Riverorchid’s Warwick Olds on the challenges of IndoChina

Warwick OldsWarwick Olds is a partner at  ad agency Riverorchid, the region’s only network that specialises in IndoChina. In 14 years, the agency has grown from three people in an office in Vientiane, to 250 in offices in Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Yangon, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

In this interview from Riverorchid’s office in Ho Chi Minh, Olds talks to Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks about the highs and lows of “living IndoChina”, the merger with Notch and attracting the right sort of talent.

You’re the only purely IndoChina network there is. But do you feel that really gives you an edge over bigger multinationals such as Ogilvy or JWT in this part of the world?

The first obvious edge is that we’re here and many others are not. We’re in all five IndoChinese markets – Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. The other big networks are only partly present.

Secondly, for most of the networks, Indochina is merely an afterthought – and that includes the more sizeable countries such as Vietnam.

Yes, obviously, we don’t have a presence in the UK, China or Germany. But for us, IndoChina is absolutely our only focus, hence our ‘Loving, knowing, living IndoChina’ positioning.

We’ve got bluechip agency people working for us, from the Leo Burnett and McCanns of the world. But we don’t carry the same overhead structures. We’d hope that we can provide the same quality product, but with higher levels of speed and flexibility at a lower cost.

But of increasing importance is the ability to understand IndoChina, which is hugely complex. There are five primary languages, and also Chinese and English. There are 300 dialects. And there is a huge diversity in the culture and values of the 200m people who live here.

Understanding that is more becoming more and more important to clients. Merely saying that you’ll adapt global campaigns and hope they’ll work is no longer resonant.

What is your advantage in terms of local understanding?

We put a lot of effort into trying to know the region better than anyone. We have network called Bamboo, our insight tool. We can test ideas on a panel of 10,000 people across IndoChina. We’ve also got a network of high profile people, from celebrities to religious leaders, we can talk to about sunrise trends and what tomorrow might look like.

Can you show us a few campaigns that demonstrate Riverorchid’s understanding of local audiences in IndoChina?

ANZ Royal set up in Cambodia and rapidly established themselves as the leading international bank. But they were seen as cold…. the best, but maybe not for me. This ad – instead of going on about how great the bank was (which everyone knew), they simply said “thank you” to Cambodia and the Cambodian people for inspiring ANZ to be the best. The effect was overwhelming, completely subverting the general assumption that foreigners might be arrogant or self important.

Infinity InsuranceAnother is Infinity Insurance. Wonderful client. The insight was very simply that most people saw insurance as a nice to have… but too expensive. We found things perceived to be very cheap, and the campaign put this into very accessible terms – motorbike insurance for the price of a mango, and car insurance for the price of a coconut. Very simple, and very effective.

Riverorchid was one of the few foreign-owned agencies to operate in Myanmar before the political shift, when most others stayed out on ethical grounds. What did you say to your critics at that time?

We’re a non-political, non-religious organisation. As a company, we don’t take decisions based on those factors. We used to get some criticism for operating in Myanmar in the old days. But I only respected people who didn’t also operate in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, or many would argue, the US.

I remember going into our Myanmar office, which was two per cent of the network’s billings and zero percent of profits at the time. I asked the team if they thought we should pull out. They said they wanted us to stay; we gave them jobs, fed the family and gave them a window into the world. We’ve never expressed an opinion about any government in any part of the world.

Do you find it difficult to attract top talent from overseas? And what sort of person wants to work in IndoChina?

People either love it or hate it, it’s hard to feel neutral about this region. When we founded this agency because we wanted to do work we love, in places we love, with people we like and respect. We’ve always said to people we talk to, if don’t like it, don’t come here.

IndoChina tends to attract two types. The first is the new version of, if you’d pardon the expression, FILTH [Failed in London Tried Hong Kong; low calibre westerners who can’t find work in their home markets, so their luck in Asia]. As an agency, we don’t want those characters. In my experience, they tend to be the arrogant sort that treats the region with arrogance.

Our expats are a mixed bag. There are some that are quite young, who want the opportunity to get a lot of experience quickly on a broad canvas. Some are at latter stages of their careers, who have the opportunity to really express themselves and pass on what they know.

Increasingly we’re seeing people who regard IndoChina as a great professional opportunity where there is genuine growth, a young population who are optimistic and dynamic, and want to work with brands that are part of the story.

Here, there isn’t the cynicism and lack of engagement you get in the first world. There’s a real opportunity to make a difference. In a decade you’ll see that starting to register in big international ad awards. Thailand is already a very significant global players in our industry. Vietnam is rising fast, and the rest will follow.

What’s the most difficult thing about working in this region?

Business architectures are troubling across the region, including in Thailand. But that can work for you as well as against you. We’re the only foreign owned agency in Laos. We’re fully foreign-owned in Myanmar. We have unique business architectures in Vietnam.

Singapore might be the easiest place to do business, but anyone can set up business tomorrow, and it’s ferociously competitive because of it.

Simple things like electricity supply can be a challenge. In Myanmar recently, our office had electricity for just eight hours all week.

Slow internet can also be a problem.

And air travel can be very expensive. Flying from here [Saigon] to Vientiene can cost more than a flight to London.

There are challenges with the levels of experience within the industry. In a place like Laos or Cambodia, it’s hard to cruise a local copywriter.

Language is always a problem. Our language is English, but of 250 people who work here, only 12 are native English speakers.

What have been some of the highs and lows during your time at Riverorchid?

There are a number, and all are human stories.

Two of our ladies who work in Riverorchid Media. One is now head of buying, the other is the head of planning. They are the third and second most senior people in that business, respectively. Both started their careers with us as receptionists.

A wedding of two people who met in riverorchid, and being a sponsor of them both at their wedding.

I remember a day when we were holding a group meeting – about the 20 most senior people in the group. I suddenly realised just how damn good they all were. A mentor of mine once said “always hire people better than yourself”. It was so cool to see so many people so much better than me.

On the downside it’s the sad times – for example when one of our colleagues died in a crash. Or another colleague, who finally succumbed to HIV/AIDS. I was so astounded by his courage – he worked with us – as best he could – right to the very end. Gives one pause for reflection on how fortunate one is, and puts so much into perspective.

Workwise, getting Gallup’s award for Best Overall Partner in Asia Pacific was very special – that was given to our research business. We won a PMAA Dragon of Asia for work on Levi’s in Vietnam and then went on to get a worldwide Globe MAA for the same, which was wonderful. The Notch deal was a huge privilege.

Yes, the merger with Notch, which we reported in September.  How do you think that merger change the agency?

The merger only applies to our digital business. The Notch guys are now part of a bigger IndoChina operation, and will be dealing with Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Our digital guys are now part of a much bigger Vietnamese presence. We’re still Riverorchid, we haven’t changed anything we stand for. But through the merger we’re sending a message that we’re walking the talk on digital, it’s not just hollow sounding off.

What about selling Riverorchid? What would you say to a WPP or Omnicom?

We are open to discussions which recognise and respect the integrity and purpose of Riverorchid, whatever those discussions might be. It might be us investing in them or vice versa, a joint venture, which we’re exploring at the moment.

What for us is crucial is respecting what Riverorchid is about and the reasons why people like our clients or our colleagues work with us. People do or don’t work with us for a reason.

But of course we’ve worked with the big groups already. Bates\Ogilvy ran into difficulties in Cambodia and Laos, so we took over the business in those markets. We also work with M&C Saatchi in Thailand and we work with some other agencies in Myanmar.

What do you want to have achieved over the next 12 months?

We also want to roll out and expand our digital offering. We’ve done a lot, but we need to ensure the operation works across the region. We want to be IndoChina’ premier digital network.

Does it makes sense focusing on digital in a market like Myanmar, where internet penetration is only one or two per cent?

Two telecommunications licences have just been granted, and you’ll see internet penetration skyrocket and the use of mobile leapfrog to mobile. We saw Cambodia go from three to 35 per cent in three years, and we expect to see similar growth in Myanmar.

We want to work more as one unified agency, rather than a company that just so happens to have offices in five markets. We want to imbue a conversational philosophy into what we do – everything we do should be geared towards inspiring conversations about our clients’ brands.


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