After getting its knuckles rapped by the prime minister,the Cambodian advertising industry needs to consider how best to sell products and keep everyone on its side.There can be few countries in the free world where a prime minister’s attention is diverted from matters of state to matters of media morality. But that’s exactly what happened to Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, recently when he felt obliged to ban a condom advertisement, saying it promoted prostitution and promiscuity
The ad featured two men who approach two young women in a room, but are subsequently removed from the room by a security guard. The men later return with condoms and the two women leave with them.
In other countries, advertising watchdogs such as the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK would step in if codes had been violated, but this system does not exist in Cambodia. The onus is on the advertisers to get it right. But as the industry grows and it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid advertisements, should the industry be more closely monitored or will the public be the ultimate judge?
“There are almost no guidelines to follow, but many ‘unspoken’ principles to adhere to. If advertisers get it wrong, they are told so by the authorities,” says Jo Clifford, co-founder of Cade, a local Cambodian advertising agency. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the industry has ] grown alongside the media it fuels.
Some agencies fear that random government intervention could further disrupt an industry already reeling from severe cutbacks. In the first eight months of 2009, advertising spending dipped to $37.5m compared to $52.8m in the same period last year.
“There has been a global trend towards below-the-line advertising, [non-media communication such as sponsorship] which is cheaper and more indirect than above-the-line [promoting brands on television or newspapers, for example]. So we’re seeing more sponsorship and promotions and fewer ads. This trend applies to Asia,” says Kirk Bentham, managing director of The Marketing Department (TMD)based in Bangkok.
Ad agencies are split on the subject of government regulation and interference. “I honestly can’t think of any sector that doesn’t need regulation of some sort or another, and from which the public wouldn’t benefit. And brand communication is no exception,” says Warwick Olds, a partner at boutique advertising network River Orchid. While Clifford believes the industry has developed reasonably well without regulation. “The industry generally self-regulates. It has done so since its birth in the early 1990s. I am not sure who the guidelines would benefit or, more importantly, who would be qualified to write the regulations?” she says.
“If you look at censorship in other countries, you will see there is much more freedom in Cambodia,” says Kao Phirun, general manager of Asia Ocelus, one of the leading production companies in the kingdom. It specialises in television commercials. Elsewhere in the region, in the likes of Myanmar and Vietnam, every stage of the production process from concept to broadcasting is monitored by the government, he adds.
Public protection, though, from bogus claims for products is a necessary aspect of any regulatory system, says Chak Sopheap, a leading Cambodian blogger, who comments on politics and society. “There are many ads on skin products that encourage people to take them without medical consultation such as whitening creams. Where are the health warnings? Which claims are true, which are lies?” she asks. “These kinds of ads manipulate people’s decisions.”
Phirun agrees, with freedom comes responsibility he says: “You cannot lie or mislead your customer. If you say your product is one thing and people experience something different, you will lose consumer loyalty. Additionally, you have to understand the market and the political climate. What was a good idea on paper six months ago may not work today. For this reason many advertisers are forced to put campaigns on hold or kill them at the last minute. You have to be sensitive to the [social and political] environment you work in.”
Olds agrees there is creative freedom in Cambodia, but questions the veracity of some agencies and their clients. “Good advertising needs to have a simple, concise message. It should catch the attention of the consumer and be memorable,” explains Laurent Notin, general manager of IndoChina Research. “There are many examples of where this has been ignored, but we are seeing change.”
Before the 1990s, advertising was regarded as a waste of money. “Many successful Cambodian businessmen have built up their businesses without it,” says Clifford. The arrival in Cambodia of hard-hitting international companies has changed all that. “They increased competition and created the need for more sophisticated advertising. Even those who were hesitant about the value of advertising have been converted. Now there is a greater understanding of its power,” she adds.
She believes that the volte-face was largely brought about by the banking and telecommunication industries. “Suddenly there was a demand for something more, something better. Look anywhere in the world you want. Those companies that invest significantly and appropriately in advertising dominate market share. We are seeing that trend in Cambodia.”
According to figures by IndoChina Research, telecommunication companies appear to be propping up the ad industry. Mobile operators accounted for six of the top 10 spots in terms of television advertising totalling 19% of total TV spend and accounted for seven of the top 10 spenders in print ads.
“Intensified competition in telecoms explains the aggressive advertising in recent years,” says Notin. The companies are fighting for brand recognition, says Clifford. “The public trusts a product it is familiar with. This is a key component of an effective advertising campaign. Take Beeline, for example. Within a few months it has saturated the market with novel marketing ideas and its signature yellow and black stripes. The company feels familiar to us yet, in reality, we know nothing about it.”
According to her, localisation has been a key development. “Previously we’d see Thai adverts dubbed in Khmer or regional production companies producing Thai or Vietnamese-style commercials that weren’t suitable for Cambodia. But we are now seeing advertisements produced by Khmers for Khmers, which are more effective.”
Olds says there needs to be a push from the literal to the conceptual if the industry is to move forward. “The biggest leap in sophistication is found in television commercials,” adds Clifford.
Once again the banking and telecoms industries are trailblazers. Ocelus Asia has produced some humorous commercials for Mobitel that would stand their own on the international market and provide a new benchmark for future Cambodian efforts.
“We leapfrogged film and went straight to digital,” says Phirun highlighting developments in technology that have also driven the sector.
To produce what it calls an “international quality finish”, Ocelus often works with third parties in Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines on some aspects of post-production work. “Of course, in those countries the markets are bigger and more established. They work with film.”
While celluloid is currently the most favoured medium, Phirun expects the industry will move across to digital in coming years as the technology improves. “That’s the future, so in a way we are ahead of our regional colleagues who still use film.”
It can take anything from a week to two months to shoot an advertisement and costs can vary from $5,000 to $200,000. “Some production companies think it is all about equipment and money, but that’s a mistake,” Phirun adds. “It’s concept, concept, concept. Good ideas always win. Understanding the market, your client, its product and brand is central to finding a solid concept.”
In 2003 Ocelus produced a Mobitel advert that did not feature a phone, which Phirun describes as “a landmark that showed that the market was ready to take a step away from prescriptive advertising towards conceptual. “While the industry is a long way off what is offered in the West, the Cambodian market is becoming more receptive to subtle messaging. You can’t stray too far from the knowledge of the audience. Start simple then become more advanced. I look forward to the day when we can embrace our creative potential.”
Branding, the watchword of the wider industry in the West, in another vital area says Clifford. “Where we would see consistency, our clients would see laziness,” she says of branding efforts. “Yet, statistics tells us very clearly that brand recognition is hugely important. Take a look at McDonald’s, it offers the same product all over the globe. Nike doesn’t even have its name on advertisements, the swoosh is the only thing the consumer sees.”
The second most popular medium for advertising is billboards, says Hang Sorya of PPML, a leading outdoor advertiser. “Television commercials take about 50% of the market and outdoor advertising about 23%,” he says. “It has a huge impact because it is highly visible and eye-catching.”
Outdoor advertising has made huge technological strides in recent years. Tri-vision, Scrolling, 3-D billboards and Led screens are available in Cambodia which, Hang says, offer scope for creativity. Borders aren’t fixed and images can “overspill the edges,” he says adding there are about 300 billboards in Phnom Penh ranging in size from 6×3 metres to 12×3 metres, which are taxed at $20 per square metre.
He says that clients now understand the value of billboards but have “yet to use this space as creatively as they could”. Unlike print or TV advertising, outdoor ads are closely monitored by city hall, which assesses content as well as location. Alcohol cannot be advertised near schools, no billboards are allowed near the royal palace and “only a few adverts are allowed on Norodom Boulevard, which is frequented by high-ranking officials. The rest are on Monivong”.
He adds that the demand for billboards has not slowed during the economic slowdown: “More businesses are opening in Cambodia, so the flow of interest in outdoor advertising is in constant motion. Unlike Thailand and Vietnam, billboards here are a good size, standardised and organised and “the advertising skyline is not messy here”.
Sopheap, however, thinks there is too much advertising. “It seems that 50% of media content is advertising. Every five to 10 minutes TV shows are interrupted by ads, in local newspapers the ratio for ad and content seems 1:1. It is overwhelming.”
Taking this into account, Olds says he believes the nature of advertising will change. “There is a lot happening here, and a lot more to come. 3G telco and growing internet penetration are the most obvious avenues for ‘new media’, but they’re by no means the only ones. Technology has a big role to play in face-to-face brand communication.
“We believe there will be a growing pressure on agencies to provide material people want to see, rather than stuff that gets in the way of or interrupts what people want to watch, read or listen to. Breaking into movies people want to watch with commercials or bombarding people with unwanted SMS messages can be irritating. More and more we will need to craft work that people will want to come to rather than work we place in people’s way.”