Grey to pitch for advertisements from a few Grey clients that they were handling at that time. I gave a presentation to the then country head Arnob Banerjee Ringo. I scheduled an appointment and showed up. I presented my proposal and showed him my first issue. After the meeting, he gave me an advertisement of the City Cell which was the only mobile operator at that time. That too a center spread ad for BDT 20,000. Of course, I had to convince him for that with rationale and logic.
Then one day came a call from Grey asking me for attending an interview. I was a little surprised because I did not apply for a job or anything. Anyways, I went to Grey on the scheduled day and Mr. Arnob and another Indian personnel were in the interview. I told them that I was yet to complete my Bachelors, – as I was in the process of finishing my Bachelors’ and getting ready to enroll for my MBA – at Trinity University, USA connected through their Bangladesh study center CIS which they just launched back then (later I got my MBA from Trinity University with Magna Cum Laude honors). I told them that I don’t have any experience and have no clue about brand and brand building. I don’t know why you called me and why do you want to take me. They told me one thing that we liked the way you convinced us to give you a center spread which means you have skills in convincing the clients and understanding the business otherwise you would not have succeeded in getting the ad. Again, that was unplanned and something that came up without me fully understanding what was happening. I told them that since I run a magazine; I have to continue the magazine at least a few more issues. They told me that you can run it as long as it does not conflict with your job. I agreed and joined Grey. That’s how I started my career in advertising and that was my first job.
After joining, my first account was BAT, P&G, and IGLOO. I was in the middle of a lot of exciting things but I had very little idea about what I was doing. I put in a lot of efforts, worked hard and did everything that I could to deliver at my best. My first boss was a serious looking, spectacled individual named, Pervez, a gentleman from Kerala, India, who was the Account Director at that time. He was a fantastic person and an incredible mentor. I owe him a lot. He taught me everything hands-on. I was also very interested and up to it and I wanted to learn. He saw that and he used to take me under his wings. He taught me how to give a presentation, how to analyze, how to create strategies and many other things.
BAT was and is a big brand. I used to look after Gold Leaf which was the biggest and one the most spending brands at that time. I was involved in the launching of Pantene Shampoo in Bangladesh. These were great opportunities which shaped up my today
After working at Grey for a while, I started liking the advertising industry. I felt that this is interesting. Every day is a new day with new challenges and ideas. That’s when I first started to develop an interest in exploring opportunities in the space. Since my house was in Baily Road, Asiatic was located on the same road. Aly Zaker is my maternal uncle in relation (my mother’s first cousin). Iresh and I, we are cousins, and we used to play cricket in a small field in the early days’ Asiatic office. And during those sporting indulgences, I used to be curious about what Asiatic does and their work. I started to find the line of work fascinating and slowly a tiny ambition in me started to rear its head that I would give a small agency sometime in the future.
My magazine and my Grey work were going side by side. And there was this tiny ambition in me. Then I realized that if I want to do business I need to learn different facets of business and different skills of running a business. I realized that I have to understand every aspect of agency business if I want to succeed in an agency business. That led to my next career move.
After working for about a year at Grey, I moved to the Daily Star because I wanted to know the media scene. I joined there in a marketing position and my additional responsibility was publishing a few new supplementary pages such as a special segment on real estate, on banking and so on. I had a relationship with the Daily Star since my O Levels day. I used to write for the paper. How I started writing for the Daily Star is another interesting story. After the O level exam, I had a break and I wanted to do something. After much thought, I came up with the idea that I wanted to write for the Daily Star. I was never a conventional person. Instead of beating around the bush, I went to Mr. SM Ali directly. I went to the DS office and met his Secretary and asked for him. It was nothing like I took an appointment and then went. It was more informal.
On one fine morning, I went to the Daily Star office and met his Secretary and asked him that I came to see Mr. Ali. The Daily Star was a relatively new paper at that time and I knew Mr. Ali was the Editor. When Mr. Ali saw me, he smiled and asked me what I wanted. He was a very nice person. Extremely humble. He was the perfect embodiment of a gentleman. I told him my story that I just finished my O level, I’m free and I want to write for your paper. He replied that’s fine and then he sent me to a person and told me that he would assign me to work and they would pay me BDT 300-400 per article. I was super happy that I could earn money by writing.
Of all things that I lacked, I had an abundance of courage. I had no fear of rejection. If you want to be an entrepreneur you can’t have the fear of rejection, you have to try on. I went to every place where I could manage an entry and where I got an opportunity I gave a presentation and gave my offer. And something clicked. Some of the people I pitched to, believed in me and gave me ads and some people did not.
To clarify, when you managed advertisements for your magazine Style and Grace, you simply walked into the offices of all those brands and you did not know anyone?
Yes. I did not know anyone. You could see, I did not have any network at that time. I just came from Singapore and an undergrad student, how would I know people in all those places?
You said you got 08 ads for the first issue of the magazine, how many companies you pitched to get those 08 ads?
I think I approached over 60 companies to get those eight ads and almost all of those were unsolicited. I would go to an office – albeit I would do my research before going – and asked for a person to meet. I presented myself, showed them my ideas and the demo of the magazine and I convinced them.
Okay, coming back to your Daily Star Story. What happened next?
Then I started working at the Daily Star. Part of my job was Marketing ideation to grow our revenue and at the same time, I was also responsible for managing these new supplementary pages. I used to do the marketing for all these pages all by myself as well. We had a marketing team for collecting regular advertisements but for these pages, I was everything – from preparing content to collecting advertisement. Since I had come up with the idea, I said I could do this and you don’t need to have any other marketing person for this. When doing a Banking supplement I would go to banks and talk to their PR department and used to get ads. These pages were self-reliant. For content, there were writers at DS and I was also involved in writing. So I was doing well at the Daily Star. Things were going okay.
At that time there were not that many Banks in Bangladesh. A new bank launched around that time, Faisal Islamic Bank of Bahrain which is now Bank Alfalah. I had to interview one of their key management because they wanted to participate in one of our Banking supplement and they were looking for coverage as well. So I took the interview of the second man of the bank, Deputy Country Head, a Pakistani individual. They were located in Motijheel at that time. They were one of the early day’s international bank in Bangladesh. And it was a beautiful office. So I went to interview the second man. At the end of the interview, to my surprise, he offered me a job. He asked me, would you like to join us. I told him that I have no clue of Banking, what you mean. By that time, I already learned a lot about brand and marketing. I said that I was more of a marketing person than a banker. He told me that we have just started our operation would you like to support our marketing department and work as a Trainee which is now a Management Trainee. I said I would let him know later – let me go back and think. Later I thought that if I wanted to do business, I needed to know banking as well. I spoke to my parents about it and my father was very happy because he did not understand what I was doing with branding, P&G and Shampoo, and Magazine. When I got the offer from the bank, he asked me to give up these magazine and fancy things and go to the bank. The other thing that attracted me was their environment and people. When I went to their head office, there were many smart people working there at that time, people from all the good companies. They were a very smart lot. I was very attracted to that. I liked that people go to the office wearing formal suits and boots, it was interesting to me. I then decided to pursue the career.
I used to work under Fahim Munaim at the Daily Star. When I informed him that I decided to leave the Daily Star and join a Bank. Initially, he was upset and told me that you just started here and now you have organized your thing and are doing well why would you go now. I told him my ambitions including the fact that I wanted to learn banking. I did not tell anyone that I wanted to do business in the future that’s why I want to go to a bank because it would have sounded very naive.
Anyway, I finally joined Faysal Islamic Bank of Bahrain. But I did not work at the bank for long – I stayed there less than a year. I enjoyed the first few months of my bank job. I enjoyed that aura, that attitude, and that posh environment but as I passed more days I started to lose interest in the job. I thought since I did not come from a financial background, it was not a right fit for me.
I was assigned to the asset marketing department, which in reality was going after people and convincing them to deposit their money in our bank. I tried to do different things related to marketing but I could not because it was a structured environment and experimenting was not an easy option. I became bored and the job became a clerical job for me. After 8-9 months, I resigned. I said that this is not my cup of tea and I want to do something on my own. You know what happened at my home when my father came to know my decision – they said you would end up doing nothing and would not amount to anything. What do you mean by you want to give up a bank job? You got a job in this foreign bank, if you do well you would go to a better place, instead, now you started this quitting game.
I took a small office in Eastern Plaza – a three-room office. This was 2002. By this time I had saved some money and I invested it in starting the operation. So I hired 3 people and started doing some small works for a few small brands. That’s how my first agency business started.
Just like that, one fine morning you decided to leave your well paying job and start your own?
It was difficult to convince my parents that I wanted to pursue my own thing. It was more so at that time than these days. Today’s parents are more open to new ideas. Despite that even these days, there are professions which if you want to pursue people would question you. I don’t know what you tell your family when they ask you about what you do. I guess they probably don’t get it. This is the first hurdle of being an entrepreneur – convincing your parents and relatives of the importance of what you are trying to do. Anyway, after mustering enough courage, I told them that I want to do something of my own. My parents’ became worried – what happened to their only son. They could not figure out what I was trying to do.
After that, I took a small office in Eastern Plaza – a three-room office. This was 2002. By this time I had saved some money and I invested it in starting the operation. So I hired 3 people and started doing some small works for a few small brands. That’s how my first agency business started. That’s how I started my journey into the world of advertising. I named the company MMX at that time. The name remains the same as MMX Advertising Communication. To be accurate, the first name was MediaMix, from MediaMix it became MMX. So we had a name and were doing small assignments.
Then I came to realize that it is challenging to sustain doing small pay work. So I thought that if I want to take this to the next level, we have to up the game and do a little bigger work. What to do? By that time I know the advertising industry since I had worked at Grey and saw Asiatic from closely. I knew who are big players, how the business is done and all that.
I then thought that if I could take an affiliation with an international agency, it would elevate my standing in the market and help my growth. I had to show extraordinary courage again. This was the days of dial-up internet. I had a laptop and internet connection and I would look up for agencies to collaborate. After much hustle, I ended up with an appointment with Contract Advertising, which was a wing of JWT. A few of JWT agencies were working in India at that time and Contract was one of them. Ram Sehgal, one of the legendary figures in advertising, was the CEO and chairman of Contract at that time. He has written a couple of very good books as well and is one of my inspirations. Anyways, I reached out to Contract and they invited me to India for a meeting.
Besides advertising, I have always been passionate about music. I had never been a singer myself but I love music. I always wanted to be associated with music in one way or the other. MTV was already beaming to Bangladesh at that time. It was a very good channel and they used to air a lot of international music. But they did not broadcast any Bangla music which got me thinking why not they would do so. At that time I did a project with Unilever for the brand Close-Up. While doing that project I came up with an idea whether I could give Bangla music to MTV. While working in that project I met with some of the legendary Bangla musicians including Ayub Bacchu, Warfaze brand’s Sunjoy, and Prometheus band and a few others. In between our conversation with them, I shared the idea that why there is no Bangla music in MTV. They said it would not happen because MTV is very international music dominated, even in India, and it would not be any different in Bangladesh either. I told them that nobody tried either. If someone tried and failed then we could give up but nobody even tried. Then Bachchu bhai and other musicians told me that it would not happen. Now it became a challenge for me. I can’t stand the idea that I could not do something. I insisted that I have to try it.
As I mentioned, I was in conversation with Contract at that time and already had an appointment. I then found out MTV India address and wrote to them. I had an advantage that worked in favor of me, which is I had a very matured voice considering my age then. Now I was very young but over the phone, I had a very matured voice and I did not sound like a boy in the early 20s. I spoke to MTV Marketing Director and Distribution Director over the phone and took an appointment and told them that I’m coming to India and would love to meet. Everything was set. I had two meetings scheduled. Now came the journey. I was a fledgling entrepreneur at that time. I had an office and a team of four people to manage and I did not have enough money to fly. So I took a bus from Dhaka to Calcutta and then from there I took the train to Bombay. When I reached Bombay I did not know where to stay. Now that I look back it feels like did I do that for real? As you could see I could not afford a five-star hotel. I spent some time searching for a decent place and found something like a guest house and stayed there which was close to MTV office and not too far away from Contract office.
My first meeting was at MTV. I went to the MTV office and gave my name at the reception and told them that I came to meet marketing and distribution director. Obviously, I was very young at that time so they were a little surprised. In an attempt to self-assured themselves they said you are Rabeth, right? I said yes. They said but you look very young. I said, well I can’t help that’s how I look. Then they took me to the meeting room. I took good preparation for the meeting. I did my homework and brought OHP slides and other material with me for the meeting. I studied MTV following and fan base in Bangladesh well. We already had a dish line at our home at that time so I had a good idea about programming. I collected information from the cable operator about the number of views, what programs people watch the most and so on. So I started presenting all these materials. However, I could feel that they were not as enthusiastic in person after seeing me as they were over the phone. This might be because of my age. They probably thought about what this boy could do. But I was dead adamant that I have to prove myself. I gave an excellent presentation. I had an almost hour-long presentation. At the end of the presentation, they seemed a little bit more positive and convinced looking at my knowledge about the sector and looking at the homework that I did. Then they said if you want a time slot on MTV, it is expensive and a difficult proposition. I asked them to give me an idea about expenses. They asked me to send them details of what I wanted to do and also reminded me that the music has to be of high standard. I told them I would send you details as well as a demo of videos. When I left the meeting, I became a little frightened that I made the promise but would I be able to deliver and where would I manage the money to make these videos and then the program. My experience from Magazine days helped. I thought, whatever happens, I would go to companies and give presentations.
After returning to Bangladesh, I went to 30-40 companies for advertisement. However, this time it was different. It was easy for people to believe that I could produce a magazine, so they gave me ads, but believing me that I could arrange an advertisement in MTV was a different thing. Most people thought, which I could see in there body language, that this is a fraud giving an MTV story, at the end of the day would not deliver anything and run away with the money. Despite that, there are people who believe in you. Similarly, a few people took chance on me and agreed to work with me including Olympic, Berger Paints, Unilever, Ribena, Kenwood, and Perfect Textile – these six companies agreed to give me ads. I must thank few people for supporting me for that MTV initiative – Adnan of Interspeed, Zulfiqar Bhai of Unitrend, Adcomm, Abid Bhai of Perfect Textiles and Rumana Apa of Unilever
MTV told me that it would cost around 80,000 taka for a half an hour slot. I finally raised around 150,000 taka, I don’t remember the exact number, but something close to that figure. I thought I have to make some profit as well. I made 4-5 music videos. I did everything starting from preparing the script to direction to everything. I did not have any institutional training. I would watch MTV all day to learn how they shoot videos. I eventually made the videos and sent them to MTV and luckily, they accepted. I then lineup all these clients and made it happen. To send money to MTV I took help from a friend who was in Singapore at that time because I did not have the means to send the money. I told him that I would repay you when you come to Bangladesh next time. They had some sort of a business connection in Bangladesh at that time. Somehow I pieced it all together everything.
In that first project, I made a profit of about 20,000 taka. The day program aired Bachchu bhai and everyone else called me and asked how you made it happen. I replied because you said it could not be done. 41:58 That’s my MTV story.
Now coming to Contract story. After MTV meeting, I went to Contract. I met their Vice President at that time. In between conversation he told me that you came at the right time, that we want to expand our operations in Bangladesh. We are also in discussion with a few other agencies in Bangladesh. We would let you know when we finally start the process. I said fine, I would look forward to your update.
I returned to Bangladesh and MTV project was already up and running. After a few days, I received a call from Contract India saying that Ram Sehgal and the Vice President of Contract would visit Bangladesh and take presentations from the interested agencies.
This was a good news and a bad news for me. Because I did not have a formal agency per se and neither had people who could give a presentation and convince a person of the stature of Mr. Sehgal. My situation was I was seeing cricket. I was desperately looking for a way out.
I had two friends who worked at Grey, both of them started working at Grey when I was there. But both of them left Grey by the time and went to different directions. I reached out to them and explained to them that I did this thing and now I have to give a presentation. I did not expect that Mr. Ram Sehgal would come.
I was still in my tiny office in Easter Plaza. I thought if they come to see this office, there is no way I would have a chance. It was impossible for me to take an office in Gulshan/Banani area. I was out of ideas. After a few desperate attempts, I found a friend of my mother. Her name was Nasrine Karim – daughter of Late Humayun Rashid – and she was in the fashion business and had a decent posh office in Gulshan. She was a wonderful character and a flamboyant type of person. I met her several times through my mother’s connection. I thought that I would go to her and ask for help because as I said she had a very nice office in Gulshan. So I thought I have to onboard her on this.
The next day I went to her and told her that I want to do this and convinced her. She told me that fine no problem, you could use my office. I told her that if it works out she could become a part of the company. She told me that it is okay and also said that she doesn’t understand anything about advertising so I should not involve her in it. Use my office and everything, no problem, she told me.
Now I had to prepare the presentation. They sent some guidelines for preparing the presentation and what to include in the presentation. My friends, since they left Grey, had not much depth about the advertising industry anymore. My headache was who would present. When you are presenting as a team, you could not do it all alone. There has to be a team. Since they were coming to evaluate, they would also evaluate the resource strength. Anyways, I had to do it. I called up the person who used to design my Magazine and made him the Creative Director. I assigned two different roles to two friends. While I was doing all these things, my friends had some questions that we know almost nothing about advertising how would we present. I told them that I would do all the homework and prepare everything for you; I would prepare the slides and all, you just present. Study the presentation, understand it and then present it. Everyone memorized the presentation, which was the preparation. I did all the work, then everyone memorized their part. Then came Mr. Ram Sehgal and his Vice President.
We used a big conference room in the office of Nasrine Aunty for the presentation. I presented first and then my other teammates started presenting. You know people like Ram Sehgal, they have seen the world and they understand when they see a person or a presentation. When my other teammates started presenting, he started asking them questions outside of what they had memorized. I knew that they would not be able to answer, so I was filling in for them wherever possible. I was trying to cover them whenever there was a scope. When I did this for a few times, Ram Sehgal told me that Rabeth we are here just not to listen to you but your entire team. Now my rescue operation failed. We did a three-hour long presentation. When we finished, Mr. Sehgal took me aside and he started with telling me that you are a very potential and bright person and if you stay on this course you would build a really big agency one day but I have to say that you are not ready yet. You don’t have a proper advertising agency to manage and run a business. But you keep at it and if you keep at it you will have your agency one day. I felt bad that it did not happen but his words were of some comfort.
After that, I went back to my regular operation doing the small works and keeping the business going. After hustling for a while I landed a big client, Toshiba. Toshiba was in the business of Laptop and Copier and used to invest quite significantly in advertising. Toshiba Laptops and Copiers used to be distributed in Bangladesh by their Bangladesh associate, International Office Machines Limited (IOM) Luckily the Director of IOM was my senior in Singapore college days. We studied at the same university. So he knew me. Toshiba account was managed by an advertising agency called Andes. In the 90s-2000, they were one of the very promising agencies. It was run by a talented lady Aneela Haque, daughter of the founder of MGH group. They used to look after Toshiba account at that time. Then we got the Toshiba account by a stroke of luck and thanks to Shaheen Bhai of IOM for believing in me and our little agency. After a long slump, when I got the Toshiba account, it gave me a lot of confidence that things would get better eventually.
In the early days, many people would advise me to join social clubs, this club, that club, network, and all those things because things were not happening. But I realized that all these networking and trying desperately is of no-use. There is a time for you and you have to be prepared and honest for your time to bring fruit for you. That’s how I started.
How did you get the job by the way?
It was the usual process. I met Shaheen Bhai, presented our strategy and he liked our idea and he considered giving us a chance. It helped that he knew me from my Singapore days. He knew that I was running a new agency and we were a small team but he took a chance and it changed the trajectory of our business forever.
Let’s get back to the story. You now have the Toshiba account, what happened after that?
Then things started to look brighter for us. By the time we moved our office to Suvastu Tower. We have a team of about 3 people. In the meantime, something very interesting happened. By now you could see that I love doing new things and taking risks. Bashundhara city shopping mall just started its construction process. It was managed by sons of Mr. Sobhan.
Besides running my business I was always on the lookout for new ideas and new things to do. One of the sons was a friend of a common friend of mine who was working at the mall as well. One day while having tea together, I told him that what about if we build a multiplex cinema theatre in the Bashundhara Mall. He doubted at first whether a Cineplex would do well in Bangladesh. Bangla cinema was going through a rough phase at that time. I told him that could you convince your management at least for a discussion session. I was using a shared office at that time for my agency business and the office belonged to Mahboob Rahman. I asked him that an opportunity related to this business might come up, would you be interested? He initially said that this would not work and so on. When I hear no, it drives me. I like chasing the impossible. Anyways, afterward, I met with Mr. Shafiat Sobhan Sanvir who was looking after mall project. I shared my ideas with him. Since he studied abroad, he could see the future because of his experience and exposure to similar things. He told me that you could do it but you have to invest in it. I then told him that if you agree to a GV between you and the other company then probably we could explore this further. When I shared the idea with Mr. Mahbub he said that I can’t invest all the money from myself, we would have to raise capital if you want to do it. You have to prepare the details for the financial institution and BOI and then probably we could move forward. I did not take any money from him. I was earning decent revenue from my advertising business with which I could survive. But I took making the project happen as a challenge. I prepared the entire thing for the project, starting with the proposal for financial institutions, BOI and everything else. It took me six months to prepare everything since I was doing it all alone. Then I got it registered in BOI and financing arranged. The advantage of registering in BOI is that you get the tax benefit as the investment is then considered as FDI. It means your overall cost of doing business comes down. I learned these things in my bank job. After much hustle, we had the capital to start the business and it was between Bashundhara and that other company. Now we needed some money to start the operation. They again gave me the challenge to figure out to get in some money to run the operation in the initial phase. That’s where my advertising business came in handy.
I’m talking about 2003-04 and I introduced brand partnership and association in Bangladesh at that time. I again started going to the different company. By that time I had a network. I knew a few important people in the industry. I tied up with Coca-Cola, I got Robi and Panasonic. I connected all three brands and made them partners. I remember cinema hall project was still under construction at that time and I raised nearly 15 million taka from all these partners. I also sold branding spaces. It was something like selling land by showing water. I raised that money
While I was doing all these things, I never gave up on my agency ambitions. I then tried a few more global agencies. I could not muster the courage to reach out to Mr. Sehgal again because although my business was in a better shape at that time, it was not near anywhere what he was expecting. I reached out to a few more agencies including Publicis, TBWA, and Mudra and made some headway with TBWA.
I had a better office by that time at Suvastu Tower, though a shared one. TBWA just got Standard Chartered account globally. If everything goes well, we would start working on an international brand right away. Then they came to visit us. I was happy and excited. And I was very honest. I told them that we use a shared office. They asked us about our manpower. I told them that we are a startup agency and we are a small team but if StanChart comes on-board we would hire more people. We had a tri-party meeting with SCB, TBWA and us. SCB used to work with Interspeed at that time and suggested that we hire some people from there. A few days later of that initial discussion, TBWA told us that SCB wants us to have a separate office. I told them that we would work it out. I then told Mr. Mahboob about the issue and asked whether he would be interested and be of any help and that he also could be a part of the company. He told me that it is possible. That he had a place which we could use as our office. I was assured that this time it got solved. But advertising revenue was nothing to Mr. Mahboob compared to his other business. So when it came to the execution of moving to the new office, he was not giving it the priority. I was in a better position than the previous time but I was not in a position to rent such a big floor. One month passed in this indecisiveness and TBWA told me that Rabeth we can’t wait and SCB also told me that we can’t wait for you for an indefinite time, we need to start. Then they found out another agency Benchmark and gave them the work and TBWA tied up with them.
This time I got pissed off and frustrated. First time when it did not work out with contract, it was okay, but the second time, it was too much to bear. The cinema project was up and running by that time, I thought this is not going to work for me. I have to give my agency business everything that I have got. Doing it half-heartedly is not going to do. I have learned my lessons over two episodes. At Star Cineplex, I was the Executive Director because it was my brainchild. I’m happy that it’s running well and it’s so successful. However, I decided to leave it and do my own thing. Finally, in 2005 created MACOMM.
We already had Toshiba as a client. Then we landed up two more clients, Panasonic and Tourism Malaysia. Our team was the same four-five people team. I got the Panasonic through a formal presentation, which I did in Singapore. Having Toshiba, a Japanese company, helped me to get another Japanese company.
How I got Tourism Malaysia is also an interesting story. I came across the news that Tourism Malaysia business had been given to an Agency called Beehive, an independent agency. TM was a very big account and Beehive got it for India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan geography. When I saw the name of Bangladesh, I thought this is an opportunity to explore. I then reached out to the Managing Director of Beehive. I spent some time looking up his name and email ID online and then I wrote to him. Afterward, he called and invited me to Bombay for a meeting. This time I took the plane, as my financial situation was a little better.
After the meeting, he told me on the spot that Rabeth, take it. The account is yours, please handle it for us in Bangladesh. He also asked me to help us in doing it in Pakistan as well. I told him that give me a few weeks, I will try and sort it out. I then found an agency in Pakistan through a friend and on-boarded them as my partner for handling Tourism Malaysia Pakistan account. The Managing Director of Beehive Sanjit was a client and for 12 years he became a very good well-wisher of mine. Another person I have profound gratitude for. In between, let me tell you one more thing.
The year before I formally started MACOMM, when I was still in Suvastu Tower, Bangladesh hosted the ICC Cricket World 2004. Before the event, ICC called for pitch for managing the account in Bangladesh. We pitched there along with all the bigshot agencies. The good thing was the pitch was managed and handled directly by the ICC. I told you in the beginning that one of the values I learned from my family is ethical integrity. Had the pitch managed by the Bangladesh cricket board, we would have never won it. But it was managed by ICC directly. They set up their full office for their 2004 World Cup because the Bangladesh Cricket Board did not have the experience at that time to manage such events on their own. These people go by merit, they don’t go by influence or money. We won that pitch just before I created MACOMM.
Winning that pitch, having Toshiba with us, and then winning Panasonic and Tourism Malaysia, all these things gave me my platform to start. Interesting, none of the clients visited our office this time except Toshiba which was managed by an IOM. My office was on the top of Ananda Ullash Community in Dhanmondi.
I would say I was very fortunate and thankful to God that these clients believed in my merit. They never bothered about my office or how big was my team. One thing I learned from that incident is that you don’t need many things in order to do well. You just need to be honest, know your work and deliver what you promise.
In the early days, many people would advise me to join social clubs, this club, that club, network, and all those things because things were not happening. But I realized that all these networking and trying desperately is of no-use. There is a time for you and you have to be prepared and honest for your time to bring fruit for you. That’s how I started. That’s my journey.
Then what happened? What did you do next?
So I finally got my start in 2005 with a team of just 3 people initially – my other half Sadia, our creative hero Moinul and a hot-headed and raw media guy Asad. I owe a lot to them for being there and without them, it would not have been possible to start off. In 2007-08, I contacted Mr. Ram Sehgal. I told him that Sir, thank you for that day of inspiration. You said that if I persist I would have my own agency one day and I have my own agency now. He was very happy and I invited him to come to visit Bangladesh and give us some time.
By that time I had a team of 15+ people. And that time he also retired from active roles and was writing and doing guest speaking in different universities. I told him that I would be very happy if you come to Bangladesh and spend three days with my team. I asked him about his remuneration and all that because since he moved out, he was in a consultant mode. He is such a gem of a person that he called me back and told me that Rabeth this is a gift from me to you, you don’t need to pay me anything, any consultancy fees, you just pay me my hotel and airlines. That’s it. And the rest of it is my gift to you for staying determined and staying on course. He came to Bangladesh and spent three days with my team. We took our team to the BRAC CDM in Gazipur and for three days he gave me and our team a training on modern-day advertising and his experiences of advertising across the world.
When I started MACOMM in 2005, my goal was that I would establish my agency without any affiliation. That was my challenge to myself. And I did it.
By the end of 2008, need for dedicated Media Buying started to evolve. Our agency at that was more creative and event management centric. But everyone was talking about media buying for which we did not have a department. That’s when I thought we need to have a dedicated company which is into media buying.
I made a shop list again and was determined that I have to find an affiliate this time. I failed twice, the third time I have to get it. I selected a few names and then I spoke to Mr. Ram Sehgal for his advice and I told him that I made a shortlist, what you say. He told me something very important. He told me that Rabeth, think of not today, think of the future. You have to find a global agency that will have more focus on Asia than Europe. He advised me that don’t go with any big European agency because they will judge you by what you have, you should go with an agency which is playing a challenger role in the global market and which has a strong interest to develop and grow in Asia. It was a very good tip.
Then I matched one from the list and that was Carat, the media agency of Aegis Network. At that time, it was Aegis Network, Dentsu did not merge yet. I then connected to them on a blind shot and just landed there without any network. I spoke to an Australian individual Phil Brooks, who was the CFO of Aegis Media of APAC and then met him in Singapore. I must humbly thank him for believing in me. He then asked me to fly down to India and he was going there as well. At that time, one of the current era advertising icons Ashish Bhasin joined Aegis Media who is currently the Chairman and Managing Director of Dentsu Aegis Network India and South Asia. I met him in Mumbai and we signed. A big bag of gratitude to Ashish for believing in me. MediaAxis was born and got affiliated with Carat / Aegis Network. So this time, finally, the ambition of being affiliated with an international agency network was achieved. Learning – persevere and keep at your goals. After that, we got the Nokia business, which was a mega brand back in 2009 and we started growing rapidly.
I think I approached over 60 companies to get those eight ads and almost all of those were unsolicited. I would go to an office – albeit I would do my research before going – and asked for a person to meet. I presented myself, showed them my ideas and the demo of the magazine and I convinced them.
So you put together a separate company for Media Buying, MediaAxis?
Yes. It is a separate company with a separate office. Where you are today is MACOMM/Dentsu, MediaAxis/Carat office is two floor in Dhanmondi 28 no road, near Nandos.
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Now you have a media buying company, your agency business has been growing consistently and you finally have an affiliate, what did you do next?
In 2012 I noticed that a shift is happening in the market where brands want to engage consumers on an experiential basis. And entertainment and music play a big role in engaging consumer. Since I had an inclination towards music, I created Creinse Limited in 2012. Before that, in 2011 I organized Bangladesh’s first global music performers’ event in Bangladesh. I brought in Bryan Adams in 2011. He performed. To make this happen I made a mutual connection with the Bangladesh Cricket Board, Bangladesh organized the Cricket World Cup in 2011, Bryan Adams performed in the Opening Ceremony of the World Cup and taking the opportunity, I ensured he did a concert for me. And again, there was a person Rajat Kakar, who was heading Universal Music India, who was the reason, I could make Bryan Adams perform for us in Bangladesh. Rajat has been a guiding light for me in the music and the content syndication business.
Creinse’s main focus is live events and music content development and syndication – working with international music performers. The second was, we signed up with MTV, the relationship was always on. And then we signed up with Sony DADC. These are the three instrumental partnerships that we have under Creinse, and the ones which are supporting our growth ambitions.
Since 2011, we are the only company in Bangladesh that works with global music performers. We brought many international performers to Bangladesh starting from Bryan Adams to Asha Bhosle to Richard Marx to Boney M. In every event we did, one thing was always common. I wanted to Bangladesh to be part of it one or the other. With all of these performers, I connected Bangladeshi musicians and performers so that they could have a global experience. We have also connected local brands. I have found that this is a great way of connecting brands who are not your clients. I always have this intention to integrate Bangladesh in all these works that I do. I try to find a way to do it. So that’s Creinse.
The most recent company that I’ve created is D’reach, which is a standalone digital media agency. We did a major launch in April. We invited Ashish Bhasin, one of my mentor and pillar of support along with the CEO of iProspect, CEO of Isobar and the CEO of SVG, these are the three big digital verticals of Dentsu Aegis Network. I brought them all here and we also invited all our clients. We had a big launch in Westin. D’reach is just about 3 months old and has already attracted strong client attention and have a client portfolio base of 6-7 clients. With D’reach, we aim to be one of the Top 3 digital agencies in Bangladesh by end of December 2019.
These are the four companies that we have. And this is my story.
One of the things that have helped you to build the business is probably your personal inner-drive and tenacity and it is extremely critical for a founder to have those qualities. What are other things that have helped you to grow the company?
If I tell you business-wise, staying within the ethical boundary is very important. This looks like an outdated principle for today’s world but this is something that would certainly help you in the long-run. This is something that I have been talking about for a very long time.
I believe that agencies need to be transparent. In every stage of our growth, I have always tried to be transparent and conduct myself from within an ethical boundary. I will earn in a transparent manner because I never believed in building a business and making money through shortcuts. As a result, many of my clients continue to work with us. We still work with Panasonic, 13 years. I’m working with Tourism Malaysia for 13 years. I’m working for IOM / Toshiba for 13 years; I’m working with KDS Group for the last 8-9 years. A lot of our clients that we are working with are for a very long time. This has served us well. We are one of the top 3 agencies in media buying. We are one of the top 4-5 agencies in creative business. In music and entertainment business, we are probably the number one. In digital, our ambition is to become top 3 by the end of 2019.
So first thing is transparency with our clients that has helped us to build a long-term relationship with our clients.
The second would be we never stopped learning. I never stopped learning. I believe that you have to continually learn and update yourself and invest in your development. In order to stay in the race, there is no alternative to relentless learning.
Number three is you need to hire people of similar conviction. If your ethical framework is this, then you should hire people with similar values and belief. This cultural fit is incredibly important. In 13 years of my business journey, I never had to fire a person from my company on grounds of corruption or financial indiscipline. Our organizations have got one of the highest retentions in the industry. Apart from young executives, whom I yet to decipher yet, from mid to senior levels we have got retention of on an average 6-7 years. Our senior heads are here for last 10 years. This means having the right team and the right kind of people behind you is very important.
And in addition to the above three key catalysts of growth, one needs to have good mentors for honest guidance and support. One needs to have a few people who believe in you to entrust their business to you even if you are not big. I have been lucky to have got that through Ram Sehgal sir in the initial years and now Ashish Bhasin, who is a mentor and support system. While due to people like Shaheen Bhai of IOM, Shameem Bhai of KDS, Sanjit of Beehive, Daniel/Chris/Nick of Panasonic Singapore, MACOMM and MediaAxis has come to the stage as it is now
These are a few things that are important for the growth of a business. There are other small things but if you get the above right, rest should follow.
I want to talk about one thing here related to the first point which is ethical practice in business. Our industry is ridden with corruption. I feel sad and sorry to say this but many big agencies in our sector maintain unethical practices which is an open secret now. Everyone knows about this. They are not only earning money in the wrong way, they are also corrupting the system. We have intentionally stayed out of that kind of practice and syndicate and I will fight that always. We stay away and work alone. We believe that if we can deliver to our clients if performance and our commitment are met, clients will continue to work with us. I would not have to take any other means to get work. I’m very adamant about these things.