Monday, August 24, 2009

Bangladesh’s Advertising: Gazing into the Crystal Ball

This article appeared on the supplement commemorating Bangladesh Brand Forum's Commaward (Communication Effectiveness Award) August 2009

I unfortunately do not own the Back to the Future’s DMC DeLoren that allows me to time travel. Neither do I have a crystal ball. But that has never stopped anyone from trying to predict the future. Especially me. !

The global advertising industry itself is at crossroads today. It is taking a hard look inwards, re-evaluating itself in the post recession world. As usual, global clients like Unilever, Coca-Cola and P&G are leading the charge in forcing the change onto the agency fraternity. What is expected from advertising agencies, the compensation models, and even what constitutes the very definition of an agency is being challenged. The automotive and financial sector clients who used to be the bedrock of the developed world’s advertising markets are re-looking at their relationship not only with the consumers but also with the agencies themselves. No longer is it adequate only to rely on the usual suspect of TV spots or massive campaign role outs. Clients like GM have learnt that the massive money spent on advertising has not insulated them from global fall out of the credit crunch. Some of their once formidable brands like Pontiac and Saturn have seen consumer’s disappear. And the brand custodians in their advertising agencies are being questioned on the efficacy of the “business-as-usual” communication they created. This, coupled with the fragmentation of media vehicles and emergence of social network sites, means that only brands that take up the challenge of connecting with consumers on a daily basis will survive, and if lucky, come out stronger. Bob Lutz, the new Chairman of GM has said the two areas that he will spend most of his time and resource behind are advertising and the actual product itself. And he is not alone, CEOs in the boardrooms across the world are increasingly adopting similar stand.

This will have a huge bearing on where we are headed in Bangladesh. We are not reinventing the wheel here. Change is happening across the world and it will happen to us. We need to be ready for it and proactively prepare for this. Resting on what has worked in the past will not mean it will work in the future. Writing on the wall is clear. To borrow from Jack Trout - differentiate or die! I will add here that brands can no longer find product differentiations. They need to find emotional differentiations. They need to find, what Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi calls “Lovemarks”.

Here are few predictions I’ll bet my reputation on.

Global Brands vs. Local Brands

The largest battle over the next decade will be between Global Goliaths against Local Davids. Don’t for a second think that the result of that slugfest is a forgone conclusion. We will see a match up between vast knowledge base of brand building honed to near perfection and huge war chests that global marketing giants have at their disposal; versus the agility and local consumer understanding that local brands have.

These “wars” for the consumers wallet have already started, points being won by both sides. Lux and Close-Up winning early battles against Aromatics and Fresh Gel. On the other side Mojo and Ispahani scoring over the Pepsi, Coke, Tetley and Lipton.

As an advertising agency head, I fight the battle everyday from both sides of the divide. In my mind the edge is currently with the local boys. Not burdened by global roll-out, heritage and need to confirm with regional dictates, local brands are finding indigenous insights. Some of the most interesting and compelling works done over the last few years have come out of Grey, Mediacom, Cogito, Bitopi and my agency Adcomm for our local clients. I can’t see a Protom Alo Bodlay Dao, Ruchi Chanachur, or Mojo being replicated by any foreign brands.

But that doesn’t mean that MNCs are sitting back idle. A superb counter-attack example is from Marico. They have taken the lessons of their duels with Unilever in India and are putting behind the local Camellia and Aromatic brands that they have bought.

Throughout my 15 years in advertising I’ve seen one thing, that this march towards regionalisation of advertising is a cyclical one. Every few years the trend inverts itself. We move towards regional harmonised communication and then kaboom - localisation of regional insights. Unilever is a master in this field. As our economy moves ahead, we will see them bringing in learnings from South-East Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and India to the battlefields at home.

Emergence of New Media

More has been written about this than any other topic in advertising in recent years. Currently what is termed as “New Media” - Internet and Mobile, is in its infancy. Though because of grameenphone the access to internet is vast (their estimate puts it over 20 million), only a small fraction of the consumers actually log-on on a daily basis. That I reckon is because there isn’t a distinct “reason why”. An internet surfer in, say Bhola, has very limited use of the world wide web. Literacy, especially English proficiency is a barrier to usage. But still the numbers are not to be laughed at. One study puts Bangladesh at number 8 on traffic on Facebook. The figures will only grow. With drop in bandwidth cost and the introduction of WiMax this figure will grow exponentially.

Brands need to be ready for this. Today if you log onto FB you will see Citycell Zoom, Mentor and Cellbazaar ads. But these are still predominantly banners. Brands need to evolve much beyond this. They need to get onboard Bangladeshi oriented sites like,,,, to give example of only a few. The relationship needs to go beyond just visibility on site to building co-branded offerings. grameenphone has done a lot in promoting Cellbazaar. This is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. Larger brands like the telcos and the FMCG giants need to start spending substantial development money in this field. It is still relatively cheaper to get into this medium, and experiment now before it becomes expensive both in terms of money and in terms of potential mistakes., published in Bangla, offers unparalleled opportunity for brands to start their own blog and start interacting with consumers. Similarly brands in, say the financial sector, can use this tool very effectively to differentiate themselves in a cluttered competitive market.

I’ve not even gotten into the power that mobile phones give advertisers. With phones getting smarter and cheaper it’s a matter of time that we can start pushing advertising down to consumers. Even to those who are “technologically challenged”. Think of it Sharbet-e-AP sending Ramzan alerts to those who subscribe. Or say Peninsula Hotel sending discount vouchers to everyone who has booked a ticket on that day’s United Airlines flight to Chittagong. I am not even getting into location-based advertising. It is a matter of time before say all dJuice subscribers near Roll Express during lunch time get a free drinks voucher sent to their mobiles. The technology already exists for things like this to happen. We just need more tech savvy marketers!

Rebranding of Old Media

Don’t count out Old Media as yet. There will be growth in this area as well. The easier example is FM Radio. It will be a matter of months before coverage for FM moves beyond Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet. With focused localised advertising, this media will entice till now advertising shy or smaller brands into spending. Say the Garden Bistro Restaurant at Nazimgarh Resorts can offer listeners in Sylhet a value meal on a slow day. And only at a cost in the region of a few thousand takas to the company

The bigger challenge will be in the TV medium. Currently they are besieged by what I call a “photocopy syndrome”. Channels do not differentiate between each other as such. The station id on top right of the screen is so easily changeable. Evolution in this sector will be in two areas. Firstly viewers will become program loyal as opposed to channel loyal. I know this sounds so obvious. But the channel owners somehow have forgotten that there exists a thing called a remote control. Why else will they be subjecting viewers to mind numbing programming and never ending ad breaks. Lowe does a regular study across the globe called “Ad Avoidance”. The result is predictable. Given shorter adbreaks, viewers are less likely to channel surf. Advertisers who pay premium to be on short breaks benefit in the long run. TV channels’ adsellers and brands’ media buyers will soon have to realise that instead of getting 10 ads for Tk 100 each, it is better for all concerned to get 2 ads for Tk 500 each.

The more interesting will be when TV channel owners realise that they too own brands. And principles of brand marketing apply to them as well. They need to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd. Just look at the station ids of Zee Cafe and Star World. Both the channels show more or less similar programming but they have a very distinctive look feel. While I still watch programs as opposed to channels, one has a bigger appeal to me than the other and when I don’t have a specific program to watch I am on that channel. Similarly between BBC News, CNN and Al-Jazzera. And by successfully branding day parts. For example Comedy Mondays, a channel allows me to remember to switch on that day. I try not to miss Jumbo Movie Sundays on History Channel.

If Digonto TV was selling shares, I would buy. They might not have the biggest viewer shares, but they have a larger mindshare of a niche group. Advertisers who follow Sirius’s rating data will eventually put their money hoping to win the loyalties of this group of consumers. Niche will not only be in Islamic programming but also in music, movie, sports, news, youth segments. And this list is in no way exhaustive.

Rural Activation

Despite urbanisation and growth of media exposure levels, a large part of the country is media dark. And there lives C.K. Prahalad’s “Bottom of the Pyramid”. And its a huge market! If 80% of the populations live in non urban space then we are talking about a potential market of 128 million people. Say we can get 50% of this market to spend Tk 2 every month on a Pepsodent mini pack, then annually Unilever takes in approximately Tk 150 crores more! I am lead to believe that Unilever made more money last year from reaching out to those living beyond their distribution reach than Square Toiletries made on their total sales volume. Which National Sales Manager will not be awed by figures like this? And which Brand Manager can ignore this market? This is where the big money of tomorrow will be spent. Likes of Unilever already spend more money on what used to be termed as BTL (below the line) than they do ATL (above the line). Other companies regardless of market segment will follow suit. This is where the lines between agencies, distributors, implementers, and clients will begin to blur. Already implementers act as agencies; Agencies like distributors and distributors like implementers. Those outfits who can offer the client the perfect strategy and immaculate execution coupled with the best value will be the Titans of advertising in the years to come.

My agency, Adcomm for one is betting big on this. In the recent months we he have started not one but two separate ventures to address this market. And we are not the first ones. Interspeed and Market Access are already big and serious players in the field. And as we speak, boardrooms across advertising agencies in Bangladesh are planning and strategising their own foray. How much longer before regional and global giants like O&M, Lowe and Grey enter?


My favourite area. The place where the most excitement and glamour will be - content creation. I am not the first to tell you that the 30-second ad is dead. But what will replace it? The 30-minute ad. Yes, instead of taking 30 seconds to get your message across advertisers will create branded content like Close-Up 1 and talk to a targeted audience over a longer period of time. Already TV channels have a bevy of shows like this. From Horlicks Future Force to Meril Prothom Alo Puroskar to Shah Cement Nirmanay Taroka brands are rushing to get their names on the top bill. But this isn’t anything new. Where the difference between success and failure will lie is how tightly the brand experience be built. Just having the brand name in bright lights is not enough. Consumers will need to be immersed in the totality of the event. Brand essence will need to permeate through. Brand like Farm Fresh Milk cannot leave advertising at a 30 second spot calling the young to “Agiya Jao” (Stride Ahead) but will need to get into programs like the Maths Olympiad or having TV program where they teach fun science.

An interesting development here will be on the content owners end. Earlier content was created by TV channels or by clients. But now third party production houses will take the development work and finances on their shoulders. While they will still create brand specific events and programs, because they still own the content they will get a more comfortable margin. Say today the “owner” of the Citycell Channel i Music Awards can drop the title sponsor and go to the next highest bidder, for example SonyEricsson.

Advertising Agency

The haziest part of the future is predicting what the future Advertising Agency will be like. One thing it will not be is the Advertising Agency of today. Already agencies have to a great degree lost a lot of their media buying function. On the other side the citadels of creativity is being attacked by boutique creative shops. The top ten players in the market at one time ruled over 90% of the market. These days it’s a different picture. In almost all the major pitches of last three years, small (and often new) agencies have been invited with the big boys. Also, media now going directly to the clients have made profitability margins for advertising agencies disappear. New compensation models other than the usual 15% media commission is being experimented with. From retainers, to fee based work, to rate cards, nothing is beyond acceptance.

This year Adcomm celebrates its 35 years. Starting from a small outfit in a sub-let premise, today we are amongst larger advertising agencies in the country. But the debate within is for how long can we sustain the revenue model of our business. The consensus seems that for not too long. We are evolving. We are moving away from being an “agency” to being a brand consultant. We aim to provide the thinking and strategy behind the brand. Not necessarily its implementation, nor even, shall I dare say, the creative output! Yes, even creativity is not sacrosanct. In the future it maybe outsourced. In this case the part the advertising consultant will play is to see that a brand’s personality and messaging is not schizophrenic. Just as brand owners are outsourcing their manufacturing, sales and distribution services, so too will they with communication. Dynamics of brand relationship is going to change beyond recognition. As will Adcomm (and other agency groups) offerings to their client. No one in the advertising world in Bangladesh missed Asiatic 360’s ad recently. It showed how they have grown beyond mere advertising to, as the name suggests, an all round resource. Clients can either call upon them to provide a complete solution or cherry pick those interventions that suit the brand the best.

Adcomm Group is now more than just advertising. We have over the years formed a “best-of-breed” offering between associated companies. You can either come to Adcomm or brand solution and strategy and the full package. Or go to any of our other associates who specialize in their respective areas, namely, Adcomm Media in media solutions, Signage indigital print solution), Screaming Girl Productions in TVC and content production), AktiVision inevents and advertising, AktiSales in direct consumer contact and distribution, AktiGram in rural activation, Northbrook Consultants in PR, Art of Noise in music and radio program production and a soon to be launched design shop. This does not even take into account close associates with whom while we don’t have equity relationship, we have seamless working relationship.

Another area that I believe will grow is outsourcing of advertising and graphic design services (GDS) for the global advertising market. Basically GDS is another name for Desk Top Publishing or Pre-Press work that used to be dominated by the graphic bureaus in Purana Paltan. In 2005 Adcomm formed a joint venture with a Danish advertising group AdPeople to take this to a different level altogether. The baby of that marriage, GraphicPeople has fast matured into a world-class studio for GDS that services global advertising requirements for Dell. The success of this company can be validated by the fact that they are experiencing almost a doubling of business every year, and by the fact that one of world’s largest advertising holding companies WPP has recently brought out our Danish partner and merged GraphicPeople with Y&R Brands. Interestingly WPP is very bullish on Bangladesh and GDS. Their O&M has recently started its GDS studio called RedWorks. Do you think the other advertising holding companies haven’t got their eyes on this development? I feel that representative of global holding companies will be in Dhaka over the next 18 to 24 months to forge out partnerships with local entrepreneurs. And these companies, along with existing players like Trade Excel, Graphic Associates, Click House and others, have the potential of turning GDS into the next garments industry for Bangladesh. Advertising agency of today has the option of abandoning the local market altogether and concentrating on the more lucrative overseas market.

These are fascinating times we live in. Advertising is more exciting now than ever. Next three years will shape the future of our world! Advertising agencies, practitioners and marketers need to be ready to ride the storm with the agility of a Bondi beach surfer or becompletely wiped out by the next big wave!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

BFF: Critique 9: Ads that I don't like

Appeared in the June 2009 edition of the Bangladesh Brand Forum magazine.

A criticism of my critique column that I sometimes get is that I hedge my bets. Basically it seems that I don’t come out and say out right that I don’t like a TVC. As a person pointed out to me, I put in a lot of disclaimers! Well it is somewhat true. I guess that is the hazard of working with the people whose work I write about. And that too in an industry where you are only as good as your last work. I cannot honestly put my hand on my heart and say that I make better ads. I don’t. There are far more talented people in our industry than me. Far more. And the aim of these writings is just to put down my own personal opinion about things that I like and I don’t. As with anything where a value judgment needs to be made, the opinions are subjective. As the great bard had said so truly “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” Just because I like Kachchi Biriyani, everybody doesn’t need to. So today I’ll talk about a few recent on-air TVCs that I don’t like at all. Mind you, people who I work with, or for, might even have created few of these. But this is not a reflection on those persons but rather on these works themselves. Did I just put in another disclaimer? Oh well here goes…

Black Horse: Those who read my column regularly (I am told there are one or two out there) will remember that in last month’s column, I had already crowned Black Horse as the tiger of the Energy Drinks with speed that would leave the big boss in a wild brew! (Puns, of course, intended). How could anyone, I argued, go wrong with James in a TVC about a product he was born to sell? All you needed to do is put him in the same 30 seconds as the product and voila we have a winner in our midst. Boy, o’boy was I wrong! I fancy that I am too much of a gentleman to elaborate what WTF! means. But that’s the exact thing that went through my head when I saw the new Black Horse TVC for the first time. Actually come to think of it, it still does every time I see it. Well they did what I had hoped they would do, put James in a macho music video singing the virtues of a product. But the production quality of the ad was so poor that it degraded the whole TVC and the brand into a third grade rubbish. I happen to know how much James was alleged to have been paid for this endorsement and ad. Even if you spent a small part of that amount with a professional director, you would have gotten a great ad. What the brand custodians have done is just like buying a 7 series BMW and then giving it to the apprentice mistiri in a garage in Dholaikhal to ensure it runs smoothly! What a waste.

The TVC started with James emerging from the sea and then through out the rest of the 40 second ad, walking against huge landscapes like a desert or a mountain! In what is obviously a production, shot in a hurry against a green croma screen, James did not have the expressive allure that was needed. He looked tired and not too happy about drinking the product. As a matter of fact while there was a drink shot or two, the product itself wasn’t the hero of this introductory TVC. A big failure when it comes to the communication angle of it all. I thought the jingle was the only redeeming fact of the whole incident.

I believe this TVC was shot in India. Why? The values that it showed was akin to a poor Bangladeshi ad from 5 years back. A local new up-and-coming director would have done a much better job at it. It is evident that our directors have reached a level of maturity that puts them at par with rest of the sub-continent. It only goes to show that just because you’re taking your production to India doesn’t mean that you’ll get a superior product.

A bit of free advice to the client, drop the TVC and just run the jingle on Radio and use static billboards to bring in the James connection, while you re-shoot it using an actual production company and not my fifteen-year-old nephew!

Production value: 0 on 10. (that’s a first!) Insight: 2. Originality: 2. Overall: 1 (Ladies and gentlemen, we have our bottom of the barrel.)

Shagufta Housing: I think I’m loosing my touch. I need someone to explain to me some of the ads that are running on TV both locally and internationally. I just don’t get it. Like these two Shagufta Housing ads that are getting air time these days. Unfortunately no one could explain them to me.

Let me explain each of the ads and let’s see if you can enlighten me on what was going through the mind of the creative director who thought of the script or the client who approved it. The usual plate of Kachchi to the first person who can crack this. The first ad opens with a baby picture of a mother and son, who grows up, marries and has a son of his own. The grandparents are seen seating in the living room while the grandson plays at their feet. Ah bliss you might thing but no wait! Next door the father and the mother are having a heated argument. “What do you want me to do? Abandon my parents?” asks the father. “You stay with your parents!” comes the angry reply as his wife storms out of the room. Absolutely true, I’m not lying! This is what happens. Next scene is the inevitable walkout of the apartment by the elderly couple while the helpless son looks on as the little boy begs his grandparents to stay on. “Not far, keep your parents close” declares the pay-off line. What in the world were they trying to say? That their target group, presumably the husband, is a spineless twit? Or that Shagufta housing makes apartments so small that a family of 5 cannot stay together peacefully? Or maybe you need to buy your wife an apartment so that she has all the space in the world to yell as much as she wants?

The second TVC is just as confusing. It shows a young little girl going through the day missing her busy parents. She is restless and depressed, trying desperately to contact her parents. Even the hapless phone call that she makes to her father goes unanswered. Having only a nanny, albeit a very well attired one, as company, she is miserable. At least her mother calls home but unfortunately doesn’t have the time to talk to her daughter. Poor girl cries herself to sleep. In the evening the parents return carrying gifts for the daughter. “May your daughter grow up with her parents engulfed in love and care!” Huh? What just happened? Did we see parents exhibiting love and care? Maybe the subliminal message was don’t worry if you ignore your child through out the day, you can buy affection with a big teddy bear later! Of course it couldn’t be that Shagufta housing makes apartments that don’t have play area for the child or they are so expensive that both the parents need to work. I am truly confused.

Though it isn’t often followed in our market, scripts should always be pre-tested. After all what we think we are trying to say might not be what a consumer hears. And often we make mistakes in the darnest of small things. I am not sure who the Agency was on this particular campaign – I dare not try to find out. But I am sure they aren’t going to win Bangladesh Brand Forum’s new Effectiveness Award!

Production value 3 on 10. Insight: 0 (I just didn’t get it!). Originality: 5. (well I’ve never seen an ad where the wife shouts at the husband and gets away with it) Overall: 2.5

Pran Masala: I am going to cheat a bit. This particular TVC has recently been changed. But I couldn’t write about ads I don’t like with out mentioning the one I love to hate. We have all seen this one. And till date I’ve not found one person who likes it. And trust me, I’ve looked around.

Yup, I’m talking about the infamous “raantay toh shikhlay na” (“haven’t even learnt to cook”) TVC. A man shows his anger at his wife as he storms of the dining table huffing the above quoted lines! The wife in tears is in the kitchen when a pack comes dancing in and tells her not to worry anymore because the powder is the only thing that will give the taste in the food. The swaying housewife is absolutely in a trance with her new found secret recipe.

Oh, on how many levels do I hate this TVC! Most of all I think it is for berating the target audience. I can’t believe someone thought it was alright to insult the user and then turn her into a speechless, mindless bimbo was a great idea to sell your product. I have an idea for a rival’s TVC. We show the same starting sequence when husband says those lines and tries to walk off. The wife grabs him by the collar and gives a tight slap across his face and then makes him cook. The voice over comes on and says “xyz powder, now anyone can cook!” I hope someone gives me the money to make that one.

Production value 3 on 10. Insight: 1. Originality: 2. Overall: 2

Nazim Farhan Choudhury is the Deputy Managing Director of Adcomm Limited and still doesn’t get some of the ads. He recently heard his hero John Hegarty of BBH say that advertisers are the most creative of the creative people. After all while a musician or an actor could go on creating a particular type of music or playing a type-cast role, in this trade we need to re-invent our idea for each of our creations. We cannot repeat even a single idea. Or I think he said something like this. If you have comments, feel free to write at or visit his blogsite

Links to the Ads
Black Horse
Pran Masala

Thursday, May 21, 2009

BFF: Critique 8: Energy Drinks

Appeared in the May 2009 edition of the Bangladesh Brand Forum magazine.

It’s a jungle out there! Specially between Tiger, Dark Horse, Shark, it’s a “Wild Brew” (pun of course intended!). Throw in Crown, Big Boss, Mountain Dew, Speed, and the Energy Drink market is really crowded. Being a very profitable segment of the market there is a mini war going on. It’s currently a small-volume-high-margin segment of the drinks market but growing like a runaway cattle high on Red Bull. To be absolutely clear, there are two sub-variants. One being the high-caffeine, sugary, carbonated drink that is the bulk of the segment, and the other being a pseudo beer defined as non-alcoholic malt beverage. Neither, ironically, are what is referred to as energy drinks in the internationally. There it is an isotonic, salt-reinforced, lemon based drink, like those of Gatorade and Locazade. In the local market the spurt of activity recently has seen quite a few TVCs fighting out for consumer’s mindshare.

Tiger: This is the brand that started the battle. Using Ayub Bachchu as the brand endorser, it has proved to be a runaway success.
While the original launch ad lacked the punch and the polish of a good production, the follow up ad took the two best things of the first, namely AB and a catchy song, and did a better mash up. It showed all the correct target audience. It had all the required elements - a good jingle, the youth gathering shots (concert, sports), it even had, what seems to be fast becoming essential, a cricket match shot! On originality of the idea it does nothing for the brand. It doesn’t add on the values of the product too much. But the sheer presence of AB and the massive media buy behind the TVC I am sure will ensure the success of the brand for some time to come.

Production value 6 on 10. Insight: 4. Originality: 2. Execution of the Idea: 3. Overall: 3.5

Speed: After a forgetful and illogical launch ad that showed a jockey having the drink thus making the horse go faster, Akij did a much anticipated re-branding exercise. Grey has given the brand a great do over. With invigorating pack graphics Speed’s new pay-off “Heavy (pronounced HeaBee) Energy”, I believe they positioned the brand for success.
Its use of humour was an attempt to distinguish itself from the rivals. I saw the static executions before the TVC. I was disappointed with the latter. I think they did no justice to the insight. After such a strong footing and a powerful pay-off, the TVC was a let down. It showed a man who has lost his memory being jolted back by a stray carom striker shot from a distance by a Speed drinking protagonist. Phew. A stretch to say the least. Not that reality needs to play any part in it. But come on, you could come up with a much much stronger execution. In the static itself, the broken cement I thought was a great lead in for the TVCs. Could have built on that. Production wise it was well shot, having all the required values. But overall it didn’t leave a lasting impression. I thought even the attempted humour was trying to katu kutu (tickle) you into laughing.

Production value 5 on 10. Insight: 6. Originality: 5. Execution of the Idea: 4. Overall: 4

Wild Brew: another offering from Akij, this is the malt beverage side of the portfolio. The brand name and premise is that it unleashes the “beast inside”. Interesting! The ad was different. It showed various animals in the African jungle running off scared. (Running from, I thought in the first few viewing, the cheetah. But no. Apparently everyone -including the cheetah - was running from the drink). Ok. Did it excite non Animal Planet watching crowd? Not sure it did. Yes, it did set up the brand as this wild untamed man’s drink but then they fizzled out. I would have thought this was only the launch ad and they would follow up with a proper theme ad that showed a macho wild man who drank this brew. Or even a James Bondish suave character who had this wild excitable side. But they left us hanging. I hope not for long though. Grey who handles the brand usually does a more stronger brand-consumer connect.

Production value 5 on 10. Insight: 6. Originality: 5. Execution of the Idea: 5. Overall: 5 (but only as an “intro” TVC. If this is all they have got then I’ll give it a “2”)

Crown: the original big daddy of energy drink. It started off with Azam Khan - the original big daddy of the beer chugging set! But then the follow up had Tinni and Fuad. It was shot during an unflattering phase of Tinni’s life. She didn’t have the sex appeal the director’s intended. Why didn’t they use Mila or Tishma? Fuad, too, seemed an after thought. What was he doing there except saying “khub cheena cheena”? And what did he mean by that?

The TVC showed Tinni stuck in traffic, calls into a Radio show to dedicate a song to Fuad. She crack opens a can of Crown which is carried over the airwaves and starts off a party. A lot of good looking people, drinking shots and a Fuad mixed jingle aimed at appealing to the young. But the ad was so average that it was painful. It had a lot of potential but I bet you a case of Heineken, the powers behind the brand only thought of the communication as a TVC and not as a big picture. This will not get the brand anywhere.

Production value 4 on 10. Insight: 3. Originality: 2. Execution of the Idea: 2. Overall: 2 (our lowest ever!)

Big Boss: I wish we could copyright ideas. This script bears a more than uncanny resemblance to a script I presented to a client a few years back. While I failed in convincing the client, kudos to Expression for being able to take a similar concept forward. Of course I think it’s a good connect with the brand. The ad borrows heavily from the sport of “free running”. Basically it is running a hurdle race where participants, while running, jump over barriers and keep going without slowing down. While the sport is new and has a little but growing following in the west, it has been used in quite a few ads in the region already. Including for a dJuice ad locally. In this particular ad the Big Boss drinker runs off after a thief who just robbed a lady of her handbag. He goes through various obstacles during the chase. Near the end of the pursuit we see him crossing the thief to reach for the Big Boss carrying vehicle. As the others including the perplexed thief look on he opens up a drink and then grabs hold of the purse snatcher to relieve him of the stolen good. Cut to a bar / disco where the macho hero hands the bag back to the rightful owner.

Overall the production by Amit Sen is entertaining. Good mix of music and action. However I thought it failed to create that little bit of suspense. We should have left wondering if the hero could make those jumps or not. And they needed to be slightly more awe inspiring. Instead we got too many gymnastic digbaji (somersault). One thing that I didn’t like at all was the last sequence in the bar. Didn’t think it was required at all. They should have ended the TVC before this. Let me guess. The client insisted on it!

A point to make here is that while this attempt is much better than a stop gap ad that they ran for a few months in the middle, it isn’t good enough to win the Energy Drink war.

Production value 4 on 10. Insight: 5. Originality: 5. Execution of the Idea: 4. Overall: 4

Black Horse: And the winner’s trophy of this war. I think, will go to Black Horse. At the time of writing this piece, the launch ad hasn’t aired as yet. But how do I know this will win? Well it has James as the lead. Who else can epitomise and bring to life the category than James? The biggest, baddest rockstar to walk the Bangladeshi stage. After a big bidding war James signed on and surely that will propel Black Horse to a different stratosphere. I mean how can you go wrong? All you need to do is put him in the ad and do a music video of him! [What I’ll do is when the ad is out, put a review of it on my site. Let’s see, finger’s crossed]

Nazim Farhan Choudhury is the Deputy Managing Director of Adcomm Limited and an ardent fan of edgy advertising. He is of the strong belief that advertising is a medium that can help shape a society and its culture. We can use it for the better good of the nation. Introduce new thought, promote new concepts and eventually change the thinking. And if we are lucky, for the better. If you have comments, feel free to write at or visit his blogsite

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

BFF: Critique 7: Prophylactic

Appeared in the April 2009 edition of the Bangladesh Brand Forum magazine.

One of my most embarrassing moments in advertising occurred when, in the mid 90s, I started out as a junior client executive. I was called in for a meeting with a large contraceptive product client that we handled. They were going to launch a “ribbed” and “dotted” variety of their popular condom brand. In the course of the meeting, between strategizing and conceptualization, Mr. Client turned to me and said “do you know what dotted and ribbed is?” I was dumbfounded. Now most of you don’t know this but my boss also happens to be my mother! Questioned in front of her, well you realize my predicament. What could I say but hem and haw! So Mr. Client grabs into his briefcase and pulls out a few sample. He then goes on to tear the packaging and describe in details the product benefits - its contours and its consumer benefits. I don’t think I’ve ever turned redder in my life!

Well that anecdote aside, I’ve always been fascinated by contraceptive advertising. Especially in a Muslim majority country like Bangladesh, where talking about sex has always been a taboo. How do you sell a product you can not talk about? Now that did not stop us. Between Mr. Reza Ali’s Bitopi handling Raja Condoms and Adcomm with Sensation and Panther, we were doing quite a reasonable job. Condom sales and usage were up and birthrates down. However primary focus of any campaign was on family planning. Hence sex and the reported pleasure from that activity was not spoken about. Rather all conversation was based on the benefits of smaller families. One of the most successful campaigns in Bangladesh’s advertising history was a Vasectomy ad where they first showed a family over run by kids. Man comes home and talks to his wife and they decide that he should visit the local clinic where a “solution” would be provided. Cut to the end-shot of man and wife and their ideal family. Man saying the immortal line “aagay chilam boka, akhon hoilam budhimaan” (Loosely translated, “Was foolish before, now I am much wiser!”). One rather obvious hole in the plot - where did all those extra children before the procedure disappeared to? But that aside I think it got the message across. I am not sure if it got men to agree to get, well, fixed. But it started a conversation.

Advertising that followed later were walking a very tight line to ensure that the discourse continues. But all that changed with the launch of Sensation Condom. For the first time we pushed the envelope. Positioning it on the pleasure principal, the ad showed a couple who were celebrating an occasion and were using the contraceptive to stay safe. And also for the first time the concept of prevention from sexually transmitted disease was mentioned. So the condom came out of the closet. Its role shifted from being only a family planning tool to that of a protector. Albeit still between married couples.

Since then the company in question has evolved the market along. Especially on the Sensation brand, the messaging has moved more towards the pleasure side of the business, over the years adding on pleasure enhancers to the product like contours and even flavours. This growing boldness has often ran right into a wall put up by the staid censors of BTV. But now with the proliferation of local satellite channels, consumers are not shielded from the realities of life. Hey having sex isn’t bad, just make sure you are protected.

In recent days three particular condom ads have caught the attention of viewers. As I’ve directly worked on one of them (Hero), I will not comment on it. But I thought it would be interesting to talk about the other two ads

Panther : This brand operates in a very difficult target market matrix. Aimed at the mid-segment of the consumers who happen not only to be conservative but also budget conscious. It’s difficult to talk about many things with this group. Compounding the problem is this fear that contraceptive will be looked down upon as not being macho enough and reduce the pleasure. I thought the Agency - Mediacom was bang on when they addressed these two issues head on. The story of this ad is simple. A brother in a joint family in a village comes home unexpectedly with a lot of fan fare and announces that he is married. And that too, to a very beautiful cinema heroine. Throughout the rest of the commercial we see how she is utterly besotted by her husband. At the same time this red-blooded-cinema-actress-marrying man’s cousin is intrigued by the secret of his success. Only to rush in and ask him how he does what he does. And on cue comes in the Panther condom pack and the pay off “ashol purush” (real man). The TVC blends in everything - humour, product benefit, virility. In one stroke they tear down the two barriers to purchase, while not needing to resort to the usual product story. Well actually they did talk about the product. It’s intertwined in the plot so ingeniously. All they did, rightly, was not to talk about product attributes.

On the production front, Kislu did a great job as well. Edits were well done. Acting set the mood of the ad and the music highlighted it. The reaction of the cousin was perfect. It brought in the spirit and the intrigue.

Production value I’ll give it a 7 on 10. On originality and insight: 9. Overall: 8.5

Sensation : we no longer handle the brand. Bitopi has taken on the stewardship. Their current offering is, to put it mildly, very bold in its reach. I believe this is another of the watershed ads that Sensation has gifted the advertising industry. In my mind they have now moved from only pleasure to a sexual act itself. Well though not explicitly shown, it explores the fantasy world of role play. The TVC which was produced by Opus Communication out of Kolkatta shows a very sexy woman who is dressing up for a night out in the town. And as she walks down the street she has this feeling that she is being followed. We indeed see that a man in an overcoat, fedora and dark glasses (yes in the evening) stalking her. The music builds the suspense of a cat and mouse situation. The hunter and the hunted. She tries to find refuge in a cafe, only to see him sitting there. Scared, she runs back home. But the man is already there! Cue in drama, suspense, Hindi serial music and boom… she smiles. It’s her husband. And here comes the twist. As they are about to embrace, she takes of a wig. If this isn’t the-stranger-in-the-alley role play fantasy that any Creative Director fantasises about, I’ll give up my subscription to Hugh Hefner’s magazine. Ok the required married couple photographs are in the background but the whole thing is still very spunky.

Unfortunately I am not sure if the consumers picked up on the message. The thinking might be that the sophisticated target for this brand will get it even if others don’t. But I’ve spoken about it with quite a few people. I am not sure they get it. After explaining it, yes everyone loves it. They think it’s feisty and original. But they need to see it repeatedly before getting the message. In today’s fragmented media scenario that is a no-no. It’s a shame that TVC wasn’t smooth enough to capture the nuances of story-line. We saw the man too early, and his attempt to hide too feeble. The girl on the other hand did a bang up job. Her expressions were great. Showed her emotions I thought, quite well. Especially at the end where that faked apprehension turns to the wicked smile of knowing what will come next.

Unfortunately this seems to be an ad that admen like me will love and talk about for years to come, while fall flat with the consumers. But this shouldn’t discourage either the client or the agency. Both, I hope, have embarked on an adventure that will see many such taboo TVCs and topics being discussed. A strong step in that direction indeed.

Production value 4 on 10. On originality: 8 and insight: 6. Overall: 7

Nazim Farhan Choudhury is the Deputy Managing Director of Adcomm Limited and an ardent fan of edgy advertising. He is of the strong belief that advertising is a medium that can help shape a society and its culture. We can use it for the better good of the nation. Introduce new thought, promote new concepts and eventually change the thinking. And if we are lucky, for the better. If you have comments, feel free to write at or visit his blogsite

YouTube Links to the ads


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BFF: Critique 6: Financial Services

Appeared in the March 2009 edition of the Bangladesh Brand Forum magazine.

The old adage proclaims, “Money makes the world go around.” Well at least it makes the advertising world go around. Like rest of the rat race, we are also obsessed with money. How much billing we have, who are the top spenders, what is the percentage of commission, how much outstanding an agency has, who gets what salary – the questions are never-ending. However it seems one area of money that so far we have not explored is the one that we instinctively should. And that is the advertising of money. Or at least, that of financial services.

Many advertising practitioners across the world have told me financial services and products are the most difficult item to brand and promote. It’s a no-brainer. Come on! I’m not willing to hand over my life savings to just about anybody. Even when it comes to taking money from a financial institution we are wary – read the fine print thrice, ask four friends, consult an adviser. We have an instinctive distrust of bankers. You know, those people who will give us an umbrella when it’s not raining and take it back when it does.

On the flip side central bank and regulator dictates make it difficult to have a uniquely distinctive product. Interest rates are usually within similar ranges. As are product features. I still haven’t figured out how the credit card I get from x bank is different from y bank given that both are Visa. Come to think of it, what is actually the difference between MasterCard and them? I mean I use both with equal ease (or sometimes unease!)

Bangladeshi financial sector has another spanner in mix. We have now 60 plus banks, not to mention all the NBFIs (non-banking financial institutions) and insurance companies that do both, take deposits and give out loans. It doesn’t matter if I want to hoard away my saving or borrow money for that new car; I am utterly perplexed when it comes to figuring out whom to trust.

Now it is a complete lie on my part to say that financial institutions in Bangladesh have not been advertising. One of my first jobs was to work on financial products of the then ANZ Grindlay’s Bank. I remember we marketed the loan scheme just like we had any other consumer product. We gave it a brand name – Planz! It had a logo and a product story. And I believe it was quite a triumph for the bank. We followed up with a few other products with varying levels of success. Few other banks followed suit.

It is also true that one of the prime advertising revenues for the print media come from banks. There is always some bank talking about a new branch opening or the other. On TV, banks usually sponsor most of the news programs. But do consumers actually know or appreciate the difference between Mutual Bank, Trust Bank or the Mutual Trust Bank? How about between Standard Bank and Standard Chartered Bank? Or Citibank N.A and The City Bank? UCB, UCCL, NBL, NCCL, XYZ – the list goes on and on.

Now I am sure there will be a reader who will pounce on me now to say that Sonali Bank was amongst the top 20 brands in the recently announced Bangladesh Brand Awards. Ok I don’t want to get into a controversy here but one needs to appreciate the methodology of that research. It did not judge top of mind recall, but rather the strength of the brand name and health. The latter is not necessarily a function of branding efforts but just the sheer geographical reach and length of presence in the market, amongst other factors. . Meaning, often there might not be direct investment behind the brand but external factors influence its consumer perceptions.

Banks in Bangladesh, it seems, do not appreciate the need to differentiate. We all know what Jack Trout said, “Differentiate or die!”

Again a bit of over exaggeration on my part, some banks have now started down this path. Some, with hesitant steps, and some, with a head on plunge. At the agency we get at least one RFP (request for proposal) a week from one of these banks. It is also promising to see some of the most talented marketers in the country – Masud Imam, Sarwat Ahmed, Aftab Khurshid to name a few, are now in banks. Hallelujah! There seems to be some movement at this front.

A point of clarification: as I usually only review TV commercials for this column I’ll not get into reviewing specific branding exercises. But I would request readers to have a look at the websites of banks in Bangladesh ( to get a feel of where we are at that end. By the way the first person to email me the name of the bank whose pay-off line is “a bank with a difference” wins a plate of Fakhruddin kachchi from me!

AB Bank Limited: the recent trend towards branding and advertising in the sector has been spearheaded by Arab Bangladesh Bank’s name shortening to AB Bank and the subsequent advertising blitz to popularise their new identity. AB Bank being one of the “first generation private banks” needed to weave their heritage along with the dynamism of the new technology and products that have infiltrated the industry. I believe the advertising agency Cogito got a very strong set of brand ambassadors for AB Bank. Using the generational gap of father and son duo of Ferdous Wahid and Habib, they captured the dichotomy of consumer’s various needs. They cannot seem to agree on anything in life but they agree on their bank. But look, for dissimilar reasons. “Service and reliability” says Wahid, while his son is looking for “smart and fast”. No it isn’t a message for split personality disorder, it’s just saying the bank is different strokes for different folks. AB Bank has, as they claim at the end for 25 years, been catering to diverse needs of consumers. Here is where I begin to tread cautiously with the approach. The bank is trying to own four points in consumers mind. My feeling is that overwhelmed with messages, consumers will not remember any. The “story” of AB Bank will be lost. Instead they should have focused on their pay-off more strongly. The message to be left behind is, "we alter our offerings to suit your needs." Without this, the ad leaves us only with the name recollection and not any product attributes. It will be very interesting to see how the brand custodians build on the foundation they have laid.

If we are to discuss the particular TV spot, production quality wise the director has tried to add a lot. Being a fan of both these gentlemen, I liked the differences that were brought up. And I think it captured that generational divide so well. Brazil vs. Argentina, morning exercise vs. sleep, steaks vs. maach bhaat, black vs. white, they could be any father and son pair. Particularly touching was that the other one was their favourite singer. For different customers of the bank, there will be something they can identify with. On the negative side, I didn’t care much for the soundtrack. Also, some of the sets used could have been spruced up a bit. Overall I thought it was a very good effort.

On production value I’ll give it a 6 on 10. On originality and insight: 6. On translating the idea into a TVC: 5 and Overall: 6

The City Bank: a lost opportunity to change their name along with the re-branding effort. Why still be a victim of the brand name being party of the sentence, “kon City bank? T.Y na N.A?” (“Which City Bank? T.Y or N.A?). Many companies have successfully gone through transitions like this. Lucky Goldstar is now LG and British Petroleum has gone beyond to bp. The City Bank, in addition to adding the “the”, should have been bold enough to toy with the name itself. Remember how strong Grindlays name used to be? Standard Chartered very successfully handled the merger of not only the bank, but also the brand essence of the bigger rival. I don’t believe City’s name was so strong with such equity that consumers would have rejected a change.

Furthermore while the new kite logo is attractive, it fails to inspire. I am not too sure what it is supposed to represent. It does look modern but that’s all.

The campaign, on the other hand, was very strong. Unitrend, the agency, hit the nail bang on. They captured the heart of an insight – financial service boils down to money! Isn’t it so true that we spend most of our time pre-occupied with the pursuit of the same? Now of course I would at least listen to a bank that tells me that they know “money”. And The City Bank says just that. Throughout their campaign, be it on TV, print or billboard they have emphasised on their familiarity with the same. Bringing out the history of the stuff or thought provoking quotes, they set out to prove that they know their material well.

The TV spot itself highlighted the interaction of different people with money. From finding some on the street, or having loads of it, to taking some from someone’s wallet, or having none. It chronicles our obsession with it. The voice over not only gives us knowledgeable insights, but also confidently reassures us. It’s God’s honest truth that money is so many things to us and makes us do so many things. Each of the slice of life situations shown was so believable. The man buying a fish visual re-emphasised the loudness of money, while in contrast, the shyness of the man buying the condom its quietness. The boy smiling or the woman crying, getting some was absolutely true. Overall the TV spot matched campaign rational perfectly with the brand’s promise.

Production value I’ll give it a 5 on 10. On originality and insight: 8. On translating the idea into a TVC: 8 and Overall: 8

Nazim Farhan Choudhury is the Deputy Managing Director of Adcomm Limited. Over the last 14 years he has worked on many of the leading brands of the country including 8 of the top 20 winners of the Bangladesh Brand Award 2008. Having said that, he somehow believes that there should have been more of brands that he worked for in that list. Well let us hope that this columns criticism of advertising goes some distance in helping with the promotion of the art and science of branding. If you have comments, feel free to write at or visit his blogsite

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I tube, we tube, YouTube!

Those who read my blog regularly (yes all two of you!) will know that I have a thing about Freedom of Speech. It really ruffles my feathers when that particular right is trampled with. Last few days you might have confused me with Big Bird! Boy o boy were my feathers in a mess. Some one in their infinite wisdom banned YouTube and a few other websites.

Well we think it was banned. There was no official announcement. But after you hit enter after nothing happened. Some ingenious (geeky?) bloggers dug up the dirt and reported that BTCL (Bangladesh Government owned telecommunications company) had blocked the site after instructions from BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission). Before you start feeling bad about me for missing Top Gear and Sylheti serials on world’s favourite video site, you will be happy to learn that the site is back online!

So all is well and balance has returned to the force you might declare! But before we head back to trying to find the next viral craze, we should spend a couple of minutes and ask about what are the lessons learned.

Well for the first thing I get out of this incident is that despite all the talk of Digital Bangladesh, we haven’t figured out what that means. I mean wow so you figured out how to block a site! But did you? Well most believe the site was banned because of some audio files of a certain meeting between the PM and Army brass! I don’t want to get into the merits of the files, but YouTube isn’t the only place where you could get those. BTRC apparently only asked BTLC to block the sites but not private gateways like Mango or ISPs with direct VSAT hook up. Even then simple proxies could be used to by-pass the BTCL block. More over many who had listened to the files had downloaded them. So instead of trying to listen to it on YouTube it was being zipped back and forth on emails. Or come to think of it, say no one had downloaded the files nor had any idea of how to set up proxies or don’t have access to private ISPs - all you had to do is ask your khala in the US of A to go to YouTube and download the required file and email it to you. Want to ban emails now?

Only success this incident had was to point out the obvious weakness that we have in the desire to control the world wide web. And end of the day, do we even want to control it? Did we not declare Digital Bangladesh by 2021? Or are we waiting till 31st December 2020 to say we have achieved the goal?

Bangladesh’s reputation took a big hit. We joined the ranks of China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia on the list of countries who don’t trust their citizens. Ironic given that one of the founders of YouTube is after all a Bangladeshi!

We need to ask a few tough questions.

*Who was it who authorised the ban?
How far up the totem pole does one need to go to get a ban like this implemented. Does the Chairman of BTRC decide what gets on my screen? I know the man is just days into his job, but I’m sure he is aware that his job description doesn’t include this. So does it at least go up to the information secretary (who also is days into his new job courtesy the last secy who was busy writing poetry!)? Or maybe the Information Minister? (I am told he is a capable person but given that he is a first time minister he might have been a wee bit confused). Maybe the ICT Minister approved this. I don’t think the good Architect (no jokes, that is his name!) had anything to do with it. Does a decision of this magnitude need a nod from the all powerful PM? Maybe the author and horta korta of Digital Bangladesh Engineer Sajeeb Wajed Joy knew? Was this discussed at the cabinet meeting? For sure it wasn’t in Parliament. So who decided? Is some bean counter somewhere decide what we are to see or not see? Not only do we need to know, we need to ask the person our next question

Really? The audio files? There are worse (relatively speaking) things out there that you might want to ban. Should we all not know what the censorship guidelines are? I don’t want my blog to get blocked because I happened to like Alu bokhara! Seriously what is kosher and what isn’t? I believe Bangladeshi site Joubonjala was “taken over” for a while and the IP addresses of those who visited the site was recorded. (Don’t believe you when you say you have no idea what that site is about! According to Alexa that is the most popular site in the country!). But it isn’t now! (or so I’ve been told!) I remember CNBC was banned a few years back because of immoral content. Well given the current economic crisis, then Information Minister Tariqul Islam might not been off the mark. Apparently it still is. Along with FTV! Are we trying to be Morale Police? Maybe the Cultural Police? As citizens we need to know where we stand.

*Why was it reversed?
So if the ban was actually for “National security interest”, has that subsided now? What was the emergency that needed YouTube to become public enemy number one? Was it because the ban wasn’t important enough? That then leads to next question

*What safeguards do we have?
So if we are to believe that this didn’t have the approvals from the highest of levels, then how safe are we from some junior bureaucrat going postal on our civil liberties? Do we wake up one day to see Prothom Alo banned? Or New Age? Are they too big to be banned? Well then what is the latest on CSB? Is Islamic TV or Digonto safe? What about websites like Unheard Voices, Somewhereinblog or Shachol? Maybe Facebook or Google tomorrow?

Friends, I hope this incident shouldn’t become just a flash in the pan. Hope fully we will press for answers. We need it to become a catalyst to enshrine our rights pertaining to freedoms of expression.

Dispatches from the Frontline : Live blogging from Sylhet during the Elections 08

I just noticed that my writings during the Elections of 2008 have not been posted on my blog site. I was in Sylhet at that time and was live blogging on the Unheard Voice blog site and had not updated my own site. So here for the sake of having all my writing at the same place, I am archiving the material from that time. December 28-30th 2008

Dispatch from the Frontline (hopefully 1 of many)

I spent the evening of the 27th with the AL candidate from Sylhet 4, Mr. Imran Ahmed. Had the opportunity to see the race from up close. Actually from the stage itself. Though he hade closed his official campaign on the 26th with a large rally, we still attended two boktita session. Mostly comprising of party men and “supporters” ( take note, there is a career to be made in shouting slogans).

Few points that stuck out to me:
1. The older people in the crowd (the actual voters there) didn’t seem to react to the message of lower prices and no corruption.
2. In the two rally that I did attend there was no talk of din bodol or first time voters.
3. Zero female audience (but in Sylhet at night I think that was accepted. Though I’ve been told no one could bring out female supporters here)
4. A lot of children. And a lot of them wearing the BNP badge from the day before and shouting “nouka”.
5. The BNP-JI is playing the religious card again. Saying if AL is elected then there will be no more aajan in the masjid and such “truths”.
6. AL is worried that huge amounts of vote will be bought on the last day.

If this election were held in 2006, it would have been a easy ride for Mr. Ahmed. He has won three times before. (Including once when he beat Mr. Nazim Kamran Choudhury). His opponent Dildar Hossain Selim is the corrupt incumbent BNP candidate. But today it is difficult to call. Ahmed got about 25% less vote (approx 15000) the last elections. Despite what the PROBE survey predicts, I don’t see him narrowing the gap much.

Elsewhere in Sylhet seems that AL has locked up one (Sylhet 5 for Hafiz Muzamdar) and BNP one (Sylhet 2 for Ilyas Ali). Sylhet 6 is leaning AL’s way because of a rebel BNP candidate. Sylhet 3 is up for grabs but still leaning BNP way as there is both a JP and an AL candidate for that seat.

And the bellweather Sylhet 1 fight? MA Muhit seems to be inching towards victory. Delimitation has seen the BNP strong hold of Companyganj being taken out and internal feud between Saifur Rahman and Ilyas Ali has crippled BNP. But Saifur Rahman is drawing in some sympathy votes and there is a strong 8% “Islamic” vote there that could be a decider.

I am heading out to another area of the constituency in an hour or so. I’ll be stationed there for the next 2 days. Hopefully will be able to give you regular updates. That is if the cell phone network isn’t cut off.

Dispatch from the Frontline 2

Spent the day crisscrossing Sylhet 4 seats Goinghat area. This time with a neutral union parishad chairman. Well as neutral as one can get. He is a BNP man but isn’t in favour with the party’s candidate. Hence he has taken a back seat this election. I’m spending the night at his place.

I did manage to meet the BNP candidate Dildar Hossain Selim today. That was at about 3 pm. When I reached, he was in his house and still in his pyjamas (night dress as opposed to Aarong one!) He went to sleep late and was meeting people since the morning. When I asked him how he thought his position was, he said he would not say anything because he can’t campaign. Then promptly his aides handed me his introduction pamphlet. He was fuming at the time we met. According to him, his opponents were busy buying votes as we spoke. He called the DC and lodged a complain. He told me how low AL was. He said that the best strategy to win would be to spend 5 years deep in corruption and then spreading the money days before the election. As I was thinking “wasn’t that exactly what you did?” he proved himself (and me) correct! He handed over Tk 30 to a man who had come to see him. First I thought it was for a pack of cigarette but then Tk 500 was given to a union parishad “member” that had just entered. To top it all he had the audacity to ask the abovementioned Chairman who was my host/guide, how much money was needed in the latter’s union. So much for the aggrieved honest candidate.

Rest of the place the opinion was about equally divided. Having just returned to the base, I am confused. I called the seat for BNP (and still stand behind it). But to give the AL candidate his due, this election is far from decided.

There has been a lot written about the first time voters. So I asked a few on how they are voting. The new voters want a new face. But in absence of this it seems their vote is breaking on party lines. In this constituency they actually do not have much of a new choice. The AL candidate has been contesting since mid 80s. The BNP man has contested the last 4 elections (including a by-election because of Saifur Rahman giving up this seat in 1996). So while they, like counterparts in rest of the nation, have a huge potential to make a difference, doesn’t look as if anything much will come of it. Voting will be mostly on family / village lines. Interestingly most didn’t know about the “No” vote option. And when explained the concept (and those who knew) thought that it would not amount to much and would not “waste” their votes.

I tested out a theory that Zafar Sobhan had presented in one of our nightly political adda. Basically that as the youth have no negative opinion (if any at all) on Ershad. He is bang on. One people believe all politicians are corrupt. At least he served his time and made amends. And like the British Raj, the Ershad days are seen through a coloured glass. Those were the days my friend! No one knows what Ershad did or stood for. I think if he stood from Sylhet 4 he would have won hands down. That is scary! Neither AL or BNP has managed to find a place in the youth’s hearts or mind. The stage is open for the party to go beyond the rhetoric aimed at the youth and actually come up with constructive programs aimed at them. That alone will change the dynamics in the next elections.

Well now that Naeem Mohaimeen’s plea of not switching off the mobile phone networks has worked, I’ll hopefully try to keep updating through out the day. Friends, all the best. Go out, vote, make a difference (or not!)

Dispatch 3

Seems like we are looking at record turnout. Well at least from the two centres that I’ve visited so far. By mid day in Mahturtol Bazaar centre 50% of the voters had already cast their votes. And more people were pouring in. However the ban (or the confusion regarding it) on vechicalur traffic and specially motorcycles have meant difficulties in reaching the centre. Particularly problematic for women voters.

Matter of fact the female turn out at Monikandhi the second centre I visited was really low. They had turned the female lines into male lines there. Females only trickling in. Distance being a major issue sited. Another theory was that they will only come in the afternoon after finishing lunch and the day’s chores. A females job is never done.

While a lot has been said about the first time voter / youth votes. The major parties have failed to activate them and win them over. Similarly close to nothing has been done to court the female votes. Ironic given regardless who wins, our next PM will be from that gender.

Sylhet 4 political equationwise I am currently in the BNP heartland. It seems that AL is gaining grounds here. But that means that while last election in Monikandhi AL got only 200 of the 3000+ votes this time they will get 4 times that number. In actuality 800!

After lunch I’ll be moving to another centre. More balanced view of the outcome hopefully.

As a side, discussions with friends in Comilla, Mymensingh and Sylhet 1 indicates an AL victory.

Dispatch from the Frontline (I forget which number)

By the time polls closed at 4 pm it was clear, Sylhet 4 had seen record turnouts. 90% at places. I was curious why. Was it an endorsement against the CTG / Military backed government? Most people didn’t seem to say so. I don’t think they would be against a longer tenure of the present government. Was it huge support for one of the candidates? No evidence of it. Was it great organisational “get-out-the-vote” efforts? No. Matter of fact that was one bottleneck according to organisers of both the parties. Was it a confidence that a change will come and lives will improve? Most voters I met were not hopeful of that. Was it a desire to elect a government for themselves? Well yes mostly. Somehow they were infused with belief that voting was their right AND requirement as a citizen. Regardless of polling centre or the background of the person talking to me, I was summarily castigated for being there and “wasting” my vote in Dhaka. It were the forceful drives to get voter enlisted and photo id cards issued that showed to the person in a remote village that their vote was important and it did matter. If the CTG should take credit for something it would be this.

Another reason for high turnout in Sylhet 4 was the improvement of the road network. People did not have to put in a lot of effort to get to places. And electricity and media proliferation meant that more people got to know about their duties as a citizen.

Ok back to the Election result in hand. Sylhet 4 polling centre results started trickling in at about 5 pm (an hour after close). I was at the AL candidate Imran Ahmed’s house at that time. He was a happy man. Smiles were seen. Things are looking good for him. On the 40-minute drive back to my place we started getting more results over the phone. Things are looking real good for him. Mobile communication will ensure that the parties will know the results much before the Election Commission has the chance to collate it.

It is 7 pm now. I am seated in the fringe of bell-weather Sylhet 1 constituency. I am hearing “Nouka! Nouka!” chants outside. Things are looking good for Mr. MA Muhit as well. Matter of fact it might be a huge victory for him and the AL. He has to close a gap of 40,000 votes if the last election results are a guide. He lost to Saifur Rahman then. This time in the battle of the finance ministers he seems winning. Might be still close but then he would have swung around a big seat. I hope to be in his place in about an hour. Hope to have a better feel of thing by then.

I’m getting sms/ calls from mostly AL friends. They are talking a landslide AL victory. I am not sure. Probe magazine a few days ago did give the two abovementioned seats to AL but the government to BNP. Nothing indicates that they are wrong. BNP might still be the largest party in parliament (albeit without a majority). We will know in about 12 hours.

Dispatch from the Frontline 5

Boy was I wrong. I didn’t see it coming. As reports come pouring in AL is headed to about 220 seats. And each seat by huge margins. Big heads have (are) falling. Nizami, Amir Khusru, Delwar are few of them. Here in Sylhet MA Muhit has turned his 40000 deficit to a lead of that much. AL will win all 6 seats here and likely all 19 in the division. Saifur Rahman has also lost his Moulvibazaar seat. Even the mighty Illyas Ali’s Sylhet BNP jaugernaut has lost its wheel. I am now at MA Muhit’s residence cum HQ. The atmosphere electric. Huge crowd. It was difficult coming in. Specially through the personal security. Cheers going up every few seconds as another centre or seat is announced. Some have even gotten tired shouting. No one here believes what is unfolding. I am sure this was the atmosphere at the Obama camp two months ago. Ok boys and girls take out the the pens and calculators. New mathematics in play.