Anna Khin Khin Kyawt: 'The heart is out of the business'

After the former military government embraced market reforms in the early 1990s, SAIL Advertising was the first Myanmar marketing company to cater to international clients. Times have changed. In transitional Myanmar, advertising agencies are ghting for business. Frontier asked SAIL founder Dr Anna Khin Khin Kyawt, who’s also president of the Myanmar Marketing Services Association, about the changing advertising market and the challenges ahead.

You founded SAIL Advertising in 1991. What was the market situation then?

There was no advertising industry in Myanmar. At first we started importing and marketing Western pharmaceuticals, ICI, and Ciba Geigy. In 1994 we became the distributor of Kodak film and chemicals. We put up the first billboard in Myanmar for Kodak. One thing led to another. In 1996 we became the sole agency of Unilever. McCann Erickson came in and was looking for an affiliate company, because their client Nestlé came in. The affiliation became a joint venture. Things were looking up.

How free were you to run campaigns at the time?

There was only one TV station at the time: MRTV. When the country opened up a little in the early nineties they were very hungry for dollars. For commercials censorship was very light, although there was some self-censorship going on. At the time beer and cigarette advertisements were still allowed. We did the launch for Myanmar Beer in 1997. In 2005 beer and cigarette commercials were banned. For print things were quite different, though. We had to run all our copy past the censorship board.

SAIL pioneered a condom campaign for Population Services International at a time when there was official sensitivity about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

PSI was in a bit of trouble. They had introduced Aphaw [condoms], but the packaging was not communicating. Basically, they had wasted six years since the introduction. The government did not allow outspoken condom advertising, which could be seen as promoting free love making. So we had to come up with something more indirect.

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Aphaw means a friend or partner. We said to PSI: ‘ We have just the right spokesperson for you.’ It was a gecko. In Myanmar we have a saying that we all grew up with: ‘If you want a girlfriend, nod your head.’ Well, the gecko will always nod his head. The slogan was a play on the saying we came up with: ‘If you want Aphaw, nod your head.’ It was a very successful campaign. But I had to explain it to the censors of course. This was the first condom ad. It opened the door for others.

In the late nineties Western countries tightened economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar. How did that affect SAIL?

After 1997, when the sanctions heated up, everybody left, except Unilever. But they told us not to do any above the line advertising. How can you spread your message in secret? Of our ten activation teams, they kept seven busy until 2001. They didn’t want to pull out at all, but then they left as well. Unilever is a frontier company. In 1995 we organised the first beauty pageant in Myanmar with them. We had to find and train girls. Most of them did not even dare go into a hotel. And they didn’t know how to do catwalks. We grabbed all the boys and girls we could find at university campuses.

A year after that beauty pageant, the Visit Myanmar Year campaign was launched but was not the success the government had expected.

International journalists were against it. The opposition leader [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] said: ‘Don’t come to Myanmar.’ After that the sanctions were installed. Companies left overnight, and, of course, we suffered. I had a hundred people on the payroll. We had to lay off over half of them. It was heartbreaking. These were people I had trained. As a result of the foreigners leaving, Burmese companies stepped in. Suddenly you had ten local brands of shampoo and five coffee mixes. In the end even Unilever left. There was no compensation whatsoever. The kids I had trained were picked up by other Burmese and Chinese companies.

How has the advertising market changed since the country opened up in 2011?

A Thai or a Filipino will come and just set up an agency, even if it’s just one or two people. For clients it’s hard to find the right agency. There are so many of them now. How do you know who is reputable? Sometimes regional agencies come in and catch all the creatives and copywriters they can find. This pinching has always been a problem. In the past SAIL almost was like an advertising university. Nowadays we try hard to keep our staff, and develop them.

Is there enough creative talent in the Myanmar market?

Not at all. Creative is still a big problem. Copywriting is very important, and I still have to oversee all the copy that is created. As there are only a few talented creatives around, and demand is rising, salaries have increased sharply.

That is why the Myanmar Marketing Services Association, of which I am the president, is setting up courses. We recently started a course to develop research professionals. What we actually need is to start an advertising, marketing and communication school in Myanmar. Only then can we really professionalise the sector. Right now everybody is still training staff on the job. Local staff might know the local market, but they don’t have the market analysis and presentation skills. Foreign experts are needed to be copywriters and designers. 

How has advertising in Myanmar changed over the years and what cultural factors influence it?

Local companies tended to advertise their products with local models. The same talent would advertise twenty to thirty products. There was no differentiation. This approach is outdated.

When Lucky Strike came in they used their Western commercials. This was new to the public, and therefore interesting. But now the market is saturated with foreign commercials. They are not effective in our domestic market. We need local images and messages that resonate with the Burmese taste.

Western models can be hot and sexy. That is not fitting here. In Myanmar a model must not arouse. She must give you peace and calm when you see her. The Western skinny, boney look is not liked in Myanmar, as are Indian-looking faces. Burmese like lighter skin tones, round faces and a generally sweet appearance. After twenty years of seeing Korean actresses on TV, Burmese think theirs is the modern look.

Is the business climate for advertising agencies in Myanmar different to that in other countries?

The television stations here ask for payment upfront. In any other country in the region, in Singapore, Thailand or Bangladesh, you buy media and pay afterwards. We can’t finance this, we need foreign clients to understand that. That is a gap we have to bridge.

For now, television advertising is a seller’s market. I am waiting for the day it will become a buyer’s market. When private broadcasters will be allowed to start channels, as a result of the new broadcast law, that will happen. But this is probably still two years away.

The political future is uncertain. Does that pose risks?

It is important to know our clients and their intentions well. If we invest heavily in campaigns, and if clients suddenly slash budgets we will be in trouble. What happens if the political climate changes and foreign companies pull out of Myanmar? Well, we have nowhere to go. SAIL has been here since the beginning and we will keep going until the dust settles and beyond.

We have seen the industry change over the last two decades. It used to be total communication. One agency took on creative, marketing, media buying. But now clients pick and choose. They will split everything up and give little chunks to several suppliers. They don’t deserve your attention, your passion, anymore. It is no longer them and us and a fight to win. Advertising agencies are becoming regular suppliers, and you will get a little servant pay. The heart is out of the business.

What effect will this year’s election have on the advertising industry?

If sales are good, companies will continue to advertise. Telecom operators like Telenor, MPT and Ooredoo are committed and will keep spending. I expect local companies to reduce their spending somewhat and importers of foreign product will go for a wait and see approach. The current uncertainties regarding the exchange rate will have an effect as well.

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