Bangladesh is a country that appears to be most often in the news for stories about severe flooding, or refugee camps. It is less well-known for nurturing one of the fastest growing economies in the world, which expanded by 7.9% in 2018, and one of the youngest populations, with an average age of 25.7. Some 35% of the population (around 164.7 million people) is aged 15 or under.
This makes Bangladesh a country both of and for “the young and the aspirants,” as Rabeth Khan, Dhaka-based CEO of the agency MediaAxis/Carat, puts it. It’s also a country proud of its distinctive heritage. “We are the only tribe who fought for our language, ‘Bangla’,” says Shaon Gousul, managing partner and country head of Grey Bangladesh. “This language and later on the majority religion, Islam, together makes us ‘Bangali-Muslim’, and that is very unique.”
To look at recent developments in Bangladesh’s advertising and marketing landscape is to stack up some exceedingly fast changes, a domino effect of the country’s fast economic development. “The advertising and communications industry has also come a long way,” says Gousul, who has worked in the industry for 20 years. “The multinational clients have pushed the agencies to bring in processes and systems, and local clients have brought in a variety of business categories from which the industry has been able to learn from a creative as well as a marketing point of view.”
“Advertising spends have been growing at a rate of more than 10% per year for the last three years, from a base spend of around USD$250 million three years back,” adds Khan, who joined the industry in 1996 and worked for the newly established Grey Bangladesh before progressing to a multinational bank, an English newspaper (The Daily Star) and Bangladesh’s first multiplex cinema theatre brand. He started up his own agency, MACOMM (later affiliated with Carat and the Dentsu Aegis Network) in 2004. “Digital spends of brands which were at around 2% to 3% in 2016 are now moving to an average of 5% to 7%, and projected to be more than 10% by 2021,” he says.
As in most other markets, greater media penetration and increasing digitisation are two of the biggest stories of the day. TV still has the highest reach in Bangladesh, but digital has now overtaken print in many target groups and makes up a significant slice of all advertising budgets. “There is a visible shift of entertainment consumption from television to online,” says Kahn. “YouTube is fast becoming the alternate television.”
“Content consumption is heavy,” agrees Syeda Shamima Baly, chief operating officer for Havas Bangladesh, who also notes that because many Bangladeshis tend to be “highly emotional and patriotic”, they are frequently motivated to “speak their heart, raise their voice and stand for any cause”. User generated content and content marketing are popular and are expected to increase, she adds.
Baly also points to a significant decrease (a drop of 4.6% since 2016) in ‘media darkness’—which refers to people who cannot be reached by any mass media, including digital—as a major development, saying that 90% of the country can now be reached through mass media and satellite penetration is more than 95%.
Inevitably, life in the industry is not all rosy. Our experts point to a lack of skilled workers and a major deficit of institutional learning and training opportunities as particularly big hurdles. “Lack of knowledge among advertising executives and brand managers is creating a case of thriving numbers versus quality numbers,” Khan says.
Lack of useful data and data know-how is another large and multi-faceted issue. While the market is becoming more data-focused, according to Baly, and advertisers and agencies understand the need for authentic data, this is still very much lacking. “[The] unavailability of detailed psychographic/behavioral data, radio/outdoor/other media data, regional data other than [in the two biggest cities] Dhaka and Chittagong puts a lot of obstacles to take any strategic business/media decisions.”
“No unified monitoring data is available for traditional and digital media,” she continues. “Hence, it’s difficult to plan or optimize the integrated plan (360 plan).”
Further difficulties mentioned include a lack of regional TV channels or newspapers with high circulation; little quality local content due to the heavy consumption of foreign channels; and no structured media guidelines, meaning agencies have no control over processes or practices. Rabeth Khan also mentions that regulatory and bureaucratic processes are “big red tapes” for outward remittance payments to international business partners and digital platforms like Facebook and Google, which presents a challenge.
The current VAT charges at 15% and remittance tax charges at 20% are going to be “big hurdles” for the growth of digital ad spend and online based businesses, he says. “On the other hand, platforms like Facebook and Google needs to make stronger efforts to connect with Government to ease the current hurdles for advertisers to make payments.”
Yet as you’d expect for a country that has pulled itself to recovery from multiple drastic disruptions to its economy, the Bangladeshi advertising world also sees plenty of reasons to be optimistic, despite the many challenges the market presents.
Chief among these is their creative credentials, which received a major boost in 2016 when Grey Dhaka became the first agency in the country to win a Cannes Lion, a gold in the Product Design (solution) category for its zero electricity ‘Eco Cooler’ campaign. This year the agency repeated that feat and won two further silver Lions and one bronze Lion for the Agrobanking campaign for Bangladesh’s United Commercial Bank. While Grey remains the only agency so far to have won Lions, managing partner Gousul says they are significant wins for the Bangladesh creative industry as a whole, because “it encourages and inspires everyone to try and raise their game and strive to produce better work”.
He also points to Bangladeshis’ history of artistry as an ongoing spark for local creativity. “Our paintings, photography, films, literature, and cuisine are the backbone of the Bangalee tribe,” he says. “We are seeing a revival of our cinema, photography and painting in the global arena. I will not be surprised if we see this revival across other parts of our creative side too.”
For her part, Baly thinks there is an air of “chaotic beauty” about the country’s creative scene today, and she believes this has helped the industry on the right path to discovering “the most divine and sought-after form of artistic beauty—our own creative voice.”
The meterotic pace of change has fostered an industry “fraught with players who are hungrier, more unpredictable, more willing to take risks, and a little bit restless,” she says, driven forwards by clients who are being forced to tread new waters. “No longer is it enough to depend on the muscle power of a sky-high media spending budget or ride on the popularity of your celebrity brand ambassador,” continues Baly. “Stealing the audience’s attention even for a second is becoming tougher thanks to the overstimulated world of content we live in and making a meaningful connection with them is exponentially harder.” Ultimately, she says that the ‘beauty’ of this is being seen in ad campaigns that “champion less superficial communication, value entertainment and inspiration over persuasion and choose to engage and interact with the audience more dynamically.”
All this burgeoning creativity may find its place as Bangladesh continues to grow. According to Khan, regional and global brands are setting up manufacturing bases in Bangladesh which means stronger ad spends compared to when they were in import-based selling mode. “The motorbike industry is a classic example with both Honda, Yamaha, Bajaj and TVS making manufacturing set up investments,” he says. “The rise of the middle class and the power to spend more is a growth catalyst for business and advertising.”
Local brands and businesses, meanwhile, are benefitting from the country’s economic growth and pioneering across multiple sectors, while consumers are growing ever more empowered. Factors such as increasing literacy rates, the growth of social media and online consumption, and the increasing social inclusiveness of female as a contributing workforce all play into this, says Khan. His ‘core belief’—“To dream, to dare, to do”—may well act as a guiding light for the entire industry.
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This article is part of an ongoing series running in August and September, taking an in-depth look at the advertising and marketing industry in some of Asia's less well-known markets.