Raising the Brar

Every web entrepreneur has to start somewhere: Bill Gates, for instance, started Microsoft out of his garage. In the case of former ad executive Raaj Brar, the basement of his large, grey brick home in a picturesque Woodbridge, Ont. subdivision is the headquarters of a burgeoning media empire that aims to corner the South Asian […]

Every web entrepreneur has to start somewhere: Bill Gates, for instance, started Microsoft out of his garage. In the case of former ad executive Raaj Brar, the basement of his large, grey brick home in a picturesque Woodbridge, Ont. subdivision is the headquarters of a burgeoning media empire that aims to corner the South Asian population, the largest visible minority group in Canada.

Brar’s empire is being built around SouthAsianLife.com, a nine-year-old site that attracts 1.6 million unique Canadian visitors a month according to Google Analytics, and features content ranging from fashion and theatre to fitness and nutrition, with updates occurring three times a week. Advertisers include The Government of Canada, Ford, RBC and The Apple Store.

According to Brar, one would-be buyer he rejected told him that SouthAsianLife.com (and its 138,000-strong e-mail newsletter database, 73,500 of those names from Canada) is worth roughly $7 million. “To me, if I have a $7-million business, great—now I want to make it $50 million, and when I make that, I have a grand plan to make it $100 million,” says Brar. “But money is not what motivates me.”

What does is his desire to create a media destination that inspires South Asians, a group he says has been largely ignored by mainstream media. Brar thinks he can be that source of inspiration. His family moved to Vancouver from India in 1980 and, as a young man, Brar didn’t have many goals, aside from chasing women: “I didn’t have much substance,” he confesses.

Now 34, Brar has a much clearer picture of what he hopes to achieve. He has finalized a partnership with online dating site Lavalife that will see SouthAsianLife.com host a dating website catering to South Asians. Lavalife and SouthAsianLife.com will split ad inventory. He has also partnered with a publicly traded Internet portal (he refused to say which one), which will start selling ad inventory for him. Brar hopes to expand into streaming video, magazines, events and more. “In the South Asian media, I was waiting for years and years for someone to lead,” says Brar.

Advertisers should be paying attention to this group more than ever. South Asians—individuals from such countries as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—recently inched past the Chinese as the biggest visible minority group in Canada. About 1.3 million people identified themselves as South Asian in the 2006 census (versus 1.2 million Chinese), a 38% jump over 2001.

South Asians now account for roughly a quarter of all visible minorities in Canada, and 4% of the total population. There is no recent data on their spending power, but a 2004 study from MapInfo, a Troy, N.Y.-based software company, pegged it at $12.6 billion a year in Toronto alone.

So how did a self-described ladies man end up becoming a media tycoon-in-waiting?

Brar started his career at ad agencies, spending some time at Vancouver’s Bryant Fulton & Shee in 1997, and later at Palmer Jarvis. He got into advertising because he felt it was a great way to meet women. But one of his girlfriends, a lawyer, demanded more than just a pretty face. “She wanted more, but I didn’t have it [to give],” says Brar. “I wanted to have that kind of character, that substance that would attract her. So what started out as a task to impress someone turned into a journey that transformed my life.”

Knowing you want to make a name for yourself is one thing, but actually accomplishing it is another. Brar drew inspiration from Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns NBA star and two-time league MVP. When they were younger, Brar and Nash went to the same summer camp to play basketball (Brar is six-foot-five), and he remembered how much longer Nash would practice than everyone else. “Basketball teaches you discipline. During practice, you can choose to shoot 200 or 300 three-pointers or you can shoot 5,000 to 10,000 three-pointers a day,” says Brar. “You have to put the time and work in. That is what I learned from Nash.”

In 1999, he created SouthAsianLife.com, but it was difficult to raise awareness of the website. So in April 2000, he launched a glossy magazine of the same name, which featured ads from IBM and Procter & Gamble, and then in fall 2001 he moved to Toronto. The magazine boosted site traffic, but because few people subscribed to the print product, he couldn’t raise ad rates high enough to make the publication financially viable. The last issue published was spring/summer 2005, and Brar returned his focus to the online component.

Today you can find everything on SouthAsianLife.com, from a profile of Mahleej Sarkari, Miss Pakistan World 2007, to an article on getting what you want from your partner in the bedroom. The site not only boasts a lot of traffic, but according to its analytics software, the average visitor between April 24, 2007 to May 24, 2007 viewed 4.68 pages and spent 44 minutes at the site.

There are a few other South Asian web destinations that also attract major advertisers: MyBindi.com,also based out of Toronto, which focuses more on arts and entertainment; SouthAsianPost.com, the website of B.C.’s English-language South Asian newspaper; and in spring 2007, Torstar debuted the glossy bi-monthly magazine Desi Life (Desi refers to South Asian communities within English-speaking countries like Canada). The March/April 2008 issue featured ads from Chrysler, Telus and a Toronto dental clinic, and is distributed through targeted home delivery and some retail locations across the Greater Toronto Area. But the magazine doesn’t have a distinct web component (you can “electronically flip” through the magazine, but that’s about it).

Albert Yue, managing director of Markham, Ont.-based Dynasty Advertising, says SouthAsianLife.comtypically delivers better results than its rivals, in part because of its high-end look and feel: “It is more colourful, social and the layout of the website has improved with time.

Dynasty runs an “RBC Channel” on SouthAsianLife.com. It’s essentially a broadcast about recent immigrants setting up their life in Canada. “New Canadians offer a lot of potential to banks, and RBC wants a share of that,” says Yue. “But we also use the site to reach established ethnic markets, someone like me who has been in Canada for 15 years, but nonetheless needs a bank account or mortgage product.” With the success of these websites, Yue suspects, “mainstream media may be considering setting up such a site or even buying one.”

“We have been very active in reaching out to multicultural communities, increased our media placements and are thrilled with the overall response from the community,” adds Mark Whitmell, director, client strategy for RBC. “Multicultural media is making significant progress in variety, quality and content.”

Jahangir Alam, CEO of Markham-based DV8 Global Media Communication—the multicultural agency of record for Ford—has bought ads on SouthAsianLife.com for Brampton Auto Mall as well as Ford. The automaker is currently running two TV spots on the site, one for its Fusion model and the other for the Focus.

“We only advertise Ford on this one [South Asian website], because we feel it is very corporate, neat and clean looking, the way everything is displayed,” says Alam. He says Brar is easy to work with “and always accommodates last-minute requests.”

To stay ahead of the game, Brar has also positioned himself as a talent/model agency for advertisers looking to feature South Asians in their ads. In his basement is a makeshift photography studio, complete with a make-up room, where Brar photographs all the fashion models himself. He has a Facebook photography group, RKB Studio, devoted to finding South Asian models. To date, Brar has built a database of about 3,000 ethnic models, which he can tap into for advertiser shoots. He is also adding editorial video content and hopes to incorporate pre-roll advertising. Outside of the website, he says he has been approached to pen a film script. ‘I want to do something that respects who we are as South Asians in a very positive format.’

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