The Making Of Benchmark, Future of Communication, and Life With Ashraf Kaiser, Managing Director, Benchmark Limited

The Making Of Benchmark, Future of Communication, and Life With Ashraf Kaiser, Managing Director, Benchmark Limited

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Ashraf Kaiser is the Founder and Managing Director of Benchmark Limited – one of the leading communication agencies in Bangladesh. A multimedia personality with sharp PR skills, Mr. Ashraf has extensive marketing and communications experience with 18 years of hands-on working knowledge on media, the client side, and the agency and is considered as one of the most important communication entrepreneurs in the country.

He founded Benchmark in 2001 and has successfully built it into a leading communication company in Dhaka. Under his leadership, Benchmark has expanded to Nepal, the first Bangladeshi agency to expand beyond Dhaka, and successfully diversified its business into multiple verticals.

In this wonderful interview, Mr. Ashraf tells us his story of growing up in Rayer Bazar in the 80s Dhaka, about life in the 80s, his journey from being an award-winning journalist to becoming an entrepreneur, how he decided to leave his high-paying job at Shell and start Benchmark, the beginning of Benchmark and how a beginner’s mind approach helped him to survive the early days of entrepreneurship, talks about how he found his first client, how Benchmark grew its business in the early days, why your work is the best promotion you could afford, the state of Benchmark today and its ambition going forward, discusses the state of communication industry in Bangladesh, what makes great brands, the future of communication in a world ruled by technology, reflects on the value of hard work and dedication and much more.

Future Startup

Could you please tell us about yourself? You were born and brought up in Rayer Bazar, how did your upbringing shape your life?

Ashraf Kaiser

I spent the first 20 years of my life in Rayer Bazar. My first school was Rayer Bazar Primary school. Later I studied at West Dhanmondi School, Government Science College and then Jahangirnagar University. That’s my educational journey. When I look back today, Rayer Bazar has an enduring impact on how I view the world. It was a predominantly Hindu community at that time where we were one of a handful of Muslim families. But there was an excellent communal and religious harmony. We grew up celebrating both the Eid and Durga Puja with great festivity.

Rayer Bazar was not what you see it today. It was more of a semi-urban setting. But things changed quickly in the eighties. We had friends who left the country for Kolkata or some other parts of India during the partition. Hence we never saw some of our primary school friends.

Life was okay at Rayer Bazar. But the overall environment was such that we learned pretty early in our life that if you want to do well in life you better find a way out of Rayer Bazar. It motivated us to strive for a better life. We had a strong drive to do something well as quickly as possible right after school.

Journalism is a profession that does not have an age barrier. If you could write well, you could start working as a journalist at a very young age. We had a lot of small newspapers and magazines at that time who used to pay good money if you contribute and write for them. That’s how I came to Journalism. It was nothing part of a grand ambition or a master plan. I had some idealistic views, of course. I was inspired by the idea that you could contribute to society through journalism by telling the truth and speaking out about the problems the society. So I started writing for newspapers from the beginning of my university life.

Future Startup

Could you tell us about your family?

Ashraf Kaiser

We are a large family of 3 brothers and 5 sisters. Apart from one sister, all of us live in Bangladesh. My parents ensured a good education for all of us. All my siblings, we have completed higher studies and have done well educationally.

My father was a government servant. We are a very middle-class job oriented family where taking risk is not encouraged. It is a big departure for me to pursue my own business. You can even call it an anomaly.

Future Startup

What did you study at University?

Ashraf Kaiser

After college, I went to Jahangirnagar University where studied Government and Politics. It was a very famous subject at that time. Still, it is a very sought after subject. I was fascinated by the subject – the name of the department attracted me the most.

Future Startup

But you studied Science in School and College. Why the transition? Was it your decision?

Ashraf Kaiser

Yes, I studied Science until my HSC. As I mentioned, I fall in love with the subject the moment I came to learn about it. I realized that the Government and Politics is what I wanted to study. It was my decision that I wanted to study Government and Politics.

That was the same for the university as well. When I first went to Jahangirnagar, it occurred to me that this is the university that I want to attend. The campus was and is so green and lavish and I thought it looked like a higher education center. I loved it. We are talking about 1989/1988. So I got into Jahangirnagar. I spent the next four years at Jahangirnagar doing my three years honors and one year masters. I used to commute from Rayer Bazar. I had my room at the University dorm since it was a fully residential university but I did not stay there. It was relatively easier at that time to commute because traffic was not this bad.

Right after my admission at Jahangirnagar, I started working as a journalist. Initially, at a few small newspapers and publications and after a while, I joined Bichitra – one of the very renowned magazines of Bangladesh at that time. We used to call it the Time Magazine of Bangladesh. Eventually, I got a job at Bichitra as a contributor and after a while, I became a reporter at Bichitra.

Future Startup

How long did you work as a journalist?

Ashraf Kaiser

I did journalism for about seven years. I started journalism when I entered University – the first year of my university, and continued that for the next seven years.

Ashraf Kaiser at Benchmark HQ

Ashraf Kaiser at Benchmark HQ | Photo Ruhul Kader

Future Startup

So you started working as a journalist right after getting into university, did that throughout your university life on the side and after graduation, you decided to take it as a full-time profession. And then what happened?

Ashraf Kaiser

I did pretty well in Journalism. I was into investigative journalism and won Philips Award For Investigative Journalism at the age of 23. It was one of the most prestigious awards for journalism at that time.

Bichitra was the flagship magazine in Bangladesh. Every household used to subscribe to Bichitra. We became a household name. I did about 100 cover stories at Bichitra as a journalist, mostly investigative cover stories looking at the trade union, looking at the notarized system in Bangladesh and so on.

Future Startup

So you did journalism for seven years. After seven years what happened?

Ashraf Kaiser

While working at Bichitra, I met Mr. Manzur Elahi and Nasim Manzur of Apex Tannery Group. One day Mr. Nasim Manzur called me and asked me whether I would be interested in joining an advertising agency. They were starting an advertising agency called Trikaya Grey, which is popularly known as Grey today. Trikaya was an Indian name and Grey is a global name. So the joined venture used to call Trikaya Grey. I never heard of Trikaya Grey at that time.

I went and met them because I felt like working at an advertising agency would be interesting. It is a creative industry and as a bonus, I would get to meet a lot of models and beautiful girls (laugh). I met with Mr. Nasim and eventually decided to pursue a career in advertising. Without having any prior knowledge I agreed to join advertising. That’s the beginning.

Future Startup

Was it a difficult decision or a natural move because you were (I’m guessing) passionate about journalism and probably chose journalism as a career because of an idealistic side of it. How did you make the decision to transition from Journalism to advertising because these are two very different worlds?

Ashraf Kaiser

These are absolutely two different industries. After seven years of journalism, I was a little impatient and was thinking I need a bigger territory to work. By the time, I had made a good name for me as an investigative journalist and I did some really good work as well. At the same time, journalism was also changing and the room for doing meaningful investigative journalism was shrinking. I was looking for a bigger canvas. Advertising came along.

I would be very honest with you, I thought that I would join advertising and see this industry for six months, maybe twelve months. But life seldom follows any plan. Now here I’m doing it for 20 plus years.

I always say I have two identities. One is I’m a journalist and an ad man because even after leaving my formal journalism profession I continued my journalistic works by participating in the television program, talk shows, and joining various TV program as a spokesperson. I still feel these two very distinct identities of myself – a media person and an admin.

Coming back to your question, it was not a big decision. At that time, I just got married. Journalism was not a great profession when it comes to earning decent money. When the opportunity came along, I wanted to explore it and see where it takes me, for a while. I thought that I should join advertising and see a couple of months how the industry works. Since I knew journalism, I knew that I could always go back to journalism. By the time, I published a few books. I have written quite a popular book on the political killing in Bangladesh published by Mawla Brothers. I was 24 when I published that book. A couple of editions of that book has been published so far.

So joining advertising was not a big decision. I have always been curious about things. I wanted to see advertising and understand its inner works. So I joined Trikaya Grey. Now I realize that I made a great decision. It was so engulfing and fulfilling that I’m still doing it.

To make thing a bit more difficult, I told myself that I would not poach my old clients from Grey or Univision. Instead, I would build my own client base. I would not remember the fact that I was a very good journalist. My ego should not be with me. I would be a person who is starting a communication agency and I will take anything and everything that comes to my way. That’s how Benchmark got started.

Future Startup

So you joined Trikaya Gray and started your journey as an ad man and then what happened?

Ashraf Kaiser

I joined Grey in 1997. Grey Bangladesh was just getting started. I’m one of the early few people who joined Grey. I still remember my first four colleagues were from India – Grey India. I stayed at Grey for almost two and a half years. Then I joined Unitrend to start the first PR agency in Bangladesh.

After working for over two years in advertising, I realized that along with advertising we also need other related disciplines of communications in Bangladesh such as brand management, corporate communication management, and public relations, etc. PR is one of those things where you could build a positive brand image without doing advertising. So I floated an agency with Unitrend called Univision and that continued for a couple of months. Shell, the oil giant, was one of our flagship clients. They were investing in Bangladesh at that time in the upstream. After a few months into our relationship, Shell offered me a consultancy position. It was an exciting opportunity. So I left Univision and joined Shell.

Shell was for six months because I realized that I’m not a big company man. That I’m rather a small company person, a consultancy person or a communication person. To that end, it was an important experience for me. I found my true calling there. Big companies have a strong structure and so many dos and don’t that sometimes you feel a little suffocating. I felt that suffocation and that told me that I should start my own consultancy. That’s how my entrepreneurial journey started and Benchmark was born.

In 2000, I finally started my small consultancy company Benchmark. I was 30 at that time. I left Shell which was a big decision because Shell used to pay me a lot – at that time it was one of the highest paying jobs. You know oil companies pay really well. On top of that, I had all other facilities such as air-conditioned car and so on. While at Shell, one day I told my wife that I’m not finding myself. I’m somehow losing myself. I’m becoming another person than the person I wanted to be. I told her that I don’t fit well at Shell. It was nothing wrong with Shell, it is about me, I told her. It was her encouragement and support that eventually allowed me to pull the plug and make the boldest decision of my life and leave a very well-paying job to start my own company.

However, it was not a right away thing. I did not start the next day after leaving the job. After leaving the job, I used to sit at home and think about options. I could go back to journalism but journalism did not look an attractive profession anymore at the time. I thought I would not go back to journalism. I had experience in advertising and PR and thought what if I start a small initiative in between the two and see how it goes. So I started Benchmark in one fine afternoon of 2000.

To make thing a bit more difficult, I told myself that I would not poach my old clients from Grey or Univision. Instead, I would build my own client base. I would not remember the fact that I was a very good journalist. My ego should not be with me. I would be a person who is starting a communication agency and I will take anything and everything that comes to my way. That’s how Benchmark got started.

Future Startup

You need some capital and other arrangements, how did you manage those initial operational machinery?

Ashraf Kaiser

Honestly speaking, to start an ad agency or a communication consultancy, you don’t need much money. You need some skills to do some work. I had some savings from working at Shell. It was not significant because I did not work at Shell for long.

Our first big work came from UNDP in 2001. It was during the 2001 election, almost after a year of starting. In our first year, we did all kinds of work. Someone needs a leaflet design, someone a one-page press ad. We did all those small works. We used to attend any call and every call that came to our way.

One of our few first clients were BRAC Bank, Premier Bank, Scan Cement and a few other. Right after that Nandon Megastore became our client. Nandon just got started at that time. We had a lot of creative energy and we gave our everything to make the best of it.

We were a three-member team – one part-time art director, one office assistant, and myself.

I started as a solo founder, myself alone. I was doing everything on my own in the first few months. Then I got an office assistant and then I could afford an art director or an art person not a director per se. I used to write copy and plan, he used to draw and our office assistant used to move from this office to that office. That’s the beginning of Benchmark in the middle of 2000. Initially, most of the work were ad hoc in nature and came from some clients in Banani and Gulshan.

Ashraf Kaiser

Ashraf Kaiser

Future Startup

I would like to go a little back to the very early days, how did you get your first client?

Ashraf Kaiser

I would be very honest. I used to go to my friends who were working at different companies. Sometimes they were authorized to assign some work, sometimes they were authorized to offer me a cup of tea. I used to look at my phone and think one call should come. But someday that call never came.

The initial strategy was exploring opportunities within my network from university and professional life whether you need a design, a press ad or a banner. That’s how we got our first few clients such as BRAC Bank, Premier Bank, Scan Cement, Nandon Mega Store and so on.

Nandon Megastore was a big boost to our energy because they were new and used to buy media space as a barter. For example, they bought an ad at Prothom Alo, Prothom Alo also got a space at Nandon Mega Store. We had a lot of energy at that time. We used to design really beautiful ads. That gave us the first batch of creative reputation in the market. People started to take note.

When the 2001 election happened, we bid for UNDP film documentation. They wanted to document the festivity of the election – before the election, election day and after the election. We luckily got that account. As you can see we did not have enough people in the team to get the job done. I outsourced a director and a cameraman and got the job done. UNDP was so happy with the final product that they gave us some more work later as well. That’s beginning of it.

Then I met a man named Akku Chowdhury. At that time, KFC and Pizza Hut did not come to the market, they were preparing to launch. Akku Chowdhury was leading KFC and Pizza Hut. We got the job of a market survey from Mr. Akku Chowdhury to understand the pulse in the market and what people eat, like and dislike.

I started as a solo founder, myself alone. I was doing everything on my own in the first few months. Then I got an office assistant and then I could afford an art director or an art person not a director per se. I used to write copy and plan, he used to draw and our office assistant used to move from this office to that office. That’s the beginning of Benchmark in the middle of 2000. Initially, most of the work were ad hoc in nature and came from some clients in Banani and Gulshan.

Future Startup

So you were like doing anything?

Ashraf Kaiser

Yes, we were pitching for anything and everything. From a leaflet to a newspaper ad to a documentary and a survey. We had all our time, a passionate team willing to take it as a challenge, whatever job that comes to our way. Mr. Chowdhury trusted us and we did a survey for him.

Future Startup

How did you know Mr. Chowdhury?

Ashraf Kaiser

I used to know him before from some social movement where our path crossed. He was sitting at Transcom office at that time and planning the launch of Pizza Hut and KFC. So he gave us the job of finding out how people think about food and what they prefer. We went to fast-food shops and everywhere and asked people what they like and don’t and so on.

We did a good job at that and later on they appointed us as an ad agency of Pizza Hut and KFC. And that relationship continued for 13 years. That was I would say one of our foundational clients. By the time, we had a bigger team. We had a little bit of reputation in the market. Mr. Chowdhury trusted us. I would say working with Pizza Hut and KFC helped us find a place for us in the market. This was about 2003/04.

In 2004, we got the Standard Chartered account. It was a pretty dramatic event. As you know, for many large global clients the standard practice is that global agencies pitch for them. When Standard Chartered pitch happened we worked with an international agency for the pitch. But they did not win the work, somebody else did and we did not know who that agency was. Suddenly an agency called TBWA approached us saying that we have got Standard Chartered Globally and we know you pitched with someone else but how about if we work together.

We said okay why not because we knew that Standard Chartered was a big company and a large business in Bangladesh. They told us it would not come that easy we would have to earn the confidence of Standard Chartered. We arranged our house accordingly. The account director for Standard Chartered at TBWA Chris Galea visited Bangladesh and we sat together with Standard Chartered. By that time we have got a team of 12-15 people, all talented individuals. By then we have got Pizza Hut and KFC, Nandon Megastore, a few banks as our clients. It gave us some benefits and we could give a good presentation to the Standard Chartered Bank.

Luckily that relationship got cemented and we got Standard Chartered, one of the significant business, because of TBWA. That’s how we have become an associate agency of TBWA. That is the business card that I gave you that our creative partnership with TBWA, TBWA/Benchmark. The partnership started in 2004 and it continues till these days. We are a very happy partner of the TBWA network. TBWA is an iconic agency in the world. They are the agency behind much larger than life brands in the world such as Apple, Adidas, Absolut VodKa, Singapore Airlines, Standard Chartered and many more.

Benchmark started as a very very boutique agency. Then we got mid-size through the hustle and hard work. Then now we got an international affiliation through TBWA and we got a sizeable account like Standard Chartered Bank. That was the evolution of Benchmark from 2000 to 2004.

From 2004, we could go out in the market and say we work for Standard Chartered. We work for Pizza Hut and it changes everything. From there we never had to look back.

Future Startup

From that point onward you became a purely advertising agency. No more anything and everything.

Ashraf Kaiser

We started to be a brand builder agency through proper brand communication. After that, we got a telecom operator, Aktel, the predecessor of now Robi. We worked with Aktel for four years. We even founded a second company called lemon to work for Banglalink. By then we have all our muscle, glamour and creativity. That’s how Benchmark has grown.

Future Startup

What is the Benchmark today?

Ashraf Kaiser

Benchmark is a group now. We have a creative agency called TBWA/Benchmark. That’s a classic advertising agency. We have a PR agency that is very very active in the market called Benchmark PR. It is not an affiliated agency. It is a homegrown PR agency. I can happily tell that we are one of the largest PR agency in the market today. On PR we work with a long list of companies including Huawei, UBER, Banglalink, Facebook and a few more.

As I said, the Benchmark is a group today. We have a creative agency. TBWA/Benchmark. That’s an associate agency of TBWA network. We work with Standard Chartered Bank. Apart from StanChart, we work with Pran, SSG, Ovaltine, Metal, Unitech, Singapore Airlines and a long list of other clients.

TBWA belonged to Omnicom, the second largest holding company in the world after WPP. With Omnicom, we have got a media agency relationship as well. We represent two media agency called OMD and PSD. From PHD. we work with HSBC, SC Johnson, HP, and a few other brands for media planning and media buying. PHD and OMD is the media planning and buying business that we have. We have got a setup for events and activation. That’s how the entire group looks like.

Apart from that, we have an operation in Nepal. 10 years back, we thought about how about going global. So Benchmark went global. We went to Nepal and created a company there called Benchmark Communications Nepal. I used to visit Nepal at that time and thought why we don’t float an agency and we eventually did it. I would say today we are the only Bangladeshi agency that has an operation outside Bangladesh. Our Nepal entity it is also part of TBWA network in Nepal.

Coming up with new ideas, challenging conventions, running extra miles and whatever it takes attitude – these things helped Benchmark a lot because when we started there were already big name agencies in the market but we could create a place for ourselves in the market. We tried to do things differently. We tried a fresh approach to things. It helped us tremendously.

Future Startup

Could you give us an overview of the Benchmark as a company in terms of the size of your operation, team, the number of clients you handle on a monthly basis and so on?

Ashraf Kaiser

For a communication company, your key resource is always people. People is what makes or breaks your company. We have got around 50 people in our group in different disciplines as I mentioned earlier. We have about 12 clients and about 70% of our client relationships are retainer basis under retainer fee. For example, with standard chartered we have been working for 15 years. With Pizza Hut and KFC, we worked for 13 years.

In most instances, our relationship period with our clients is very long. Because longer relationships are critical to meaningful work. Brands understand that a longer relationship allows both parties to develop a better understanding and do better work.

Apart from our retainer clients, we have project basis works that we do for our clients on the basis of projects such a calendar design, a campaign, and so on. Project basis relationships are one-off in nature. We do one project and that’s it.

In short, we have got about 50 people, 12 clients and operation in 2 different countries and we are growing a bit faster than the market growth.

One thing I would like to mention here is that Benchmark has helped create a good number of human resource for the industry in Bangladesh. 18 years back when I started I had no money to offer a job to a seasoned professional. The only option that I had was taking on freshers and rookies and giving them some sense of communication and prepare them for doing their best work. It has helped usher sort of a revolution. There are many creative agencies where you would find people who started their career at Benchmark. You would find hundreds of professionals who once started their journey at Benchmark and are now very established in the market.

I mention this because it is still very tough to find ready people in our country who could do good work in PR and/or advertising. Although there are a few institutions that offer journalism and communications majors, the curriculum they teach and the market reality is very different. Even these days we offer opportunities to young people helping them in developing a better understanding of communications and thus contributing to the development of the industry be it copywriting, art direction, account management so that they could add value to the system in the industry.

Future Startup

You started as a solo founder and when you started off you decided you would do any work that comes to your way and you hustled hard. What are a few things that you did in those days to get the company off the ground?

Ashraf Kaiser

I would tell you what was true when I started 18 years ago which I believe is true these days as well. You need to work hard. Run extra miles. You need to be aggressive. You need to have the tendency of “whatever it takes”. This attitude was with us when we started. Even these days we try to apply that firepower. We have a tendency in our country that everything would be served to me. I would only enjoy and make decisions. We expect things to be easy. I don’t think the world works like that.

In the early days that we always tried to challenge the convention. We tried to bring new things, new ideas for building brands, running a campaign and so on. It was a huge advantage for us.

Coming up with new ideas, challenging conventions, running extra miles and whatever it takes attitude – these things helped Benchmark a lot because when we started there were already big name agencies in the market but we could create a place for ourselves in the market. We tried to do things differently. We tried a fresh approach to things. It helped us tremendously.

Marketing is a field where every company needs new blood, new attitude, a new challenge because what worked yesterday would not bring any result today. So I would say if anyone wants to start today, they must talk about differentiation and think about differentiation and work on differentiation. They have to offer something different. They have to behave differently. They have to challenge convention and create something better.

However, we have a challenge regarding finding ready talent pool in our market which is not the case in many markets such as India. There is a huge gap between the market need and what our universities are producing. The good thing is that some universities are now offering media studies and specialized education on communication. It would be very useful if universities could take some initiatives to reduce this gap between industry and academia.

If this happens, then when these people come out of the university, we would find them as a good pool of resources. After 20 years, my observation remains the same, this industry would have grown faster and done better if we had great people in the industry. The second thing that I would recommend to our young people is to become a bit more die hard in nature. Develop a bit more serious attitude.

We all want to do well in life but we should not seek shortcuts to do that. We should pursue a long term and sustainable path. If someone wants to start a startup, he should work somewhere to gather experience for a while and through that he would be able to learn management style and then apply that at his own company. Advertising offers an incredible learning opportunity. It is an industry where you get to work with the airlines’ industry in the morning, and food in the evening. You get this kind of experience in no other industry.

I would tell you what was true when I started 18 years ago which I believe is true these days as well. You need to work hard. Run extra miles. You need to be aggressive. You need to have the tendency of “whatever it takes”. This attitude was with us when we started. Even these days we try to apply that firepower. We have a tendency in our country that everything would be served to me. I would only enjoy and make decisions. We expect things to be easy. I don’t think the world works like that.

Benchmark's recent work for PRAN

Benchmark’s recent work for PRAN

Future Startup

What challenges you’ve faced so far? One challenge you mentioned is people, finding great people, what are the other major challenges?

Ashraf Kaiser

The second challenge would be financed. Because our financing model is very orthodox and it begins with mistrust. Individuals who want to start a business, they should set up some investment to get started with their ideas. But always be frugal.

At Benchmark, we never tried to be flamboyant. Many people start with flashy office, promote themselves, do expensive things and so on but we never tried that path. From day one, we have been a little conservative, a little raw and real. Instead, we have tried investing in people, investing in developing systems and processes, in technology and so on. However, if you want to start a PR agency today, you would need some investment and you have to find sources for that. That said, it is not an investment-intensive industry, you can start with a pretty small investment but you have to start.

Future Startup

What do you enjoy most about running a communication company?

Ashraf Kaiser

Communication is one of the industries where you can create newness, powerful brands, and you can build trust for a brand and a company. I think we have a limiting idea about communication. Communication is not advertising. It is much more than that. It is about changing perceptions, behavior and convincing people to do things that they would not try otherwise. It offers you an opportunity to explore your creativity, inner inquisitiveness.

It has been about twenty years now in this industry. I started the journey as an experiment. Today, I find even more interesting and exciting than what I found it to be when I started in this industry.

Through communication, you can change lives, bring social change and unleash a revolution. To some extent, our life is a collection of communication.

This is the era of engagement now. If you don’t create something creative and engaging, people would not give it any importance no matter how big a campaign you run. So I would say creativity is going to be of supreme importance. We could clearly see that. In the past, people did not pay much attention to creative but it has changed now. People now pay for a creative idea.

Future Startup

What is your take on the communication industry in Bangladesh?

Ashraf Kaiser

The industry has grown pretty significantly over the past years. With the growth of our industry, I think the industry has a lot to offer in the coming days. The better days are ahead for the industry.

Technology has been playing an important role in our life for the better part of the last few decades. We are seeing new app-based services and a lot of other groundbreaking innovations due to these changes. Technology has also been changing communication methods. The challenge for us would be finding ways to take advantage of the technological revolution and find new levers of growth in it. Communication companies and consultancies will have to identify and address new growth challenges.

The overall landscape of communication has changed. There was a time when TV and newspaper were the two sources of news and entertainment for us. That day has changed. Today, we have far many options to choose from. There are social media, blogs, digital news sites, VOD platforms, and many others. Social media has taken precedence in our life in terms of how we consume news. Traditional news sites have already taken a backseat. In this new world, brand communication and corporate communication is in a far challenging and precarious situation than anytime before.

Communication has become a huge challenge for companies now because you are not getting your users the way you used to get them before. Reaching your audience is way more challenging and a complex process today than at any time before. Your audience is becoming a little more sophisticated than the brand. So brand and communication companies have to be more superior and sophisticated to engage their audience. And there comes the importance of good ideas. Because in the past people used to watch or listen to a mundane and boring advertisement because they had little option to do otherwise and were forced to watch.

Now those days are gone. This is the era of engagement now. If you don’t create something creative and engaging, people would not give it any importance no matter how big a campaign you run. So I would say creativity is going to be of supreme importance. We could clearly see that. In the past, people did not pay much attention to creative but it has changed now. People now pay for a creative idea.

I would say the importance of creativity would grow by the day because the market has become cluttered, the competition has grown, the users have become much more sophisticated and media has become fragmented. If you want to engage your audience in this new world, you have to do your best. Creativity is the only calling card that can create an impact for your brand. Brand custodians have to think and find partners who can create this power of creativity for them from the market.

Twenty years ago when I started my journey, I believe the value of creativity has grown manifold.

The second development I would say is the unparalleled importance of engagement. Be it through an ad, or activation or media planning, engagement is the key. Because if I want to tell something to an audience, until and unless the audience is engaged I can’t go further.

Our industry has a bigger challenge to address. First of all, we should not be called an agency. We should be called a partner. The named agency came when we used to buy media space on behalf of a client or someone else. That fashion is gone. For example, a large segment of my business is not about buying anything anymore. It is about communicating a message whether it is through advertising, PR or other mediums.

Future Startup

Technology has changed many things. It has also changed advertising and communication business as well both as a business and as a job. Companies like WPP and many other big advertising companies are seeing a consistent decline in their business. Digital giants are getting an even bigger share of digital ad revenue industry. Different people are explaining these changes in different ways. For example, Mark Reed of WPP said advertising is not going through a structural decline, it is going through a structural change. How do you see all these changes? How do you think it is going to affect your business and business of communication in Bangladesh?

Ashraf Kaiser

Our industry has a bigger challenge to address. First of all, we should not be called an agency. We should be called a partner. The named agency came when we used to buy media space on behalf of a client or someone else. That fashion is gone. For example, a large segment of my business is not about buying anything anymore. It is about communicating a message whether it is through advertising, PR or other mediums. So I’m not buying space for anyone. I’m not an agent of anyone. In PR, I’m a storyteller. When we are a partner of Uber, we tell the fascinating stories of Uber. We tell the story of Uber and we don’t pay anything to anyone for that. So we are not agents. We are partners and we help our partners to tell their stories.

At TBWA/Benchmark, we partner with brands to bring out the best in brands through creativity and excellent communication. In media planning, we partner with brands to come up with media-neutral ideas. That’s one. So we are no more agents, we are partners. If you call us agent, we don’t deem relevant anymore.

The second thing is I don’t prefer to divide our life into digital and analog. It is one life. For example, I don’t have anything called digital strategist, I know strategist. For example, I want to engage you, convince you to do something. My job is to understand you, know what you do in your daily life, where you spend time, where you share your voice and where you get influenced. That’s a simple methodology. If we fragment that into digital and analog, it would not serve us well in terms of designing a good strategy.

To that extent, we want to see the world or a pool of audience as human beings. We rather believe in human communication that this person is Mr. X and he operates this way, he spends his day doing these things, he loves this, he finds these things inspiring and so on. We take time to understand the human side of our protagonist and then identify ways to engage with him. If I want to refresh my brand and build a connection between my audience and the brand, I have to be your friend. The friend who gives you company understands you and play accordingly. That’s the job part of it. There is business as well.

Communication is a soft skill. Technology has changed the world and we have to change us accordingly if we are to survive and thrive in this new world. I don’t have the agent attitude and I think it is not an appropriate approach anymore. Mark Reed probably tried to communicate that. The purpose and need of communication remain valid but the old structure is not going to work anymore.

Third, brand building is moving towards building a strong relationship with your audience. It is not digital or analog. To that end, PR could play a very important role. PR is not an ad, it is storytelling. It does not push. People don’t resist it as they do when it comes to an ad. It is about content. Trust is high when it comes to honest storytelling. When it is a paid campaign, people don’t trust it essentially.

You will be happy to know that in our group, our PR growth is much higher than everything else that we have. More and more brands are asking us to help grow their brands through storytelling manner. I think we are seeing an unprecedented change in both communications as a business and as a job. And I believe companies that can figure this out, the future is very exciting for them.

 

Brought to you by WebAble

This story is made possible by our friends at WebAble Digital, a leading digital communication technology company based in Dhaka. Over the past 5 years, WebAble’s work has changed millions of lives through fundraising and advocacy campaigns in the development sector. WebAble bridges delightful innovation and campaign effectiveness and has shown the world that you can sell pick-up vans, cement bags, tempered glasses, and real estate online, in Bangladesh. Learn more about WebAble.

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