Reflections by Ken Mandel: Booms, busts and booms

In which the author arrives too early for his own good in Myanmar and (later) in the digital revolution.

In a lot of ways things of come full circle for me since I entered the region in 1994 to join the ranks of Thailand’s first dedicated PR agency PRESKO, where I met my first industry mentor, the “father” of modern public relations in Thailand and Chairman of PRESKO, Esko Pajasalmi. 

Esko was the one who encouraged and inspired me to move to Myanmar in 1996. Esko had settled in Thailand in 1951 as a missionary before building up the largest PR firm in the Kingdom, which he later sold to Shandwick, and he filled me with stories about the very early agency days in Bangkok. I told him I wanted a similar experience, but it seemed too late. He looked at me in that wise way he had and said, “Ken you should move to Myanmar. They are 30 years behind, so it is not too late”.

A few months later I was in Yangon working for my next mentor, Serge Pun, chairman and founder of SPA & Associates. A year later I went on to work at Bates Advertising while Myanmar opened up and brands and marketers rushed into the market—only to be very disappointed when the market abruptly closed again under the Burmese military régime.

It was just too early for Myanmar, and I was ahead of my time, but I suppose Myanmar was a good prelude to my next “too early” adventure, which was entering the digital industry with XM in 1999.

Like so many other naïve agency youngsters, I had seen the light and was done with ‘traditional advertising’ because the old farts ‘just didn’t get it’.

At XM we enjoyed a very short dot.com gold rush until it all came crashing down with the Nasdaq in 2000. Again, I was too early. And evangelizing digital in those early days was like being a Jehovah’s Witness: Nobody answered the door!

After the dot.com crash, the old farts were back on top, and the digital kids were in the dog house. The hope for digital in Asia was no better than the hope for Myanmar (see “Upturn a distant hope for digital operators“, Media, July 16, 2004, by Atifa Hargrave-Silk).

The author circa 2005

The author circa 2001

By 2006 digital was hot again, but so many folks had left the industry during the crash that digital talent was a very scarce commodity. That slowed the industry’s growth potential, but there was no turning back and everyone knew digital was here to stay.

And now in 2013 it appears that Myanmar is here to stay too. So this now ‘older fart’ can luckily say he was part of two booms, two busts and two re-booms.

Ken Mandel is the managing director for Hootsuite in Asia-Pacific. 

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