Thursday, February 07, 2008

The man with a wall of cars

When Shabanaz Diya first spoke to me about doing a write up about me on Rising Star I was a bit confused. Though a big fan of the supplement, I knew I didn't fit into its "target audience". Anyway Diya came over for an interview, which I thought was very pleasant chat with an energetic and motivated young lady. It gives me hope to see such driven young people like her. Anyway the outcome of that conversation is reproduced below for my readers to critique.

Rising Star, The Daily Star, Thursday February 7, 2008

It's difficult to narrow down what Nazim Farhan Choudhury could be best liked for. The current Deputy Managing Director of Adcomm Limited, an active member of 'Phiriye Ano Bangladesh', a blogger, a RS fan and a broad-minded enthusiast of local youth projects; he is someone or the other to everyone. What made him stand out to this reporter is the simple fact that he still remembers he used to be a reckless teen not so long ago, and thinks outside the box unlike most of the obstinate adults we meet. Sabhanaz Rashid Diya visits him on a windy January evening for a tête-à-tête about advertising, nation-building and something in a box that we are all glued to.

Lots of private universities are opening courses under Media and Communication. Are the students that are coming out good enough for the job market? Do they fulfill a professional advertising firm's requirements?

First of all, I have to admit I don't know enough about the courses. However, what I do know is that most of these courses are designed with a journalistic or business perspective. They do not cater to advertising as a subject. Having said that, practitioners like me believe that advertising cannot be taught in a classroom environment. It's a different and more practical branch of media. There are actually few schools across the world that teaches advertising. You have to remember that every one of us falls into the category of a potential consumer, and hence, you really have to go out into the field and understand the demands of the market.

More importantly, we don't expect much formal education when we hire someone. We don't think he/she will just step into the office and be perfect. For the first 6 months after recruiting, the person will basically have to write reports, make estimates and do other desk jobs. Eventually, he/she becomes more involved and steps out into the field. This is what we call job training and in the process, we shape the individual to cater to our needs.

So, what do you look for in a potential candidate?

For a place in an advertising firm, you do not need to come from a media background. Somebody will not be in a better position simply because he/she has a major in Media and Communication. We look for other things in any candidate, which includes mainly intelligence, ability to handle situations efficiently, ability to work under pressure, if he/she can come with a unique solution in a particular situation, if he/she has an open mind and is welcoming to new ideas and whether he/she can interact well with others.

So, universities offering a major in Media and Communications will not necessarily make it more credible to an ad firm?

Each of us in an ad firm comes from different backgrounds. I, for example, have a major in Economics, whereas we have people from Zoology, Sociology, Architecture and many more. The composition is diverse and each of us contributes to the making of a unique idea.

People are still watching Hindi channels, although we have several local, private channels. Why do you think this is so?

On that note, I disagree with you. A research company called SIRIUS runs a regular TV tracking study which shows that Hindi channels in general have less than 10 percent viewership of the entire TV-watching population. Whereas, say for example, ATN Bangla caters to 30+ percent of the audience. There has been a gradual and positive migration from Hindi channels to the local ones.

It is often seen that women are portrayed as mere tools in commercials. They are brainless housewives or something similar. Do you think ads can be sexist on those grounds?

The scenario that you're describing used to be a stereotype 5-10 years back. Things have changed and women are shown in more professional or corporate positions. For example, BanglaLink and GrameenPhone have some women-oriented ads that have worked very well. Most brands have a target audience and the advertisements are designed to cater to the needs of that audience.

You also have to understand that ads reflect on what is in the society. If a large proportion of the women are housewives, then the ads must reflect on that to reach out to them. 16 years ago, we aired an ad where the husband was bringing tea for the wife. This raised a huge controversy, as the masses found it to be absurd. However, we took that slim step to bring about changes. Ads cannot create situations that do not fall under the barometers set by a society. Recently, what we've shown is that the husband is occasionally cooking when the wife is sick, or making tea on a day off from work. Such things are acceptable to people. Portraying something that is unusual in an average family will result in the audience rejecting that concept.

What about fairness creams? The dark girl falling behind or not getting married was a common concept. Do you think they were sexist to a certain extent?

'Fair & Lovely' happens to be one of the brands I work on. Earlier, as you've described, it showed how a girl could not get married because she was dark-skinned. However, the recent ads are different. It is seen that a girl has a boost in confidence after using the fairness cream and feels more prepared to become a movie star from being a small time, theatre actress. In that particular ad, the girl's talents are not being demeaned. The fairness cream only raises her confidence level the same way dandruff-free hair, fresh breath or a bright smile would. These ads are not sexist.

Besides, a lot depends on the market where a product is being publicized. For example, the same company that is selling fairness cream in India and Bangladesh are selling tanning cream in Europe. Professional brands are careful about the kind of market they're targeting, whereas several unprofessional brands don't look into it.

Since the media and advertising agencies play a huge impact on a consumer's shopping list, do advertising firms have a regulation for quality control?

Certainly, there is a regulation. The ad firm does not make any claims about the product unless it can be substantiated by a test or by facts. Apart from that, the consumer is not stupid. If he/she buys a product after being influenced by the ad and finds it to be unsatisfactory, then he/she will not buy it again. So, the product themselves have to maintain certain standards in order to capture the market. The product must deliver itself to its consumers.

You've been actively involved with Phiriye Ano Bangladesh. What is the story behind it?

What we have seen is that the majority of the current population in Bangladesh has not had first-hand experience of the Liberation War. Although, many of our parents or grandparents were born and grew up in India, Pakistan or even British Raj; for us, home means Bangladesh. We've lived here all our lives and there is a certain sense of responsibility that we feel towards it. A sense of conflict is also evident amongst the older generations. They argue about who declared independence, instead of working towards the future. They wait for a large-scale change to happen, something of a miracle.

Phiriye Ano Bangladesh (PAB) is a very interesting concept. Around 70 percent of the population is in their late 30's or below 30. On the other hand, most politicians are over 65. There is a difference between politicians and nation builders. An individual who's not into politics can also be an important part of the nation-building cycle. Anyway, we believe that since 70 percent of the population is young, they should have a leading voice in nation-building. PAB aims to promote such young people. It creates a platform for the young to step up and work for the development of the country.

So, PAB acts like a platform for young nation builders. How has it been able to do so?

When we meet inspired youngsters, it's often seen that they suffer from a sense of apathy. They feel discouraged to do things on their own. This is where PAB comes into the picture. It gets more people to be involved with a certain idea and takes it to the next level.

On a brighter note, young people are not interested in many conflicts. They are motivated to change their present and do field work. We've seen several young individuals with micro projects such as teaching a small group of street children. These projects, collectively, can result in a macro change in the country. PAB promotes and facilitates micro projects like there. If you come to us with an idea, then we will sit with you and consider its feasibility. We'll provide the bridges that you need to turn your idea into reality and engage more people to develop on that idea.

At the same time, we've realized Bangladesh is in need of some serious sensible discussions. People need to think outside the box instead of just debating on talk shows. At times, I feel I should put everyone in Bangladesh in Facebook just so that they could interact and discuss ideas. Nonetheless, PAB provides a platform for discussion. People with different ideas can sit together and discuss them to come to a more practical solution. Instead of debating over trivial issues and being stubborn, young people are more open to new concepts and are motivated to implement them.

I agree. Young people can be future nation builders. However, there is a severe lack of opportunities. Adults just won't listen. What are your views on the matter?

Like I've said, only 30 percent of the population comprises of adults over 45 or 50; whereas, 70 percent is the younger generations. Why should such a large percentage of the people wait for opportunities to be provided by a smaller percentage? Make little changes happen for you and people around you. This can inspire others to make the same changes, and eventually, we have a snowball effect. If an old man does not listen to you, raise your voice and tell him that you're going to be on bigger role-player on the development wheel in the future. What power has he got against such a large number of youngsters?

Besides, young people like Barack Obama in the USA and David Cameron in the UK are coming into politics. Similarly even in countries like ours India, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Southeast Asia, the young politicians are beginning to create a major impact. The same needs to happen for Bangladesh. The young have a much more open mind. They are more exposed and they have the need for change. Say if the life expectancy of an average person is 70 years. Between a 65 year old and 20 year old, who would you say has more stake in the future?

I believe those words will be inspiring to any kid who's reading this. By the way, you have a very cool model car collection. I'm quite impressed.

(smiling) Ah, thank you! I hope to transform those into real cars someday!

By Shabanaz Rashid Diya
To read the unabridged version of the interview, visit: