YouTubers Munah & Hirzi: brands ‘know what they’re getting into’

Munah Hirzi YouTubers
Controversy is their game: Singapore-based YouTubers Munah & Hirzi.

Among Asia-based YouTube celebrities with a defined local following and style, few equal the bravado and controversial reputation of Singapore-based creators Munah & Hirzi.

One of the first performers in Singapore to wade into independent online video creation, the duo has racked up north of 24 million views and close to 124,000 subscribers since setting up their YouTube channel MunahHirziOfficial in October 2008.

They’ve produced 335 videos in that time that range from comedy skits and music videos featuring other known YouTube stars including Narelle Khen, Sandra Riley Tang and Oon Shun An, among others. With a target audience of 18-30 year olds and a demographic of 60 per cent Singaporean, 30 per cent Malaysian and 10 per cent “other”, they have a slightly older following than other local YTers but some brand marketers could consider that an advantage.

Not afraid to challenge social conventions and racial stereotypes, the self-proclaimed ‘besties’ have drawn the ire of conservative Muslim groups for their brand of off-colour humour and criticism of a gender equality group around Munah’s appearance in a Nivea whitening deodorant video.

While other performers might try to shy away from negative publicity, the duo seems to bask in it, and they continue to demonstrate their desire to push the envelope for their fans and brands alike. Speaking at the final ad:tech ASEAN event in July, the duo shared the inner-workings of YouTube fame and what it’s like to push the boundaries of brand supported content.

Why did you get into producing YouTube videos?

Munah: We had just graduated and had always been doing crazy things and thinking that no one wants to take a video of us, so why don’t we do it ourselves. So that’s how we started creating content. It was really just for us to share with friends. When we started posting we didn’t realize that YouTube was going to be a growing medium. So when people who were watching (our content) and started asking for more we thought, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Hirzi: Online media is far different today from what it was seven years ago. Nowadays when people start a YouTube channel they have this agenda to get a fan base or earn money from it. Seven years ago you never thought there was a possibility of making money from it. You were thinking more about how you were going to make a fool of yourself, share it with my friends. The difference for us was it took us seven years to see this gradual success rather than a lot of our counterparts in Singapore who saw overnight success. Singapore now has an infrastructure that cultivates the YouTube community.

How do you work with brands? Where do you start?

Hirzi: We’ve done this for seven years and a lot of people know our brand. It’s a very risqué brand particularly for a demographic like Singapore. A lot of time people come to us know what they are getting into. It really comes down to what the client is seeking to achieve at the end of the day. Is it views or more likes? There are different calls to action every time you come up with a video. I’m always conscious with brands of what they want to achieve and then when that comes out we need to come up with content that is honest and reflective of our branding.

At what point do you start talking to brands or they talk to you? Is it direct or through an agency?

Munah: Most of the time they come to us directly and say they have a campaign.

But how do you pick the type of content that fits with them, or is it a case of only a particular brand type that fits with you?

Hirzi: We are very open to brands. We will always figure out a way to work together. Unless they ask for anything that is way beyond normal.

Munah: So far we haven’t gotten any weird requests.

Hirzi: We have never gotten a client that is way out of our league. If anything, we were out of their league.

Munah: We have done (content) from insurance to government bodies like health promotion boards, and even property. It’s even serious issues or brands that are more serious that have come to us.

How do you look at your audience and how involved are they involved in what you create either for yourselves, or for them or for brands.

Munah: Social media breaks down the wall of “you are just following me and you just watch me”. We can interact with (the viewer) and we can talk with them. Even from the start it has been a relationship that we have always had with our followers and we know exactly what they expect from us and how to surprise them. It really becomes a fun relationship.

But isn’t there a fine line of how far you go with involving a brand?

Hirzi: Definitely. Brands give us guidelines also which I think is important  – they usually tell us what boundaries they hope to set for what we do. We have to respect that. We push as much as the fans want us to.

And brands are okay with your controversial background and reputation?

Hirzi: Most of our clients actually bank on that – they kind of like more risqué than safe viewing.

Munah: They know what they’re getting into, and we always make sure we have an honest relationship with our clients.

Did Nivea know what they got into? [Note: for more coverage, please see visit this link]

Munah: Nivea approached another company to work on that, so I came on board as an actress. Honestly, a lot of people ask me what I think about that whole thing. When I read the proposal I thought it could actually be funny. I saw the joke and the humor in it, but I think that sometimes with whatever you do you can’t always please everyone or gauge the reaction of every person. You may think, “Hey my audience will like this” but you might not think of the negative things that may come from it. But working in this business you need to go through that.

You tend to address a lot of racial stereotypes, particularly perceptions of Muslims. Some conservative Muslim groups have also branded you ‘inappropriate role models’. What do you say to that?

Hirzi: When we started the channel we always branded ourselves as ‘Munah & Hirzi The Individuals’. You cannot look at us and say these are Malay kids and therefore whatever they do will represent the flag for the entire Malay community. And I think that’s what people need to understand. We are independent – we are not mentored by someone or a big company who are telling us how to brand ourselves. All we want to be is ourselves online. Just because we don’t fit a certain mold, and by the sheer shade of our skin tone…I think it’s an unfair thing for any artist of, “You’re Malay so you have to behave like this.” I think there is more risqué stuff online that we haven’t done ourselves. We actually self-censor ourselves a lot but we still want to keep pushing that boundary. It’s that freedom of self-expression.

Munah: I think for online media, because there isn’t that one person or body to govern it, that you need to be responsible for (the content). For those who come to us asking how to start a YouTube channel, the best thing is that you can just go up there and experiment.