Ashraf Kaiser founded Benchmark in 2001 and has successfully built it into a leading communication company in Dhaka. Over the past years, Benchmark has expanded to Nepal, the first Bangladeshi agency to expand beyond Dhaka, and successfully diversified its business into multiple verticals.
However, Benchmark was a very different company when it started in 2000. Mr. Ashraf was a solo founder and started working out of his home in the early days. After a while, he took a small office and hired a part-time art director and an office help staff. The path to where the Benchmark is today was not an easy one. This story, an excerpt from our interview with Mr. Ashraf, is the illustration of how Benchmark got started and has become a successful communication agency in Bangladesh.
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.
Ashraf: 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: 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.
Ashraf: 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.
Ashraf: 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.
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.
(This is an excerpt from our interview with Benchmark Founder and Managing Director, Ashraf Kaiser. To know the rest of the Benchmark story and how it has come to where it is today, you could read our in-depth interview with Benchmark Founder and Managing Director, Benchmark here.)