Arun Sudhaman 10 Jan 2014 // 11:38AM GMT
Amongst international PR types, the Philippines has rarely set the pulses racing. This is not to diminish a vibrant industry that, in EON Stakeholder Communications, possesses one of Asia's top local firms. Yet the big global PR networks have largely chosen to focus their investment dollars elsewhere, on bigger Asian markets such as China, Japan, India and Korea; the traditional Southeast Asian hub of Singapore; and, sexier up-and-comers like Indonesia and Vietnam. Is all of that about to change? Cohn & Wolfe this week announced its launch in the Philippines, becoming — if I'm not mistaken — only the fourth international PR firm to have an owned presence in the country, after FleishmanHillard, Ogilvy PR and Weber Shandwick. Even Malaysia and Thailand, countries with some notable media and political issues, boast a heavier international PR presence than the Philippines. Yet the Philippines is larger than both of those nations, and counts a long-established PR industry that has capitalised on the country's relatively free media. To investigate further, I conducted a wildly unscientific straw poll among some of the Asia-Pacific heads at the global PR firms. Most of the respondents supported the notion that the Philippines is becoming a more attractive PR destination. The domestic PR market is growing at a healthy clip, boosted by excellent English-speaking talent, a creative culture, strong digital skills, and several homegrown brands — like Jollibee, Bench and San Miguel — that are looking to step up overseas expansion. Crucially, business sentiment has improved considerably in recent years, potentially bucking the country's biggest drawback — an inability to sustain long-term economic growth. Despite being hit by the deadliest typhoon in its history last year, Philippines GDP growth is expected to outpace China in 2015. Cohn & Wolfe Southeast Asia MD Gavin Foo told me that the Philippines reminds him of Indonesia a few years ago, pointing to "a more stable government and a large, young and burgeoning consumer population." This is intriguing, because Indonesia has since gone on to become an important piece of the jigsaw for international firms in Asia. It was not that long ago, furthermore, when Vietnam was attracting a similar level of interest. That appears to have cooled off somewhat, even though the country — according to numerous agency heads — increasingly features in client requests. So does Thailand, another nation that has long punched below its weight in the PR stakes. Periodic political strife, which has re-emerged recently, is still the glaring obstacle. Yet steady growth and the country's positioning as a hub in the upcoming ASEAN Economic Community means that there is more agency interest in Thailand than there has been for some time. Comparing countries may seem like a futile exercise but, in the calculus of agency investment decisions, it is a critical one. One market waxes because another wanes, so any problems in Thailand or Vietnam bolster the Philippines' claim to be a rising PR star in the region. Other contenders for that mantle are more difficult to back. Burma, for all the column inches it generates, remains a notional PR market thus far, attracting only a couple of intrepid boutique firms. And while FMCG giants are flocking to Pakistan, drawn by a large, fast-growing consumer market, few are calling for international PR agencies to join them there just yet. Which is not to say that challenges do not await firms that launch in the Philippines. One agency head places the country last on his list, describing its PR market as "becalmed". "I can get far more and far more quickly from one good win in China...I don't see the return from it at the moment that I see in 20 other things." The usual operational issues also persist. A startup, the favoured route for international firms so far, requires prying away a top-tier executive from a good job for a more risky proposition. The acquisition market, meanwhile, has barely been tested. Regardless, the positives add up to a compelling case. The country's tourism tagline proudly proclaims that 'it's more fun in the Philippines.' Amid some of the problems they have faced in other ASEAN countries, international PR firms may yet find that is also true of the Philippines public relations market.