Q&A with Champagne Communications boss Dannith Oung: Brands have a role to play in rebuilding Cambodia

Dannith Oung

Dannith Oung is managing director of Cambodia’s Champagne Communications, an advertising agency born out of Indochina specialist Havas Riverorchid.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks in Phnom Penh, Oung talks about why there aren’t more international agencies in Cambodia, the challenges the ad industry is facing, and how to market in a young country with a troubled recent past.

How long have you been in Cambodia, and when did Champagne Communications come on to the scene?

I’ve been in Cambodia for 10 years. I was born here, my family fled after the war, went to France, and later I returned.

Champagne was set up in 2012 as a conflict agency for Riverorchid. In 2012, Ogilvy pulled out of Cambodia, and they passed on their accounts to us. Riverorchid had conflicting accounts, so we launched a new agency.

What’s your take on the state of the ad market at the moment?

It’s a little bit different in Cambodia. The advertising industry here is following the trends of the category. In 2008, there were five to six telcos which spent a lot of money on advertising to compete. In 2010, it was all about the banking sector, with brands like ANZ spending heavily (there are 34 banks in Cambodia) and wanting advice on communication and strategy. In the last two years, it’s been about cars. BMW and Hyundai have arrived, and Mazda has now come in. Most of the car companies feel there’s a need for advertising. The market used to be 80-90 per cent dominated by Toyota, but now they’re losing share to newcomers.

Cambodia's Brown Coffee

Cambodia’s Brown Coffee

This year we’re seeing the rise of retail, with the likes of Brown Coffee, an upmarket coffee shop chain, and an emerging trend of people going out to shop. This is where we see the shift of digital coming into play. Sixty per cent of the population is under 25 years old, and they’re enjoying outlets that have a digital presence. That’s why we’re saying brands must be in digital.

We’ll see the rise later on of premium and luxury retail outlets. Yes, we’re seeing an increase in the middle class in Cambodia, but not demand for luxury goods just yet. Beauty care will probably be the next big development in retail.

What about fast food? Recently Mumbrella interviewed the man who brought KFC to Cambodia.

Lucky Burger

Lucky Burger in Phnom Penh

The fast food category had its time two years ago. First was Lucky supermarket, which created Lucky Burger [a popular burger chain]. They were the first to introduce well fitted restaurants with air-con in nice locations.

KFC was working well, but Burger King has done better, with some great locations and a brand that feels very international. KFC at the beginning only had the name, but they didn’t take care of their stores, and don’t have the feel of an international player. They didn’t maintain the buzz after launching and didn’t sustain the internationalism of the brand.

Why aren’t more international agencies in Cambodia?

It’s a question we think about a lot. In a market like Cambodia, and similarly with Laos and Myanmar, you need to be put your heart and soul into it for it to work. If you don’t put the right people and training in place, it won’t work. It’s worked for us because at the beginning we said, this is where we live, we’re not good in Singapore or other markets. But we put our heart into this place. Big internationals are too busy thinking about what’s happening in Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong [to think about Cambodia].

They [international networks] might create something in Cambodia, but think that they are spending more than they make out of the country. If you create business here, you need to genuinely love to market, you need to take care of your people and your clients. A lot of big networks have been looking at Cambodia, but it’s a question of how much does a network need to spend, and do they feel it is necessary.

When you’re a global agency, you tend to see the big things – China and india, and the developed countries. It’s easy to forget about Cambodia, where 80 per cent of the population still lives the provinces, and where there are only 14 million people. So why put in a lot of investment?

What would you say are the biggest challenges to operating in Cambodia?

Understanding the culture, and ways of working with Khymer people. Most companies arrive and say let’s do it my way. But if you don’t understand the way they think and the way they are, will you struggle. You need to embrace the culture of the people.

Angkor BeerCambodians have their own culture and also a desire to discover other cultures. You need to find the right balance between injecting your own experience and expertise and embracing the local culture. Cambodian people are open to new ways of working and seeing things. But they want to keep their culture in place too. You see brands like Angkor [a popular local beer brand] tapping into a sense of national pride, and it’s working quite well.

Eau Kulen was the first mineral water. There wasn’t any major advertising around it, but people found an attachment to the brand. People feel that it’s a local product, but with international standards.

Another example of this is Brown Coffee. Most people would say they like it because it’s Cambodian, but also because it’s not. Brown looks like your typical industrial, New York style edgy coffee shop, and uses imported coffee. But the owner is young and Khymer. It’s a good example of a big company coming here and being successful using the formula of making yourself Khymer but with the right balance of an international flavour too.

Local, local, local is not the right approach in Cambodia. It is considered a good thing to work in an English-speaking environment. You see a lot of young kids at international schools. Cambodian people know that to be successful and have a place on the map, they need to learn english, and adapt to a different culture.

One of the appealing things about Cambodia from a marketer’s perspective is that it’s such a young country, with most of the population under the age of 25…

The age pyramid is a result of a big part the population who would be 40-45 years old now was killed during Khymer Rouge regime. Now, Cambodia is full of young people wanting to absorb a new way of thinking and living.

Cambodia is an experimental place. You can work with the best creative directors here, traditional CDs. If I was in France, I would be into digital and data, and I might forget the core of an ad agency, which is the concept, the story, and telling that story in a TVC. TV has 80 per cent market penetration in Cambodia, and now with the rise of the internet it’s about video too.

Tell us about the influence of Cambodia’s traumatic recent past on consumer culture.

The rule of the Khymer Rouge only lasted five years. But it was so bad that people don’t want to talk about it. Even so, Cambodian people are willing to forgive and forget. It’s better to forgive and forget these five years and think about the heritage of Angkor.

The culture of the Khymer people is stronger than those dark five years at the hands of a bunch of idiots. The thing that Khymer people are proud of is the capability they had in the past, the glory of Siem Reap. The fact that foreigners are coming here and opening our eyes by saying that your country was one of the greatest civilisations ever is a source of great pride.

How can brands make an impact?

It’s a virgin country. As everything was destroyed, brands have a role to play in rebuilding people’s lives. You’re helping Cambodian people to make purchase decisions and get access to things they’ve never had before. Part of a brand’s job is creating meaning. Most people have very little here. They want you to help give meaning to their lives, or at least give them a dream – of buying a car or owning a house. In other countries, people hate advertising. But when you work in an advertising agency in this part of the world, you feel that you can really make a difference to people’s lives for the better.


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