Letter From Asia: Enterprising Spirits

Call it destiny. There is a tide in the affairs of men which can lead to fortune. The catch: You have to make your own opportunity. Andreas Dannenberg, David Carlson and Michael Lim have taken that adage to heart. These men are pioneers, entrepreneurs who ignored skeptics and opened ad agencies in the Far East. Despite tough times, the daring troika is proof positive that enterprise pays.
Take the case of Dannenberg. He spent most of 1982 photo- graphing minority ethnic groups in China, work that was exhibited in New York and Tokyo and showcased in several international magazines. In between shooting covers for Time, he did commercial work for Kodak and BMW. Then fate intervened.
A client introduced Dannenberg to Dentsu, which was so attracted by his creative flair that it asked him to execute work for international clients and assist in new business pitches.
This break led him to propose a new company–Dentsu International. Dannenberg’s idea was nothing short of revolutionary: Serve Western clients and Western agencies in a Western style, with the back office provided by the main agency. In essence, he wanted to provide an environment where high fliers could develop cutting-edge international skills.
The proposal was debated and rejected by Dentsu in 1987. The company dismissed the notion that it needed to be more international on its home turf. Undeterred, Dannenberg picked up the gauntlet. “I really believed there was an opportunity for a more Western approach to communication, so I went ahead that year and started AD-media,” says Dannenberg. Winning clients was easy. “Northern Feather and BMW were quick to sign on. A Japanese creative director joined but pulled out once premises had been leased and the company launched.
“I was faced with a major disaster, my Japanese language skills weren’t very good, the bills were rolling in and there were client commitments,” Dannenberg recalls. Some entrepreneurs would simply throw in the towel; Dannenberg shifted into high gear. While working for his initial clients, he became a freelancer to pay the bills. And his persistence paid off.
AD-media’s ’97 billings of $60 million, impressive given Dannenberg’s outsider status, makes the shop a player. That’s thanks to its stellar roster, including BMW, Club Med, Givenchy, Shiseido and Mercedes. Plus, since the shop parlayed a dream into a fiscal success, it looks attractive to brand-name agencies hoping to grow in Asia. Indeed, suitors think Dannenberg would be happy to sell. Think again.
At 37, Dannenberg is building–not selling–his business. He already has subsidiaries in London and Hamburg, Germany, and plans to expand to New York and Shanghai, China. “We need the network if we’re not to miss opportunities from clients, especially Japanese ones,” he says. AD-media’s strength lies in Dannenberg’s driving passion for creativity and quality. Born at the pinnacle of Japan’s economic success, AD-media has steadily prospered, despite a declining Japanese economy.
Of course, as a maverick in Asia, Dannenberg is not alone. Former Leo Burnett creative director David Carlson braved troubled times, too. He hung his shingle, David Carlson Creative in Seoul, South Korea, in January ’97, when pundits predicted economic growth at no more than 6 percent and advertising missing the usual double-digit acceleration.
Carlson defied expectations. He first came to Korea in ’95 on a short-term assignment from Burnett. When it was time to leave, Carlson found himself drawn to the country. The smart money said Seoul hadn’t achieved its business potential. After all, the city boasted the second-largest ad industry in Asia.
“It’s not full-grown emotionally,” says Carlson, “but it’s growing quickly. If I had the choice of starting an agency in Chicago–cold, mature, conservative–and here–vibrant, cantankerous, ambitious–there’s more excitement here.”
Carlson’s business ground to a halt during the winter, but his vision remains. “There’s no reward for not completing the journey,” he says. He renegotiated his lease and, with his two Korean colleagues, cut salary and expenses–and he advertised. It worked.
Carlson’s ads utilize wordplay, visual elegance and a gentle but dry humor. Now, there’s enough new business to meet the young agency’s needs. In February and March, revenues topped all of ’97. LG Electronics, the Korean government and Hyundai are clients. Some large Korean agencies are even talking of outsourcing work to Carlson. An added bonus: The economy is healing.
Things are different, however, in Myanmar, a country out of sync with the 20th century. Here, Asia’s youngest ad industry is trying to survive. In 1992, the country opened its doors to the world. Heartened, veterinarian Dr. Tha Tun Oo (Michael Lim to English-speaking friends) created a new magazine, Today, as a guide for tourists. Then his break came.
Japanese visitors from Nikkeisha, a Tokyo ad agency, were looking for media and an affiliate to advertise Casio. They persuaded Oo to open an agency.
“Normal practice is for media to own agencies, as in Japan, they said. It wasn’t till McCann-Erickson visited later that we learned differently,” Oo recalls.
With no established shops to serve as models and in a country where foreign publications, including Adweek, are banned, Oo was on his own. But help was at hand. In Singapore, he stumbled on books by David Ogilvy. “These opened our eyes. We remodeled the agency based on what they said and began to study the consumer.”
Thailand’s leading independent agency, Spa Advertising, contacted Oo and the two formed Today Spa Advertising, a joint venture to handle Thai and Southeast Asian clients in Myanmar. Oo then approached Ogilvy & Mather, which was eyeing Asia’s newest market. Save for the introduction of U.S.-led economic sanctions against Myanmar’s military rulers, Today Spa Advertising might now be part of the Ogilvy network. But sanctions forced Western clients and agencies to pull out, while Asia’s economic woes caused regional clients to cut budgets back.
Still, Oo aims to keep his 50 staffers and hopes to bill more than $1 million this year. His optimism isn’t dimmed by hardships. Ad industry friends help sustain his vision. “Things are bleak. With so little advertising, we have a great opportunity to focus on training and improving our skills. When things improve, we’ll be a better agency.”
Call it destiny. These entrepreneurs are willing to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune–and persevere.