Friday, January 23, 2009

How Not To Market In Asia - The Importance of Time, Money, Quality and Knowing How Much of Each You Need to Succeed

Recently I had another request from yet another potential client to do something that didn't seem realistic within the time-frame and budget. You may remember a post I did last year regarding a different potential client who needed an entire business and advertising plan for bringing a blimp to Vietnam. In that case, I submitted a six page outline with essentially questions for the agency to ask the client so that we could begin to get a handle on whether it was a good idea for the client to proceed with his (pun intended) somewhat overblown idea. Suffice to say, no one has yet to see a blimp floating the skies of Vietnam as a giant Heineken bottle, condom or sausage company promotion. It never happened - and it never happened for one particularly very good reason. The client had absolutely no business plan - and wanted the agency, along with my assistance, to create one for free - stop wait, reverse that: He wanted us to actually pay for the privilege of planning and selling his media - a scenario I had seen already in Vietnam and documented in my "Pay to Pitch" post. Don't do it.

And so, having had this happen, at least once a quarter since I've been in Asia, I've decided that although I may not be the self-help business guru that many people may be looking for in this still wild wild east, I may be able to more than competently offer another kind of assistance. Aside from the successes I've enjoyed with British American Tobacco, Samsung LG and others, I may have learnt far more from the businesses I chose not to do business with - the broken startups, the never-been contenders, the people with no plan whatsoever or the companies who just simply had their heads up their asses - than the ones I have. There is indeed an art to choosing who not to work for, at least as much as there may be in deciding who to work for. Only after that, the not always easy choices of how much you are to be paid, and when and on what terms may progress.

And so with the combination of my successes, and avoidences of other, almost certain, failures, I have become an unequivocal expert on:

"How Not To Market In Asia".

To give you an idea of how I arrived at this writing premise, let me go through just a few of the details of this last week's scenario. For good sportsmanship, I'm not going to name any of the companies, specific programs or people involved, aside from myself, but I'll just give you a basic idea of the facts I had on hand:

I was contacted early last week by a gentleman who had found this blog, as well as my profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn. If you Google the words "Advertising", "Marketing", and "Vietnam" in a Boolean fashion, you'll more than likely hit me on page one, giving me a more than fair web presence in Vietnam - with credit given also to my significant postings on the previous subjects.

The gentleman proceeded to ask a number of questions related to my business via Google chat and I directed him to my LinkedIn profile to get a handle on my previous experiences. After another day or so of chat inquiries I deduced that he was looking for someone to do sales work on a commission basis. He had a TV show with a sponsorship package he wanted to sell to a large foreign bank in town, and assured me that the sale was almost closed - save for the fact that the bank had questioned his company's lack of "Demographic Profile" for their show - which he needed in less than a week. I was immediately taken aback. How do you get to almost closing a deal on sponsorship of a TV program without a Demographic Profile of your product? It's almost slide #1 in your Powerpoint intro, isn't it? Apparently it wasn't. My immediate feeling was that if they had missed this, that their pitch probably had quite a few more holes - and that basically, they were a long way from selling anything.

I looked at the company's website, read the show description, watched the demo and read the bios of all of the Directors of the company. The project, as it exists on the Internet looked good by local standards, but that's a far cry from getting a bank director, in these currently murky financial waters, to sign off on what I was told was a US $20,000 sponsorship deal - and with the Demographic Profile being the only thing standing in the way? I didn't see it.

After more and more questions and fewer and fewer answers - hours worth - over the Internet and phone, it was obvious, that I could no more guarantee a sale based on only one small part of the plan, no matter what I wrote, than I could pull rabbits out of hats or coerce Genies out of bottles. Quite simply, I felt there was far more work in the job than the gentleman was claiming. And convincing him of that, was not going to be easy. It was time to cut to the chase.

I made it abundantly clear that I worked on a fee only basis and was not interested in any sort of success based pay structure. How could I be confident of any success when I was only being asked to fill one hole in a dike that was obviously full of them, and on very short notice? We then began the dance that begins all negotiations and that's pretty much where the whole deal hit the wall. This company simply had no money, or from the numbers bandied about, reasonably less than would excite the profit motives of a convenience store clerk in Toronto - and they were rapidly running out of time. I turned the work down and hung up my phone.

Over the weekend, I sent the man a mail that more fully explained why I had turned down the work. I explained that in every job there are the three elements of Time, Quality and Money. Each of us are allowed to choose two. If you have no money, time may buy you quality. If you have no quality, money and time could produce that, but not always. But if you have no time, only money and quality can get you where you need to be. This man was running out of both time and money. There was now, truly nothing I could do to help him unless we could come to some sort of budget.
The next few days, leading up to his deadline were almost humourous. Various messages on my phone and Google chats claiming things like "marketing is easy" and "I'm going to start my own marketing company" and such, letting me know that he was doing the work himself.
Here is the final message about his client meeting:
me:.........You close your deal?
client:......yes we got some closure
me:.........what does "some" mean?
.............."closing" a deal means getting a contract on paper...
End of conversation. I've not heard anything from him since. Why do I think he did not get his deal signed and will probably be crossing "T"s and dotting "I"s for quite some time? With no ill feelings towards this guy or his company (it's only business, right?), our introductory work together pretty much told me that we wouldn't be doing any more work together in the future. And it's not totally about the money. In the end it became about respect. He didn't respect my (or anyone else in my position's) participation in the process enough to allow enough time or money to get the job done properly in the first place, and then in the end, when he was out of time, decided to declare he could do it better himself.
That's not a decision I will ever make. #1, because I am neither a financial guru, nor a TV producer and #2, because I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who do what I do not - and do it extremely well. So the moral to this entire story, if there is a moral to be expected, is this:
Understand what it is that you do better than anybody else - and - stick to your guns.
If you can do both of these things, you'll be about 8 million miles ahead of the other guys, gals or companies who are all trying to do something similar to whatever it is that you are doing. If you can do both of those things you will not be wasting time doing a lot of other things that you should have other people doing. If you can do both of those things, you will have mastered the art of picking your battles and be spending your time doing whatever it is that you really love.
"The more steps you take to avoid failure, the fewer you will need to achieve success."
This week, I turned down a job, because it was not a job that was going to ever be a good job in the future. If so many of the marketers in Asia, be they agencies or other, could do that, they'd be a lot further along the curve. I end today's post with item #15 from Hugh MacLeod's upcoming book "Ignore Everybody - How to be creative". "The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not." Hugh is also responsible for the cartoon that begins this post.

For more information on Brand Marketing Training in Vietnam, go here.

For more in the "How Not To Market In Asia" series, click below:

II) What's Wrong With the Vietnam Advertising Association?

III) Detri-viral Marketing: When Web 2.0 works against your brand


  1. I really enjoyed your article. It is like someone has summed up so many business dealings i have had here in Vietnam. I work in photography and film and i still get offered, "partnerships" It always makes me laugh to myself.

    Keep up the great articles on the blog.

    -Ehrin Macksey

  2. Hi,

    Talking about doing business in Vietnam, I sometimes really wonder "Do they ever stop thinking about their personal pocket for one minute to listen to a good proposal?"

    After sometimes trying to sell something nice and new, I realize that it's not your idea that sell, it's the % commission and the contact you have.

    And in case they really like your idea, and when you tell them the price, for sure they would say: In fact we planned to do this long time back. We would do it ourselves now! We have professional staffs here! And it's not surprised that one day you know they come back to the old thing they have for the past 10 years.

    My personal opinion is business in the south do much better work than ones in the north. And they appreciate your ideas... But will they buy it at the price you want? PRAY GOD!

  3. Great post David. In Asia, "Time" and "Intellectual Property" are free (at least when taking it from other people) only assets and product get paid for.

    In our grey art of advertising media and marketing, its a skill and art to make non-believers realise the value in this grey-matter. And frankly it's not our job to make them believe, leave that for another day. Those that understand the effort needed for the 'sell' and the 'close' are also happy to pay for it.

  4. Thanks all for the excellent comments. The reason I post this is that WE all need to be responsible for some of the crap that goes down as well. I've learned the hard way that writing free proposals is not the way to go. More often than not, simply writing the proposal means a fair amount of research and problem solving - therefore, it is work and should be paid for. So basically, I don't do anything for free. On proposal i do three things:


    #1) Find out who the competing agencies or suppliers are. If they are quality companies, you know your client has their head screwed on straight. If they're not, proceed immediately to step #2

    #2 Charge a fee for your proposal and have the client deposit 1/2 upfront and 1/2 on delivery. Also draft a 1 paragraph agreement that states the information contained therein is copyrighted by your company and to be used for "presentation purposes" only. This won't stop an unscrupulous client from ripping off your ideas and giving them to a cheaper company to produce but it sets up a few ground rules and you can sue them later if the tagline you wrote ends up on billboards all over town.

    #3 Get your client to state a budget for the project. If he can't do that, consider walking. Almost any number you give to him will be wrong. If a client has clear financial goals going in he's likely to be a better business person that a client who just "shopping" what may not be a very feasible idea in the first place.


    My "tiny" company in Korea worked for 4 months on a pitch for British American Tobacco (BAT) against Bates 141 and another large Korean agency with 400 employees. First we won the print, then the BTL promotion, then a package design - always in competition with big agencies - but we were always paid as we worked and then rebated the money back to the client after securing the business.

    Free advice has no value, because it's free. Paid advice is valuable, even if it causes the client to disagree with you, because he paid for it and considers it more seriously.


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