Gousul Alam Shaon, Managing Partner & Country Head at Grey Group Bangladesh talks about the bright side of the pandemic, his knack for multitasking and the future of film and OTT platform
How have you been doing?
Well, I am as good as anyone can be! I do not think anyone after contemplating, can conclude that they are doing very well in the middle of a global pandemic. However, I believe there has been a few positives that we can take from the whole situation while trying to move on with our lives. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to spend more time with our families, connect with the neighbours we rarely see and enjoy the mundane aspects of our surroundings. A few months of isolation has helped to organise and make progress on different projects I have been undertaking which includes films, documentaries and special government projects. The entire ordeal has allowed us to become more humane.
How do the opportunities weigh up against the challenges posed by the pandemic?
Certainly, there have been a lot of challenges. One of them is psychological, the fear COVID-19 has put into our heads is bigger than the disease itself. The way we are panicking is not good for our mental health. I believe the way we handled the situation from the very beginning is not compatible for a developing country like Bangladesh, maintaining social distancing is not possible for large households across our country. Rather than panicking, we should concentrate on making people aware of the benefits of wearing masks and frequent hand washing. Financially, I think the luxury, travel and hotel industry might face the consequences and contract in the short-run, it will not have a large spiraling effect on our economy.
Do you believe the pandemic will have any long term effect on domestic travel?
I want to discuss it from a macro perspective, it implies that the propensity to spend money is going to decline. This will have a big impact on the overall economy as the money will not be trickling down.
As professionals in the advertising and marketing industry, we look at Socio-Economic Classification (SEC). There are five layers in this classification with the first (A) one being the most privileged people in our society who have not gone out of their houses in the past five months and will have no effect to socio-economic conditions if they continue to do so in the next five months. Followed by the resilient ones (B) who ventured out to work as soon as it was possible and (C) are mostly employees and small businesses who provide the support system to (B). Category (E) includes the farmers of our country who has largely been unaffected throughout the pandemic. However, the worst hit from the pandemic is the people who belong to category (D). They are mostly comprised of people who migrated to Dhaka and are employed in informal work. I believe government assistance should go to this segment as a priority.
Also, we need to figure out ways to help our middle class who have lost a significant portion of their income due to lockdown and job cuts. In aggregate, I believe our economy is poised to make the quickest recovery in the world as our RMG orders are coming back and they will make up for the loses made during the lockdown in quick time.
In a time of crisis, the PR and advertising sectors feel the pinch of the budget cut, we have seen this playing out throughout the pandemic as well. How can the industry shield itself from a future event like that?
There is no straight answer to this question. First of all, there has to be some sort of contingency plan in place as it is inevitable that the budget would likely be cut in the time of crisis.
Most importantly, you have to have the right approach to the industry you serve. As an advertising agency, my job is not limited to producing TVC(s) and advertorial for them. I have a responsibility to understand and enhance communication between my client and their customers. These practices make a business more robust and reliable in the time of a crisis.
Also, as an agency, you have to understand the social context and make good use of it. The pandemic has allowed us to come out of the traditional theme and prioritise wellbeing in brand communications. GREY hasbeen very lucky as none of our clients has left us. We have been able to pay our salaries on time and it is a big relief for me as the head of an institution.
Coming back to the creative aspect of your profession, as an advertiser and as a writer, how do you balance everything? How do you continue to be a successful entrepreneur and a creative mind at the same time?
It has been increasingly difficult to manage everything, my wife often asks me how many more things I plan to undertake.
My unending need to work more comes from an epiphany I had five years back. “What else you do?” is an important question to answer. I believe, if you keep working in a monotonous process, you will lose your soul. You have to create a space in your personal life to feed your soul. You also have to maintain strict discipline which many in our creative industry struggle with.
During normal times, I wake up at 6 am and after dropping off kids at the bus stop, I write for two hours every single day. Writing is more dependent on habit rather than mood, you need to allocate time for it to ensure you have the flow. I am currently writing for multiple projects ranging from documentaries, web series, movies and TVC(s). It is very important to go back to your core, the innocent and pure ambition that got you out of your home.
What did you think you will do with your life when you started?
I am a very late bloomer, had no idea what I would eventually become. I am an economics graduate and I initially thought I would further my studies in the field and become an academic. But everything changed after my graduation, I got into communications and the avenue of my future took a different turn.
I want to contribute to our culture by building a Bengali nationalistic identity. I think this lack of proper identity is having massive socio-economic implications. I want to work towards creating an identity that binds the nation together, through different mediums across various platforms.
Has your work-life balance been ever hampered?
According to my wife, Yes! I have realised something during the period of being a married man that mutual respect is more important than love and sex. Superficial things stop making sense after a few years of marriage, mutual respect remains the most important aspect of a happy, stable relationship. Also, the importance of spending quality time. Life as has become incredibly busy and we have to make the most of the time spend with our close ones. I keep Fridays off and try to do the same for every other Saturdays. Interestingly, you need to have a good team backing you up, the ones you and trust and rely on during any difficult week.
What is the most rewarding factor as a brand marketing practitioner?
We are the only agency in Bangladesh that won Cannes awards for the country. I think it’s one of our biggest achievements to date. To represent Bangladesh on that stage was one of the biggest value propositions of the entire experience. It is very rewarding when people appreciate your hard work and the organisation you have built is famous for the right reasons.
One of the best rewards of working in the advertising industry is making something be it a theme, brand or even an era. The “Beautiful Bangladesh” campaign by Bangladesh Tourism Board during the 2011 World Cup was something that often comes to my mind. We were praised for representing the country so beautifully, being praised for your hard work makes it worthwhile, motivates you to work even harder.
Interestingly, very few people will understand how difficult it is to continually come up with ideas that capture a global audience. It might appear very easy, I think credit goes to us for making it look as such.
We had such a great legacy with films, why are we here today?
Our film industry peaked in the 60s and 70s and then everything just faded away. Cinema is a very complex art and it is bound to fail at the hands of uneducated individuals, and that is exactly what has happened to our movie industry. Unfortunately, the people who built our movie industry in the 60s were forced to concentrate on re-building the country ravaged by war. They became preoccupied with the development of crucial infrastructure and manufacturing facility essential for a country and the movie industry went into the hands of a very shady unprofessional segment of our population who were also very uneducated. I think there is immense potential in the film industry of Bangladesh provided they are produced by people with decent skills and good a educational background.
What do you think is the future of OTT (Over-the-top media services) in our country?
An official from Netflix reached out to me to discuss the future of OTT in Bangladesh. The platform will have an enormous language base niche. There are more than 350 million Bengali speaking people spread across the world and their capital is Dhaka, not Kolkata. If we can realise its potential instead of wasting time with mundane arguments on decency, there is potential for OTT to become a billion-dollar industry. There have to be some major policy-level changes to create the environment conducive to the OTT industry. The industry will flourish when the big corporate houses are willing to spend a lot of money backed up by skilled workers and policies.