| “The future of advertising in a digital world” with Sarah Ali |

We sat down with Sarah Ali for a conversation about the challenges of being at the forefront of innovation Bangladesh, on the future of advertising in a digital world, on encouraging better ideas and how to make it easy to share ideas.

(The interview has been edited for clarity)

The advertising industry has already felt the effects of digitization that comes with the fourth industrial revolution. How is BITOPI preparing for this and what changes have you made since you joined BITOPI?

I returned to the country, what feels like a long time ago, right after completing my masters. At that point, BITOPI was still a traditional agency. We have made many company wide changes since then, among which is the creation of a separate department just for media buying and planning. We have diversified our companies according to the market needs. We have opened up events and activations. In 2014, we saw what was happening in the world and expanded to digital. We opened another unit called Mighty Bite, which has morphed into its independent unit. BITOPI itself is turning to digital because if we don’t, we will just turn into a fossil and we are going to die out.

What are the biggest challenges of moving in this direction?

To be honest, not all our clients are up to speed on this and moving as fast as we need.

Can you elaborate?

Well, they see the need. However, there is a culture of jumping on the bandwagon; there is always an attitude of playing catch up instead of being initiators. The brief itself is not up to speed on what outcome is necessary to be digital in the truer sense. In theory, a company might want to move up to 90% of their spending to digital, but when we come up with braver ideas, they resist going in that direction. They want to stay within their traditional form with slight changes. I don’t think that will work and they will have to go all in.

We recently pitched a campaign that brought together many stakeholders for an online portal. A portal that can be fueled with ads from many partners. Despite the initial positive feedback, the client ended up deciding on a 15 second song and dance music video with a jingle.

If you want to something that is going to be more than a blip on your screen, time and money to seed new ideas is necessary to create something that has value and important content– unfortunately not enough people are interested in that.

I do know that if more companies or campaigns become truly digital and take on projects that have longer seeding time, others will follow.

So you have complicated relationship with your clients, if they don’t come on board- BITOPI cannot holistically become digital and then you will not survive. How are you managing this uncomfortable grey area of transition?

It is uncomfortable and the ground under our feet is constantly shifting. We are trying to adjust and see what we can do within these limitations. We try to share any expertise that we have with the client. Many clients obviously have good ideas, so we do a lot of sharing sessions. Co-creation is something we are try to do with the client. This way, they also have ownership of the idea and they also fight for an idea. Sometimes it works.

What are the other challenges that you face?

Another big challenge is getting people, any experts on this are younger and the issue with younger talent is that they are not interested in coming and working for someone, they are much more adventurous and failure is not an issue- the youth are willing to start doing new things and then move on to something else quite quickly. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but for us, it is a challenge to find and retain talent.

Ideally,if you were to make a BITOPI school of communication to fill that skill gap that you keep facing, what would be the skills that you would teach there that would be different from a traditional marketing education?

Technology is certainly a tool to bring ideas to life. However, I still think that the basic grounding is a place where you really need to nurture people. They have to learn the basics, learn how to think, learn not just the what of it, but the why of it. I find that the fundamentals of the incoming talent may not be deep enough. So, I really think that we need to focus on getting the foundations right and then we can move on to focusing on other specialized skills.

Of course, we need to teach marketing in a specialized manner, but I see the need to focus on foundations for the next two or three years.

By foundations, I mean applying critical thinking. At the end of it we are not in the business of advertising, we are in the business of ideas, and for that, I need more critical thinkers.

How are you going to achieve that?

(Laughs) really, I am really not sure… I guess we will start with the basics- look for and teach curiosity and the willingness to learn. I think the best way to learn is to be on the job. So, we have started to accept and work with more interns, especially in the strategy and planning department. They are doing research and sit with us in meetings, where they can bounce ideas and learning is a two way path.

Sometimes, bringing people into the room is sometimes not enough. You need to create the culture for innovation. How are you guiding BITOPI so that it is a place where innovation can thrive?

Yes, I absolutely agree that we need to create a culture for it. BITOPI is on its 50th year; after 50 years, what we have to do is to start sharing our knowledge and give back to people. We have started a couple of initiatives, one of which is publishing a digital magazine called Botanist. It is a way to share our insights about communication, people, culture- anything that requires the human element. It is being curated and written by people in the agency. We want to encourage people to write, share, think and add value.

We are also encouraging and sending people to training in anything that they might be interested in and will add value by helping with personal and professional growth.

On a slightly different note, how were you able to transfer your masters, media ecology, to your work at BITOPI?

Media ecology is the anthropological study of media. In every kind of strategic planning that we do for a brand, we must dissect the ecosystem, the culture, the people and the place. So, that is where it comes in. Different media influences people differently; when people interact with tv, everything is heightened but it is not a medium through which the everyday viewer can take in lots of information. You have look at the medium and then decide what kind of messaging you can provide through media. For example, radio is good for more informative content. So in a way the degree helps me strategize on how to communicate with different people across different media.

It really doesn’t help in the business side of it, that is something I am learning everyday.

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