Ethnic marketing? A good idea in a city like Mannheim, which unites people from over 170 nations. What one could see as a little Mesopotamia, between the Rhine and Neckar, is the perfect place for Qamar Zamans and Sherry Kizhukandayils agency za:media to incubate their campaign ideas. We sat down with the two founders, that come from an Indian, as well as Pakistani Background, in their office in Mannheim. 


Qamar, what does the „za“ in your agencies name stand for?

Qamar Zaman: Quite simply: those are the the first two letters of my last name. It was also the name of the agency before Sherry got onboard. His firm was called Ambassador Network. Once we started working under one roof we had to make a choice. So we chose the more compact name.

Sherry Kizhukandayil: za:media was a already a limited liability company at the time, so it made the most sense for me to become a co-partner. What’s in a name anyways? The importance lies in the people and ideas behind the project.


Sherry Kizhukandayil (left) and Qamar Zaman – the heads behind za:media


What were you doing before za:media?

Sherry: Ambassador Network was founded in 2002. The aim was to bring Indian flair to Germany. The first project we initiated was a party in the Karlstorbahnhof, in Heidelberg, called Sounds of Taj Mahal. At the time nobody around here knew anything about cool Indian music, or the sound of Bollywood movies. I was training as a management assistant in events organization at the Enjoy Jazz Festival. When I told the festival manager, Rainer Kern, about my concept, he was really excited about it. The success was overwhelming and the concept was adapted into an event series, called Bombay Boogie Night. We had guest DJs from all around the world. This kind of modern world music event, which reached people far beyond our own community, was something entirely new.

Qamar: My origins are based in Mannheim. In 1995 I moved here from Lower Saxony with my family. I was nine at the time. I started working in graphic design early on and gained experience in the areas of print and online design. Eventually it wasn’t enough and I created BE DESI, a communication portal for Indians and Pakistanis.



What brought you two together?

Qamar: Sherry promoted his events through my portal, and in return he put my logo on his promotional material. At some point Sherry was on the lookout for office space, and as it happened I had some free space to offer. From then on we worked very closely together. Our first big cooperative project was the INDIA-magazine, which we realized together.

Sherry: Around 2009, Germany was in the middle of a real Bollywood-hype. This led to the idea of creating the INDIA-magazine, as the whole thing felt embarrassing to us. Indian culture was being reduced to dancing, silly costumes and bad lip-sync. It painted a really distorted picture, which we wanted to rectify. We wanted the magazine to get rid of these stereotypes and to show India for what it is: an exciting tourist destination, with a vivid and modern music scene and many culinary highlights. Qamar took care of design and organization, while I was in charge of marketing and writing content. Our motto was: just make it happen! Of course you’re going to hit dead ends … but then you get back on track and keep going, or start something new. Stay hungry! – this has been, and remains, our motto.

What led to the end of the magazine?

Qamar: We had a great six-year run with the magazine. We were able to interview celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan, and made a lot of great contacts.

Sherry: The trend is clearly toward online media. Print is struggling increasingly. At the same time our business field has changed. Former advertising clients are more and more frequently interested in consulting services regarding ethnic marketing. The cost-benefit ratio was getting out of balance. In addition we were successfully pushing forward in the event business.



Relaunching Bombay Boogie Nights?

Sherry: Not directly. An event agency in Berlin was interested in doing the first Holi Festival in Germany. They asked us for advice. Holi Festivals are a traditional religious celebrations of Spring in India. In a way one could compare them to the German carnival festivities. We consulted the guys from Berlin on how to adapt the event to the tastes and the needs of the local population in Germany, while keeping things authentic. It should be more than just people throwing color-filled bags at each other. In the end the festival surpassed everyones expectations. The 5000 tickets for the kick-off in Berlin were gone in a week. CNN, BBC and ZDF reported the event. It was bananas! An eclectic audience, a whole lot of Elektro DJs … and right in the middle of it: the Bombay-Boogie-Soundsystem from the Rhine-Neckar district. Following the initial success there were new gigs in Dresden, Hannover and Munich, with over 11.000 guests. It was a breathtaking run, which culminated in us playing for 40.000 people in London.

Qamar: Our distribution of responsibilities was the same as usual, but everything was so much bigger in scale. Sherry was on stage and in charge of marketing, while I took care of booking and running things in the background. Taking care of financing and logistics for 30 gigs a year, over a 4-year period was a giant task.



And you guys kept pushing the marketing agency at the same time?

Sherry: It was a smooth transition from a focus on music over to marketing, which is the core business of za:media today. The Holi Festival allowed us to reach a new level as India-experts. The Holi Magazine, that we published at the time had a  print run of 200.000. Once things started slowing, and eventually declining, we decided to get out and become an agency focused entirely on ethnic marketing. We didn’t want our idea of India to a become a mere means to an end. One mustn’t ride out every trend till the bitter end.

za:media is meant to function as an intermediary between ethnic groups. What led to this concept? 

Qamar: Based on the example of the Indian community, we learned to understand what defines the needs of minorities in Germany and the EU. We know what these people require in life, what their needs and desires are. We know how to make these minorities feel they are being taken seriously, how to help them and to allay their fears of going under in a foreign culture.

Sherry: We are an agency based in Mannheim, run by two German partners, that both have migrant backgrounds. Our approach deviates from standard marketing strategies. We closely and seriously examine the issues of the communities in question. Africa for example: Last year we created the Afrika Community Award. This event honors projects by the 350 African associations in Germany, chosen by a five-person jury. Another example: the Romanian community. We exactly research which product from their home country the people miss the most. With our food trucks we will travel all over Europe, to bring people a bit of home to their doorsteps. Financial services provider MoneyGram commissioned us to relabel 40.000 units of a Romanian sandwich spread, called Zacuscă, as a give-away.



Do jobs like this help with integration?

Sherry: It is very important to us to ensure that people with an immigration background can fully integrate here in Germany. For this reason we support a large number of social projects, or try to initiate our own. We consult migrant associations and help them when needed. This is not at all the norm in the agency world. To further boost this charitable work we have founded our own organization, called Culture Communities e.V. Aside from normal integration measures, we want to help migrants with staying connected to their cultures of origin. To make this possible we collaborate with freelancers from a wide variety of fields. Come check out our co-working space, to meet people from all over the world.



What advantages does Mannheim bring to your operation? 

Qamar: Mannheim is ideally suited, as people from 178 nations live in this city. we can test out ideas on our doorstep, before launching them Europe-wide. Meanwhile we have developed a close cooperation with Claus Preißler, the Commissioner of Integration and Migration in Mannheim.

Sherry: The mix here is just right. za:media sits at the intersection between creative industry, community life and integration projects. We feel it is a privilege to work and live in such a diverse and liberal-minded city. Our work in the fields of migration, integration and ethnic marketing is very well received and supported; be it by cultural workers or the city administration. Just take a look at the great work done by the German-Turkish economic center (DTW), here in the city center. Successful integration efforts create a real sense of achievement for all those involved. Over at za:media university graduates work alongside people that have had a hard time because of where they come from. We encourage our team to test themselves, and we support and value everyone the same. This really works well and is truly stimulating to the entire team. As residents of such a great city one is always a bit proud to represent Mannheim as an ambassador of sorts, when abroad.



Are Mannheim residents their own kind of ethnicity in a way?

Sherry: I guess you could say that. I really enjoy what the Junge Junge guys are doing over in C-HUB. They are focused on this ethnicity of Mannheim residents, and are very invested in encouraging a return to local culture. Mannheim residents are no minority though, so we don’t see them as a target group for our work. But their concept of producing regionally sourced clothes, with an ethnic message, is something we thoroughly support – hajo!

Interview: Andreas Stanita / LA.MAG

Photos: Sebastian Weindel

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