7 ways to beat the big players as an independent agency in Myanmar

Anthony LarmonIn this guest post, Anthony Larmon has some advice for entrepreneurs looking to set up their own agency in Myanmar.

Things are changing in Myanmar. When I moved here in 2013, the traffic was light, there were landline phones on street corners and I could count all the agencies on one hand. The media was just coming off censorship and no one had a clue about media relations.

Nothing about the nature of PR here has changed, but everything else is much busier. PR has become more popular and small agencies have tried their best to stand up to the big players, with minimal success.

Echo Myanmar, the agency I started, made our biggest statement when we bested six other agencies in a head-to-head in a pitch for Singapore Tourism Board’s two-year communications retainer.

This is how I would encourage other small PR firms to go toe-to-toe against these guys as an independent communications firm in Myanmar.

1. Outspend where you can

Finding good people continues to be one of the most difficult things to do in Myanmar. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you overpay (even slightly) your team members, you will regret nothing.

When you don’t have a bottom line or revenue target being shoved down your throat from region, use that to your advantage by hiring the best people possible.

I know to be successful as an independent I need to outspend my competitors somehow, so I do it on people and bill accordingly. Clients don’t mind.

2. Roll up your sleeves

I’m not in Myanmar on a comfortable expat package. In a market where PR is not even three years old, every person needs to be an account executive to deliver the best work. Do you think there is any local communications ‘expert’ in a market this new? No, so step up.

Promising “international” expertise through a company name is one thing. Actually delivering it is another.

3. Choose your clients wisely

Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you need to start with small brands. Know your expertise and sell it well. While big agencies are busy overworking their people, you can beat them by overworking on pitches to opportunities that fit your agency’s unique vision.

One time, I had to decide between taking a small airline project (bird in the hand) or continue to court the largest private organization in the country… I passed up on a significant amount of revenue in a critical time, but we’re now working for the larger of the two. It’s a judgment call. But when you have the luxury of time, you can use it to your advantage.

4. Knock on doors

Another place you can win against the big guys is to spend your free time at social functions. If you work to become part of a small social community (such as Myanmar) then you will earn opportunities missed by large agencies because they are simply too comfortable.

Learn how to sell and network. The leadership at many big agencies are old, married, have children and other obligations that I simply don’t. Huge advantage.

5. Don’t say you can do everything

One of the most common questions asked of me by anyone more senior than a marketing director is “What is your core competency?”

If you have more than one it’s fine, but when you try to sell yourself as a “one-stop shop” like a big agency does, you fall flat. The best noodles aren’t found at chain restaurant, they are found in the little backstreet shop that obsesses daily over simply making noodles. Public Relations is my noodles.

Too many times when I’ve been out, I have heard people say that many big companies enjoy one place where they can get everything done, and that is probably true but those are the exception (at least in Myanmar).

6. Think strategically

Big Myanmar agencies are chop shops, happy to take a few press releases and slap on a big price tag. Press releases and conferences are easy moneymakers here because most local companies have never had to do this professionally, but clients notice when their reputation is neglected.

Big agencies here profiteer from the fact that clients are unable to execute basic PR work. Once PR professionals emerge in-house, the fun will be over. Align with clients’ local business objectives more effectively and put tactical approaches into strategic context.

7. Stay

At two-and-a-half years I am the longest-tenured expat public relations practitioner in Myanmar. This is a title I will always have, so long as I remain here.

Every month I see changes in leadership at big agencies. They are here for short contracts and regularly replaced by other expats with equally short agreements, who often are a trailing spouse or have little to no communications experience. Or even worse, some agency’s local “leadership” has never lived in Myanmar but just comes in for meetings; I won’t name them.

By committing to Myanmar 100 per cent, we are culturally immersed and aware, which is reflected in every piece of communication we put out.

Anthony Larmon is the managing director of Echo Myanmar


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