Friday, November 7, 2008

The Vietnam Advertising Association and the Golden Bells: RIP for the Bells?

The creative season is upon us in Vietnam and with the "Big Show", scheduled for early December people are just getting warmed up. Conversely, one would expect the Vietnam Advertising Association to be firing up their "Golden Bell" awards...but no? I don't know, you Google it, but I've not heard a thing and have already made a fairly large point about VAA's needs in that area and don't need to put the boot in anymore. Instead, I'm going to reprint my review of last year's two shows at the end of this post, and I can tell you, I was as journalistically critical of both as one could have been, but also fair and even handed in not trashing the whole scene. The scene just needs work. And a lot of it. My suggestion at the end of the review was that both shows talk to each other and join hands to bring the industry out of a foreigner vs. local mentality, but that certainly hasn't come to pass. The Big Show, will go on, as always, and certainly be better than previous years. It has every year I have been here. The Golden Bells? No info.

Recently, I received a note for the staging of
"Annie Get Your Gun" the first fully staged Broadway musical to hit Vietnam and this IS impressive:

"This massive co-production is the result of collaboration between the International Choir of HCMC, the HBSO Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera, The Saigon Players amateur theatre group and the DanCenter. Saigon has never seen the likes of this kind of show before!"

And this is what needs to happen in the advertising business. But it won't happen so long as the former said AD organization, won't involve the whole industry. Period.
As support for this I need to relate a recent experience that happened independent of anything I had written previously and independent of any work I have done in the business thus far.

A few months ago, I had discovered an Institute called ARTI, , The Advertising, Training and Research Institute, and made a point to drop by and introduce myself. And I did. On the day I stopped by they had just finished their opening ceremony. I walked into a small working room and was introduced to a number of men in suits and women as well. They were very warn. Business cards around the room and my CV given to the staff, they were all over it. "He came from Leo Burnett in Chicago - he worked for this client - he worked for that client. He won a lot of awards" As is customary only the younger people speak enough English to ask the questions, but the questions were obviously being fielded from a more senior man in the corner. I will not mention his name here but his card indicated a high position in VAA. They all handed me a pile of cards in return but you really do have to know that none of the younger people in the room even had a title above "housepainter", no matter what they call them. Sorry, but that's the way it is - same as Korea. Even if you thought the big man in the room was a decision maker there's always a bunch of wizards behind the curtain in these association deals that you can not see. Basically, he's not going to give you any decisions or money. Associations don't make money.

Thank you emails exchanged and I was contacted a few weeks later for another meeting.

At this meeting the big guy was not there, but I was able to talk with the staff. They were animated and had a young guy, who had previously spoken before, but not this day, just circling the room and videotaping everything I said. I found it annoying but said nothing. I put on my best camera face. The meeting began with them handing my a syllabus for a Brand Management class that was just phenomenally well written and on top of the game. "Did you write this?", I inquired. Another man responded, not sheepishly at all, that it had come from Columbia University in New York. I then proceeded to ask if they had any way to execute it. You know, lesson plans, visual examples, case studies, etc. I also inquired to see a textbook and was shown one paperback on Asian branding and told they had e-books. Hmmm. Has anyone checked the e-book offerings on branding recently? I'm sure all the big gurus are just giving away their books for free on the net.

I spoke of my design of a brand management class I had done for Vietnam National University a few years ago and also mentioned that I had 11 PowerPoint case studies done by my students for their final grade. That school had paid me well and I had worked hard to write and deliver their course. The interest level was more than palpable. There was talk of me teaching a course, being a guest speaker and other things. I had mentioned that I would have no trouble representing the program to the multinational agencies in town, and selling the thing, if I could be assured it was of some real value. Multinational agencies need well trained employees and the VAA needs a soft intro to the multinational community. They currently only have one of those agencies on their membership roster.

This wrapped up and I was invited to yet another meeting on Saturday, the same week, to meet the woman who would head the Brand Management class. As is customary, I did a conference report detailing the meeting and sent it by email that evening to the key parties. In it I promised to bring a copy of my VNU syllabus. Mine doesn't differ much from Columbia's, just more simple and applicable to the market. You couldn't teach a course from it. It's an outline.

Saturday arrived and the room was full of yet more people but not the big guy again. A woman from a reasonably huge multinational client was there, and if you know anything about meetings, and dog sniffing contests, she certainly didn't want to meet me. I was there as a foreign advisor and she wanted that like she wanted holes drilled in her head. I'm sure she gets her butt handed to her everyday at work and the last thing she wanted was to come to a meeting at a part-time job with a very experienced person. Hell, I was just looking for, honestly, a small bit of work. I didn't want her job at ARTI and never would.

The meeting began and the first thing on the agenda was my conference report. The main guy there, but not the real big guy, went through it and said immediately, "You forgot something." I asked what and he asked for my PowerPoint case studies. Things immediately became awkward and the video man was circling again. I explained, in as much of a logical way as they could not understand, that those were the result of my previous work and a vital part of any teaching I might do, not to mention my hundreds of video references and other PowerPoints that I only keep on my computer. I also explained that there was an entire website for the class but that that, required a code to access and of course they could not have, pretty much ever. Seems their e-books were not enough.

Things then just took a turn for the odd and they handed me the Columbia University syllabus again and asked if there was anything I would change. I crossed out about half of it and said, "Look, you've got to make these concepts accessible and interesting to your students" and you've got no backup or Viet examples of the theories in practice. My case studies came up again.

One needs to be as kind but firm in situations like this but did they ever ask themselves why I would be willing to give away privileged information for free? Probably not. What I did realize though was that I was the only man in the room, not on the payroll and the only one who had written a damn thing for the meeting. I had a conference report, a VNU syllabus and had edited a Columbia University document in 30 seconds. This meeting was soon to be over. They had gotten quite enough from me and I had gotten nothing in return.

The meeting ended with a woman, apparently the top account girl at the big guy's agency, the guy who wasn't there, handing me a complete document detailing the profile of a foreign client and asking me if I could help them write a response to an RFP. I asked her immediately, who the competition in the pitch was and she told me she didn't know. "It's a secret", she said.

"Find out or walk away", I said. Jaws dropped to the floor. "You can't fight ghosts", I explained. "If you find out the competition is big famous companies, or very good ones, that gives you a way to place your own company in the bid. If they're little guys, you learn something else. But if you don't know anybody in the mix you'll just be giving away reams of your own information and costs with no understanding of what they mean to the client in the mix." The ARTI man agreed with me and told her, "It must be fair". Interesting, her boss had sent her to get even more free consulting than I had already provided. But she did get good advice. In the end I saved her money and time.

There were a few pleasantries exchanged but they couldn't get their case studies out of me for free and had no intention of even hiring me to teach one class. A few emails exchanged the following week. "Would you be a guest speaker?", they asked. I sent them a more than fair price and that was the end of communication.

I write this not to really upset anybody, but I wouldn't mind shaking this VAA organizational tree a little. And I've not been a Trojan horse either. The following review was made aware to them in the middle of our discussions and I mentioned that's it's critical but in the end constructive. Advertising's a bitch man. Fragile egos will get you nowhere.

Here's last years run:

Vietnam Advertising: Trying To Find It's Face

Ho Chi Minh City played host to two different advertising shows this weekend and if you ever wanted to find two completely different faces on one city this was the place to do it – and what a confused face both sides combined to be.

Friday, an independent group called The Creative Circle staged their ninth annual display of work at the Galaxy Cinema in the courtyard outside and it was a massively attended event. Well over 700 people gathered to see all the print work displayed on gallery panels and then crammed SRO into one of the theatres for the TV showing with over 20 local agencies displaying works.

It was a summarily impressive event, except for the quality of the work, which aside from a few single entries, failed to impress or inspire most of the attendees. What the show accomplished in spades though is what advertising shows should accomplish: It brought people together, gave them free food and drink and encouraged them to discuss, debate and grouse over the some of the best and least inspiring work in the country.

For it's purpose, the Creative Circle Show was not a juried nor judged show – so no awards were given. No blood, no foul, as they say – and maybe not so good.

But if one were looking for fouls, the Vietnam Advertising Association show, The
Golden Bell Awards, on Sunday was a sure fix. A poorly promoted and garishly festooned TV special, this show had all the look of a Bollywood extravaganza with seemingly none of the professionalism that should go along with any kind of awards show.

Transparency in judging would have been the main issue with some of the awardees not even having appeared on the festival website for the last few months for supposed "voting". So poorly attended was the event that the organizers, a TV production company, had to stack the audience with high school kids to get 400 people in the seats because the industry from Friday was just plain absent.

When the judging panel should have been a "Who's Who" of the industry, this panel engendered more of a
"Who's that?" question – with not a single major advertising name on the list – not even the head of any local agency. If the government was looking to find extra duties for under-worked bureaucrats this was perfect, because the list of judges and committee members was exactly that.

Interestingly enough though, the work in this show was of much higher calibre than the show on Friday. Even a panel of dimwits would have had a hard time making a bad choice. But if more than 1% of the agencies were represented here, even that would have been a stretch. With over 5000 companies claiming to be in the advertising business in Vietnam, this show was an embarrassment – only because the association representing this industry couldn't seem to advertise enough to get anyone to enter or show up for the show. Entry fees were outrageously high, compared to even international shows, and no posters, print material or newspaper ads promoted the show.

In the end, it was loose–loose for both shows – because neither one did a complete or comprehensive job. The Creative Circle was good for cocktails and conversation but no real outcome, and the
Golden Bells managed a TV program, good for viewers of same-old, same-old Vietnamese variety shows, but absolutely no socialization, platform, education or advancement for people in the business – an inaccurate and disappointingly staged event.

To grow the business in Vietnam it's obvious that both camps could benefit from each other's expertise. The Creative Circle certainly know how to throw a proper show that attracts the industry, and the
Golden Bells know how to make statues and TV programs.

Working together in the future may be a bold and politically risky suggestion but it's the only one that makes any sense considering the shortcomings of both efforts this last weekend.

[David Everitt-Carlson has worked in the advertising business for more than 25 years and is a consultant in Ho Chi Minh City:


  1. Good! But does that mean you didn't like the other posts? :-)

  2. Sir, I see this kind of behavior every single day :-( Simply fascinating.


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