NAZIM FARHAN CHOUDHURY, Managing Director, Adcomm Limited

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The Art of Communication

Rethinking and relearning is the need of the hour for brands to strategize how they want to add value to their consumers in a post-pandemic reality.

As we navigate an uncertain time, what should the communication industry do to allay the worries of the Bangladeshi populous?
This can be broken down in 2 ways. 1. What do we as communication experts do to help the population navigate through this hard and difficult time? 2. How can we help our brands and our clients and how do we navigate their businesses through this hard, difficult and frankly unprecedented time. These are 2 distinct tasks that we have. The easier one to understand is our need to communicate with our people. It’s easier to understand but hard to do because there is an overload of information and people are being bombarded with fake news, half-truths, so it’s hard for people to understand beyond the clutter. Over here communication plays a pivotal role so that people can understand what to take and what to keep away from. Unfortunately what has happened is in the age of self-publishing everybody is putting content out, and this includes brands, individual people, celebrities are all putting information out there. A good communication agency or a good communication person would need to curate and put the information in such a way that it is digestible by the public. It will be layered with different types of messaging which includes everything from wash your hands, don’t go out. If I can say, B2C communication is where the communication industry needs to better focus on too and I think in a lot of ways there are a lot of people doing it – through humour, through music, through serious conversations.

Where we are failing is that we are not being able to get our brands to understand what they should be doing at this time. There is a bit of fear for brands because they don’t know where their businesses are at the moment, and for many brands, there isn’t actually any business so to say, because people are not going out and buying those products or services. Say for example a holiday or a trip to the cinema. Does the issue then become one of what does the brand communicate at this time? And the message that has been coming from brands has been at par with the COVID-19 crisis which is asking people to wash their hands and maintain self-quarantine. But brands also need to take into consideration if the message goes with the brand’s personality, and they have to be mindful about if they are just adding to the clutter instead of thinking about where the brand’s relevance is to the customer at this particular point.

The reality has changed. So a fun brand says XYZ which is a fun-loving youthful brand might not be able, or should not even be expected to, to carry that message of severity as people go through this hardship. But only to focus on hardship alone is also myopic, that’s because people are also looking for an escape from brands too. Navigating this fine line between maintaining the brand personality and still imbuing the current state of reality is challenging. The brands that can devise a communication strategy toeing these lines and doing it well will ensure that they will have a good pace in the post-lockdown economy.

Adcomm has been around for almost 45 years now. How has the company transitioned from the old model of communication to the current model? What were some of the challenges along the way?
I have been around for 25 of those 45 years. Both Adcomm and I were young when we started out in the ’90s. The industry itself has changed, we are no longer omnidirectional and about brands talking to people through one broadcast medium (TV). The communication industry has evolved to become multidirectional. It is as much about listening as it is about talking now, and our touchpoints with customers have completely changed. We are not just on TV or online or on broadcast, rather we communicate with our customers on a wide array of platforms. Brands and advertising agencies needed to change to accommodate this shift in communication. That is the learning curve. Right now it is such a time that it feels like I have rejoined the agency again because the demand of the hour is relearning, which is a challenge. I spend a lot of time studying and researching social media trends. Brands need to understand how each platform works and how to market themselves there. Even to customers who are now post-facebook, as in the youth population is not really on Facebook anymore, and they have moved on to platforms like Instagram or TikTok. The communication industry needs to keep pace with customers positioning on platforms, or by the time it catches up, customers will have moved on to another platform. The industry has changed, and those who have been able to keep abreast with the transformation or are in the process of transitioning will remain relevant.
I was reading in a study that the criteria that were needed five years ago to enter into the advertising communication industry have almost completely changed. Like, said before we would hire a lot of copywriters, who would write for ads. Now we look for content writers, or rather a better way to phrase it would be, “content curators” who look at content and are able to gage that if this will be the right fit. Today we were hiring digital media analysers, but our focus has already shifted as we should rather look at people knowledgeable about data modelling. In a typical advertising agency, the strategy department consisted of two or three people and then there was a separate group of creative geniuses. A lot of that is changing. There will always be room for creative people, but it will also be a collaboration between creativity and strategy. Advertising and communication are anyway a collaborative effort but the dynamics of the effort are changing, and the significance of each contributing member is also shifting. Even two years back, the focus was more on TV execution, but now it’s become a later thought while digital content creation has come to the forefront.

What sets Adcomm apart from the other firms in the market? What is Adcomm’s competitive edge?
The difference between the larger players in the local advertising industry is frankly very limited.. Adcomm has always been known to be innovative strategists. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Adcomm is that the relationship we have built with our clients have been there for a very long time and I think that is a testament of the fact that we are doing something right. A few years ago we did a survey to see where the new business for Adcomm was coming from and we were pleasantly surprised to see that most were coming from our old clients in new jobs. Yes, when they shifted to a new business or have taken new trajectories, they have thought of and stayed with Adcomm. This highlights that we collaborate well, understand our clients, and have established a dynamic built on trust. Also, there is mutual respect about understanding where we are and an understanding of what our skill sets can bring in.

Having said that, when I started out, the industry had about five or six larger advertising agencies, and the competition was within these companies. Throughout the last decade, many other agencies have come and gone off quickly, and the remaining players are the ones that have stuck around in addition to only one or two more. The 80:20 rule still holds. But the emerging reality is that there are different types of agencies, example: a lot of digital agencies are popping up, and freelancers are joining into the mix, so the competition has opened up to include not just agencies but independent individuals too. This creates the space for more established agencies to work with clients with a multidirectional approach on multiple platforms in multilayered markets, ensuring that our clients are properly positioned on the concerning social media. The need of the hour is to be agile and be able to churn outposts on a regular basis each tailored to the preferences of the wide array of platforms available. The backend of agencies needs to shift gears and be on par with the demand of the hour which is responding immediately and effectively.

 

This is a great time to be in the advertising industry and communication profession because your world is changing and you are learning new stuff, but it’s a difficult time to be in an agency. This is a difficult time and it is in this period that reinventions will take place the most.

 

According to you, what is the best platform/medium to engage with Bangladeshi consumers?
There is no best. There are multiple media and platforms. And depending on what you want to do, you have these platforms available to address it. Mediums of communication such as TV, radio, press, digital, point of sales, direct consumer contact, each fulfil a specific concern. However, we must be mindful and remember what works on the radio will not necessarily work on TV, and what’s on TV won’t work for a point of sales. Each medium has separate end goals they have to fulfil, and you pick the medium that will help you achieve your brand’s goal.

Has Adcomm thought about coming out with a campaign to address the COVID-19 crisis?
It’s an interesting time for everybody. We shifted to work from home from as early as of 15th of March. A lot of our clients have done so too. We work with some of the larger industrial and commercial groups of Bangladesh e.g. Unilever, Robi. To be honest, my workload has gone up significantly, I spend a lot of time on zoom calls and coordinate between clients, agencies and different time zones, so the agency itself is trying to restructure itself. Work from home has the likely chance of going into our foreseeable future. Offices won’t disappear, but there is a chance they will become less relevant. Work from home has benefits like it cuts down costs and it also allows for a chance for the talent pool to expand. These are new dynamics in the workplace that we need to practise and learn.

We are asking ourselves what is our role in the communication space. Luckily for Adcomm, we have always been a strategy focused agency. If you look at Bangladesh Brand Forums, a list of the top 20-30 brands, a lot of them are brands we handle currently or we did when they had begun taking off. We are backpedalling a little bit and asking ourselves – how can we refocus our efforts with our clients on the basis of brand building segment. A good transition I have noticed is that when I entered in the ’90s, a lot of the advertising discussions happened in the boardrooms, and in boardrooms, you usually see a longer plan for brands. Over the last 2 or 3 decades, because people’s demands have grown bigger, there’s been a lot more requirements and structures have been implemented. Advertising and communication have become a lower order need, which is resulting in brands focusing only on short term gain. Right now, the conversation is centred around the COVID-19 crisis, and clients are asking themselves what they should do. I push back slightly to our clients explaining that we don’t need to discuss what we are going to do in the next month or two. Even say the economy starts, shops open and people step out – we will not be going back to “normal”. Do brands need to ask themselves what are they going to be doing in this space? How will your brands fare? In times like this when there is a recession, it is an important time for brands. If you look at some of the big brands, you will see that they are rooted in crisis. Brands become big when they can be relevant to customers in a time when they are seeking value when they are seeking escape, or for somebody they can rely on. After we open up, there will be much to think through that person will not have the time to even decipher which detergent is the right choice, therefore brands need to focus on building a relationship where they can be instrumental and reliable and bring a value that has not yet been realised.

For example the brand, Lifebuoy has not been talking about hand washing only for the last three to four weeks, our handwashing campaign started 8-9 years ago. We still hold the record for the largest number of people who have washed their hands and that is because Lifebuoy has been teaching kids to wash their hands for a decade now. Today when people are looking for a brand to trust, a campaign such as Lifebuoy’s brings credibility to the conversation. Other brands need to realise that and gear up to have this conversation with their customers.

Is Adcomm thinking of coming up with campaigns centring on the COVID-19 crisis ongoing in the country? Can you elaborate on the approach the communication industry should take while addressing such a challenging circumstance?
Our point is to campaign for why and what we want to communicate. What we are doing is we are engaging with our brands, and in the next couple of weeks you’ll start seeing them. Adcomm itself is not going to be advertising, rather we will be helping our clients with the right messaging for their brands. Some of our brands are selling well, like our hygiene product and food product clients. But, we still need to focus on conversations that will happen in the post-quarantine world, which we are doing.

As part of Adcomm’s CSR activity, we are helping out friends and families who are involved in organisations that are working on the field to provide aid and relief.

I was telling someone that this is the best time to be a communication and advertising person and the worst time to be a communication and advertising agency. When I wear the marketer hat, it’s the best time, but when I wear my agency cap, it’s a really daunting time and we will have a massive cost-cutting effort everywhere. Unless there’s a huge injection of funds into the market to keep things moving, the aforementioned scenario is highly likely. The stimulus package which has been unveiled focuses on short term measures instead of a long term focus, which is why communication to doesn’t have a long term focus. The money will not be injected back into the economy, and that is going to be a problem. We have to keep the economy moving, so if the garment worker isn’t employed, she can’t buy groceries. And the grocer can’t buy from the trader, who in turn won’t buy from the farmer. If that happens, how will the economy move forward? Or brands grow.

There are going to be massive changes in the communication industry – one of the changes I have mentioned prior will be cost-cutting, and to find alternative revenue streams. The industry as a whole will have to take a good look at the employee pool and determine who is adding proper value to their operations. Mid-size agencies will hurt the most, small agencies who are outdoors, activation focused and events focused will hurt tremendously too. They will need to reinvent themselves and figure this out. The brands which will be able to come out this are those that are thinking long term.

Closing Statement: The transition that is happening from traditional mediums to digital mediums is that our medium of communication has changed, how we communicate has changed and the tools of communication have changed. But what has not changed is what we communicate. Coming up with a creative idea to communicate is something that is at the heart of a brand, and we need to leverage the full potential of digital platforms. This is a great time to be in the advertising industry and communication profession because your world is changing and you are learning new stuff, but it’s a difficult time to be in an agency. This is a difficult time and it is in this period that reinventions will take place the most. If we are to do this interview in 5 or 10 years from now, you’ll notice the brands that have survived and thrived are the ones who used the current climate to figure out who they are, what they are here for; and what they do for their customers.

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