BANGKOK (AdAge.com) -- Thanks to Thailand's stormy political outlook, which could easily turn violent, AdFest has canceled this month's festival, one of Asia's top annual gatherings for the ad industry, but hopes to reschedule the event in May.
"I'm betting against people's psychology. We don't want to throw a party and have no one show up," said Vinit Suraphongchai, AdFest's founder and chairman of the working committee in Bangkok.
The festival is held annually in Pattaya, a seaside resort town about two hours south from Bangkok by car. This year's dates -- March 18-20 -- are right after violent protests may take place in Pattaya.
Thailand is polarized between urban and educated Thais, including the military and business elite supporting King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's shaky, six-party coalition, and rural supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Ousted in a 2006 coup, the former premier wants to regain power in Thailand, where he remains popular among his core constituents, mostly poor and uneducated Thais. Since he was deposed, protests have erupted several times. In November 2008, for example, anti-government protesters took control of Bangkok's international airport, stranding over 100,000 passengers for more than a week and wrecking Thailand's tourism industry.
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The current crisis was sparked by a move by Thailand's top court to confiscate $1.4 billion in frozen assets from the former premier. His supporters have scheduled a three-day rally in Bangkok for March 12-14 just days before AdFest was due to start.
Rather than ignoring the potential for trouble, AdFest organizers said in a statement, "We think a better solution is to wait for the issue to resolve itself, as we are keenly aware that it may be of serious concern to many of you who will be traveling away from home. Indeed, many governments have cautioned their citizens regarding traveling to Thailand during this period."
If the political situation is resolved peacefully in the next two months, AdFest may be rescheduled for mid-May 2010, but the loss in momentum is a blow to a festival already under pressure.
The global recession took a visible toll on AdFest last year, when the number of entries plummeted to 3,309 from an all-time high of 5,148 in 2008. Entries fell in every category. And only 693 people went to the festival in 2009, about half the number of delegates attending in prior years.
The organizers hoped this year's festival would re-energize AdFest, with the number of delegates expected to be up about 15%. Entries, however, continued falling to about 2,800, which AdFest's Vinit Suraphongchai attributed to the economic crisis. "Last year was so bad, budgets fell so not a lot of great work was done," he said.
Postponing the event leaves AdFest vulnerable, however, at a time when it faces increasing competition from Asia's other major regional festival, Spikes Asia, held each fall in Singapore. And delegates and scheduled speakers such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty's John Hegarty may not be able to go to Thailand two months later than planned.
Others may simply prefer to stay home in May. AdFest emerged as an important regional event largely through early support from Japanese agencies such as Dentsu, whose creative execs relished a late-winter break in a warm, inexpensive locale like Thailand.
But the independent festival has strong supporters around the region.
"We're definitely planning on going," said Irene Lam, a senior planner at Cheil Worldwide in Seoul. The Korean agency is an AdFest 2010 sponsor. "We were surprised to hear of the delay, but we have a commitment to be there."
"Last year, AdFest was affected by the economy; this year, it is affected by [politics]," said Tomaz Mok, managing director of McCann Erickson's Shanghai General Motors business in Shanghai. "I'm sure some people will not be able to attend in May because of scheduling. But I'm sure it can survive despite the trouble this year."
"I think people want to go to AdFest, and the same people will understand the security position, and, like me, they will probably appreciate the steps Vinit and his team have taken," said David Mayo, Ogilvy & Mather's Singapore-based president, Asia/Pacific. "If there is damage, it will be because it's a pure creative show and isn't on the client radar."