Friday, December 5, 2008

Vietnam's BIG SHOW: Smaller and Digitally Challenged

Welcome to Vietnam's BIG SHOW website. Yup, this is it, or as close as you're going to get to it. Because, as of this writing, they don't have one - and they apparently agree with the Vietnam Advertising Association on at least one thing: "With 23.4% of global advertising budgets spent online, according to ZenithOptimedia, we're just going to ignore that and live in the past without even posting a website of our own or having a digital category in our show". That's about as smart as hosting a horseshoe making competition right down the street from Henry Ford's new factory would have been about 100 years ago, whilst ignoring the iron horses he'd been building in the starting gate. Well, I could be stretching the facts just a little, because the Vietnam Advertising Association decided not to have a show at all this year, so who knows if they would have even acknowledged digital - but they did last year and it's a shame they didn't lick their wounds after a pretty big mess and come back to the ring this year. The lack of competition seems to have neutered the BIG SHOW substantially from last year's Golden Bell face-off and now it's just the SMALL CRAMMED-INTO-AN-ALLEY SHOW.

Note: Since the writing of this post the BIG SHOW has posted a website of all the winners. Check it out - it is quite good.

My comments here will focus on the venue, work, participants and results, which pretty much encapsulates the purpose of any show so let's get started.

The venue:

Continuing with my digital whinge plank, go ahead and put "Cage Bar Vietnam" "Cage Quing Bar Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City" or anything else involving the name and location of this club into Google, Facebook, or even Dia Diem, the Vietnamese map site and see what you get. Unless you're a better surfer than I am (and I doubt that) you get squat, nada, nothing & zip. I certainly couldn't find a website, because I'm sure the Creative Circle Facebook page would have referenced one in their event notice if they did. So, bad on Cage Bar for not even having a website. Isn't there some lounge/trance/world/hip-hop requirement for street-cred that every club have at least a shitty website. Wait, that law was passed globally in 2000. Major fail Cage. I spent an hour trying to figure out where this place was before I left the house. Readers who arrived at this story from the New York Times review of Cage, might want to check out my "Your Man in Saigon" post after reading the next paragraph for a Brian McNally update.

Arriving at 3A Ton Duc Thang is at least an interesting experience, for there is certainly no signage that proclaims anything like a Cage Bar or a Quing Bar on that corner. If fact, even having found the place, there is still no English signage but maybe that's part of the underground image they're going for. Follow the crowd. That's where the hip people are going. Once into the mass of people crowded into an alley aside and behind the place I made my way for the entrance to the club proper. Accosted for my name card by attractive but less than convivial ladies I was given prompt entrance to the interior - jam packed to four walls with people in anticipation of the video screening. Air conditioning was conspicuously absent as the screening began but as true ad-geeks do, the crowd bludgeoned through in search of a picture, an idea, a quick laugh or just a break from the everyday rock-pile that so much ad-work has become. And they were not disappointed. Hot and maybe bleedingly uncomfortable at the mercy of cheap-Charlie club owners who couldn't spare a little air-con, the crowd looked upwards towards the screen.

The work:

The reel begins with a hopelessly dated StarWars typographic theme that should be illegal in 2008 (yes, I know it's a theme choice in iMovie but that doesn't mean we should use it) and segues into a beer campaign that makes the Vietnamese chuckle but the English subtitles don't do much to explain to the rest of us what is funny. Some nuance lost in translation for sure. Quite possibly the funniest spot of the evening for Creamfills chocolates, shows a mum and dad engaged in a Michael Douglas /Jeanne Tripplehorn/Fatal Attraction slam-her-up-against-the-wall make-out scene after just one chocolate, followed by a series of Vinamilk, Nivea, Suziki, Dutch Lady and Sony spots that prove nothing more than the idea that having a big logo or budget doesn't guarantee any sort of genius. The thick air is broken momentarily by a marshal arts cum Bruce/Jet/Lee/Li fight scene revolving around a puddle of mud that becomes a pretty simple and entertaining idea for Tide detergent. A PSA for kids wearing motorbike helmets is well done and well received as well as a Go Green effort by Toyota. But my favorite, and I think world groundbreaking spot of the evening, goes to Absolute Vodka in a series of black on white line illustration animations that follow two unmarked bottles as they travel though a world full of humans. When they stop at the bar for a drink, the items put before them bear a human shape and when the bottles drink them, the animation angle rises and hovers to birds-eye view so that we see the bottles full of teeming human lifeforms. The tagline says something about an "Absolute world" playing on the inverted idea of the bottles maintaining human lives - and I just thought it was damn fucking brilliant. Yes, it sounds, and indeed is obtuse, but it was the brightest damn idea of the whole show and better go on to Cannes and other international shows as a real show pony for Absolute. For their interest in the spot, the Viets didn't really seem to get it in the end, but I credit that to their unfamiliarity with the bottle shape and name of the Absolute brand - however famous it may be in western markets it is a relatively new product here, so a lot of the imagery and branding did not translate immediately here. Kudos to TBWA for that work.

For the print work, most of it would have made good wallpaper for a baby's room. You could fall asleep in seconds with the greater lot of it. My few highlights included an activation campaign for Listerine mouthwash that replaced the actual bottle labels with clever headlines about gossip, kissing and the things one does with their mouth that might be better accomplished with fresh breath and another sort of viral idea for Tropicana Twister that put giant orange slice appliqués on revolving doors to simulate the twisting of real fruit into a refreshing drink. Conversely, another drink campaign made the drinkers mouths morph into the shapes of odd premiums like computers and iPods to accomplish being possibly one of the most unappetizing series of images for a product you drink that I have ever seen. Wrapping up the work, Leo Burnett takes the art direction award for a charming and clever image of an office move that comes out of and lives happily in left field and another agency, who I can only identify by the number of letters in their name (8), wasted two perfectly good display panels with work that wouldn't have made it into an even a half-rate student show. Next year, we should pay agencies $200 not to show stuff like they did.

The participants:

The BIG SHOW is an excellent show, and the only real showcase communications people in Vietnam have to see, discuss, share and debate work during the whole year - but it's in dangerous need of a serious updating and reflection of what the market really is - before it becomes THE BIG FOREIGN AGENCY'S ANALOG ADVERTISING SHOW. The conspicuous lack of Vietnamese agencies at the show was glaring and the lack of any digital component at all was not only professionally embarrassing but irresponsible as well. I don't want to go on record as the first guy who said this, lest Martin Sorrell bar me forever from his consciousness, but with the Olympics over, American elections finalised and a string of ever-going financial bailouts and corporate failures affecting all sorts of budgets worldwide, waiting to see 2009's jump in online spending at the expense of traditional medias will have seemed positively academic by next year's end. Having witnessed the youth, energy and outright multi-cultural optimism of the digital creative communications camp a few weeks ago at BarCampSaigon and comparing that to the rather old-school, foreign-centric effort exhibited in this year's BIG SHOW, two not so epiphanous suggestions come to mind: Get digital - for the future of the business- there's a whole community of people making great digital work. And get Vietnamese - for the involvement of the whole agency community. I really do believe doing both of those things will benefit the entire industry in a way that we're not realising currently.

The result:

As I have seen the past three years in Vietnam, the BIG SHOW always serves the most important function of providing a meet, greet and glower or grouse over what may or may not be the best work in country - but sadly, just once a year. What happens so nicely, annually, doesn't ever seem to replicate itself throughout the year, in a way that could so obviously benefit the young minds that propel the business forward. I'd be happy to work on some quarterly, more youth oriented, information based gatherings (yes, libations included!) that would carry the spirit of the show more regularly into the working lives of those who do the work. This is an area of discussion already open amongst a few of us in the biz so if you have ideas, or want to donate beer, you know where to find me - let me know. Finally two slaps on the wrist tonight: #1: Budweiser - for only providing an hour's worth of free beer - Tiger was much more generous previously. #2: The Cage - for not having the air-con on during the indoor portion and then not doing a thing to convert a more than willing crowd into an after hours crowd who would have happily danced and drunk more had they been provided specials, decent music or any encouragement at all.


So that's the BIG SHOW 2008. Not the best show, but the best show we've got. Making it better is up to all of us.
(Of Note: A press release dated one day after this post went up on, December 6th, announcing a digital version of The BIG SHOW to be launched in mid-December. Good.)

POSTSCRIPT: As a personal observation I could easily be taken to task for criticizing the show whilst having nothing in it and in some form that's absolutely true - but in another form, not true at all. For those of you who know me and this blog, I write dutifully, three posts a week, and cover the Vietnam advertising scene whenever a story of note comes up,. In 10 months this blog has become one of the most read in country and is also gathering a significant following worldwide. So, in essence I do have a product, it just happens to be a digital product, a social media product, that the BIG SHOW, or any other aspiring communications show in Vietnam needs to account for. But tonight I had one of the nicest things a blog writer could ask for happen. Tonight I met a reader.

I didn't know Phoung at all before this evening. We met whilst I was discussing the sudden drought of Budweiser with her husband-to-be. Upon exchanging the requisite name cards she exclaimed that she new me from Facebook. "Sure", I said. "I'm on Facebook". "But you write the blog", she said. And with that I was immediately taken aback. Who's to know who actually reads a person's blog. For all the accountability and transparency promised by the digital world, it's still rare to find out who those people really are who read the drivel one scribbles every week. And I'm quite the scribbler, I am. So much so that few, worldwide, are really able to keep up with the volume I produce on a weekly basis. Phoung went on to describe minute parts of this work that stretched back as far as 9 months - she said some things were funny - she said the work was graphically well designed - and she went on. Her husband-to-be-jumped in and said, "David, for all the time I have known her, she has never complimented anyone's work as much as she is right now. She's not easily impressed, David. I can assure you she is not giving you a load of crap." Phoung and I continued to speak. She works for a design firm. I was humbled and more than interested in the idea that a second language speaker could have actually made much sense of what I have been writing about for the past 10 months. This work is certainly not easy for people who speak and read English and a real mountain climb for a person dealing through two languages. She explained to me, and her fiancé confirmed, that she sits with a dictionary to get through one of my standard posts. This to me is all pretty damn amazing. And probably the number one reason I continue to engage in this project. One more person read it. One more person got it. And one more person liked it. And that's enough.That should be enough for any writer. Thank you Phoung.

To know more about Brand Marketing Training in Vietnam, go here <.


  1. David !! Great meeting you last night. Wow Your Blog fest here is very funny. I do understand what you say here....LOL...LOL. Phuong and I are in early this sat night after sweating and drinking all night inside the
    "Cage".......Anyway, I am very hapy that you got to meet a fan last night. You also gained a new fan in me.


    Phuong's Husband to be, John Buster Flanagan ; )

  2. John, hoping to catch up with you and the Mrs-to-be real SOON!

  3. •¸• Thanks to Mads for introducing your blog. I found a link "our vietnamese nuclear physicysts" bringing to Mads crazy shots :D You're funny & your feeling on VN creative/mktg scenes are good. Cheers by Fred - editor@AirTime

  4. Thanks Fred! I just keep on shakin' the Cage, so to speak!


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