“I’m the git with the white hair everywhere.”
This is how Rick Reid describes himself to me when we arrange to meet. It’s a self-deprecating, down-to-earth statement for a man who’s been in the forefront of the modern advertising industry in Vietnam since the last millennium.
When I arrive, he’s surveying the Bui Vien crowds and sipping his beer, the image of a man at his ease. A bulky older Australian gent with flyaway white hair, he exudes bluff, effortless charm, the sort of bloke who laughs from his belly and slaps you on the back with a drink in his other hand.
During his career, he’s watched first-hand as Vietnam entered the global economy, noting with an ad-man’s weighing eye the country’s growth and change.
“A Million Dollar Budget Was Nothing”
Starting in advertising right out of school, Rick worked in Sydney in his formative professional years. In the 1990s, he visited Hong Kong and Bangkok a number of times while working for George Patterson Bates (GPB), a global ad agency.
“People respected creativity then... a million dollar budget was nothing. I’d do half a dozen of those a year,” he says. “Now it’s all about the bottom line.”
Arriving in Vietnam in 1999 as Creative Director for GPB, Rick found a country flushed with a culture that reminded him of the freewheeling 1980s back in Australia, when major brands sought to make their advertisements fun, and were willing to shell out the cash for it.
“It really was wonderful,” he says. “Coming here in the new century, there was an energy... you could get the chance to do good work. I had the time of my life.”
After several years, he left Bates and picked up another gig in Ho Chi Minh City, staying longer than intended. In 2007, he started CreativeLife with two partners, a kind of emeritus advertising consultant.
"It's a way of keeping my hand in," he says, "and keeping up with the industry I love. There were three of us at first, now there are two."
A Creative Life
The CreativeLife website lists every type of media imaginable; given Rick’s decades of experience, it’s not hard to picture him writing copy, painting a new logo, designing some slick splash page, directing a photo shoot or a TV commercial.
While Rick is hopeful about the future of innovative and creative advertising, especially in Vietnam, some doubts persist. “I have sadly seen creativity dip a bit here — but that’s true globally. There’s less emphasis on creativity now,” he says.
Later, he says he thinks the pendulum will swing back, but the sense of uncertainty persists.
The Future of Advertising in Vietnam
When asked about what’s coming in the next decades, he’s optimistic.
“You can tell by the fact that all the major networks are here that they can see the future,” he says.
When Rick arrived in Vietnam, he was an outlier. Now all the major advertising houses — the ultra-large international concerns like Saatchi and Saatchi, Ogilvy and Mather, Dentsu, J. Walter Thompson and Lowe Vietnam — fly the flag here. They know a major emerging market when they see it, just as Rick did.
He pinpoints Vietnam’s demographics as the key — the high amount of people under 30 and the growing middle class. Millions of potential customers come of age each year, graduating and getting a job. That means big business, if not now, then certainly in years to come.
“They [the major ad agencies] know the opportunities are here. They’re probably not making a lot of money at the moment, but that will change,” he says.
He adds another note of caution in the midst of his overall optimism. “I know people who came here in the 1990s — wow, 85 million people, what a market — who failed, because the market wasn’t ready.”
Rick also says that while there’s probably not a huge amount of space in the market due to the presence of the major global agencies and the market’s immaturity, a few local ad houses will open and thrive — as long as they can stay innovative and relevant.
“Perhaps when local brands get more into advertising... local brands think advertising is a cost and not an opportunity. It’s an investment,” he emphasizes.
The Nuisance Business
Rick is passionate in a low-key way about his industry; its past, its future and its changing nature. He’s adamant that good advertising is a form of entertainment, one that needs imagination and skill.
He also keeps his distance from the current obsession with social media marketing and advertising.
“Digital is not the answer, it’s another spoke in the wheel. You’ve got to make whatever you do a little bit compelling, and a little bit intriguing... and almost insightful. You still need a good idea.”
Looking around, he notes the profusion of signs, the brand-names and logos everywhere on Bui Vien.
“We’re in the nuisance business. That’s why creativity is so important.”
Rick’s company, Creative Life, can be found online at creativelife.asia