The modern advertising industry in Vietnam is barely two decades old. What started as a new frontier has become an increasingly competitive and international-standard marketplace for the ad business. By Brett Davis. Photos by Richard Harper.

Saigon Advertising What started as a new frontier has become an increasingly competitive and international-standard marketplace During almost every waking moment we are being bombarded with advertising messages. While watching television or reading a magazine, there they are; the billboards and neon signs which adorn the buildings that mark our daily commute about town; and every time we venture onto the internet or turn on our smart phone.

It is an inescapable part of modern life, so much so that it is very easy to forget there is a huge industry full of very smart and talented people devoted to designing those messages and images to convince us to part with our money for their client’s product.

But most of us don’t really know much of what goes on behind the scenes in this world. Our understanding may be limited to how the original ‘Mad Men’ are portrayed on the television show of the same name (a reference to the Madison Avenue location of the major New York agencies), or perhaps you remember the 1980s Dudley Moore film Crazy People. Then again, it may be we have a more modern vision of creative types hanging out in funky open-plan offices wearing black-rimmed glasses and sporting trendy haircuts.

The truth is, usually, nowhere near as much fun as it is portrayed in fiction, but the advertising industry in Vietnam has come a long way in 20 years and reflects much of the ambition, innovation and uncertainty seen in the same sector in any part of the world. It is a business estimated to be worth up to a billion US dollars a year in Vietnam, and continues to grow.

Early days
The first major international agencies came to Vietnam in the mid-1990s. The model for the establishment of these firms initially followed a similar model: the agencies which served multinational brands set up shop in Vietnam when their clients started selling their products here. 

For instance, if an international brewer wanted to sell their beer to Vietnamese consumers, the agency with the global account would establish an office to take care of the brand’s local advertising. From there, other business would follow.

By the mid-‘90s, international advertising agencies such as Bates, J Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam had begun creeping into the Vietnam market. Indeed, most of the major players had some presence in the country by the early part of the following decade.

It was still a small community at the time, and there were a few regular hang-outs where the Saigon mad men were usually to be found. Café Latin on Dong Du Street was the main social hub for the expat advertising crowd, and Vasco’s when it was on Thi Sach Street, was another.

The Creative Circle was another institution, with regular gatherings of industry types where people could catch up on the latest happenings and have a few drinks. This was in the days before YouTube so someone might bring a showreel of work or make a small presentation.

The managing partner of advertising agency DDB Vietnam, Daniel Gordon Jones, arrived in Vietnam from London in the late ‘90s to work as an account manager.

“A lot of mad Australians mainly, and Englishmen,” he says of the early advertising expats, “all fresh from whatever ad agencies they were at in Sydney or London. A few of them went off the rails a bit; a few of them went a bit crazy.”

Understanding the mindset and attitudes of local consumers was also sometimes a challenge. “People come in here they wanted to be first-world creative. They try to apply their knowledge and skills from another market,” he says.

“For example, they would put an old Vespa in an ad. Back then, it would be ‘What are you showing me this for?’ Now the market has changed a bit. The youth of Vietnam appreciate the retro appeal of it. Back then it was a poor-man’s bike, but creatives would go ‘how cool, Vespas’.”

An evolution
Times change, and not the least of these changes have been the profusion of media that carry advertising messages. A handful of television channels have grown to more than a hundred, thanks to cable TV, while magazines and newspapers have seen a similar exponential growth. Vietnam’s youthful population has taken to the digital world, ensuring this is one of the most connected countries in the region. 

An influx of international agencies as well as the emergence of more prominent local and independent outfits has created an incredibly competitive advertising industry. This, combined with ever-tightening marketing budgets, has changed the way the business works.

Sumesh Peringeth worked at multinational agencies in several countries, including Vietnam, before becoming one of the founding partners at independent creative agency Dinosaur. He says that more competition and smaller budgets has had a significant impact on how his firm approaches winning accounts.

“We never used to pitch, in fact we had a policy of not pitching, but over time to keep the work coming we had to,” he says. “There are many small agencies now and even the global agencies are fighting for the same business.”

Peringeth says he believes advertisers’ openness to using digital platforms was perhaps the most significant development in the industry in the last few years, yet this brought its own unique set of challenges.

“When you had an ad in print it seemed to stay there for a while, but it doesn’t seem that way now. Now it’s a quick thing. Execution, detail, those things are changing.

“Your Facebook page is your medium now, so you produce three or four pieces for one day, whereas we used to do one magazine ad it would take us one month. You have to do a lot more and a lot faster, and there is not enough money to produce that much.”

Breaking through
After 17 years in the advertising business in Vietnam, BBDO Vietnam chairman and executive creative director David Smail says he has seen the industry mature a great deal. One signpost that the Vietnam-based agencies had arrived was the awarding of the first Cannes Lion (the advertising industry’s version of the Oscars) in 2003 for a campaign on which he worked while at Young & Rubicam.

“That was kind of the ‘oh crap’ moment, we can do this, Vietnam isn’t backwards at advertising; we can have ideas, we can execute,” he says.

However, in Smail’s opinion, the growth of the industry and the profusion of different communication channels has not been entirely a good thing. He believes this has seen a reduction in the quality of the advertising being produced.

“There is not the focus on the great idea anymore. Now it is so fragmented in different places,” he says. “You can do interesting work but clients want it all over the place.”

Indeed, things like mobile applications and social media platforms, which companies can, and in many cases do, operate themselves has raised the question of how traditional advertising agencies stay relevant.

“It is a question that everybody is asking right now,” Smail says. “Our thing is to be our client’s most valued partner.”

The moving away from mass communications to more personal, individual approaches seems to be a trend that is here to stay. Planning director at TBWA Vietnam Binh Phuong Nguyen Vu thinks personal networks, such as Facebook, are extremely important for advertisers.

“The challenge is to get into those networks,” he says.

It would seem the ubiquity of advertising is set to go to a new level as marketers strive to pin down consumers’ likes and dislikes. Dinosaur’s Peringeth says the developments in the industry in recent years have also given rise to very data- and research-driven advertising to create messages that matter to people.

”The more relevant you are, the more you are part of a person’s life, in whatever way you can, the more exciting your brand is going to be,” he says.