Asia's AdFest Show Wrestles With Down Economy, Prostitutes

Declining Entries and Seedy Locale Dominate the Chatter

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PATTAYA, Thailand ( -- The global recession has taken a visible toll on the Asia Pacific Advertising Festival, known as AdFest, an ominous signal for other festivals around the world coming up later this year, such as the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

Often called the "Cannes of Asia," AdFest is one of Asia's top gathering points for the advertising industry, drawing top creatives from Japan, Korea, China, Australia, Singapore, India and, of course, Thailand, which has hosted the festival since it launched in 1998.

This year, the number of entries has dropped from an all-time high last year of 5,148 to 3,309. Entries have declined in every category, with film and press taking the biggest hits. Film entries fell from 761 entries in 2008 to 443, while press fell from 1,205 to 621. The number of delegates has also fallen to only 693 people, about half the number of people it drew in the past few years.

"I'm not seeing the numbers I expected. I though it to be teeming with people," said Andrew Berglund, Cheil's global digital executive creative director in Seoul, and a member of the cyber jury.

This is the fifth year I've attended AdFest, and the halls are conspicuously less crowded than in the past. One of the biggest changes is a decline in the number of Australian and New Zealand production houses to network with the region's top creatives.

Surprisingly, the low turnout hasn't dampened the mood of the festival. This year's event has attracted possibly the best lineup of speakers and jury members to date, notably John Hegarty, London-based worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and president of the film, radio, 360 and innovation juries; and Mark Tutssel, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide, Chicago, and president of the press and poster juries.

Mr. Tutssel has not been overwhelmed by the ads this year, particularly in the 360 category, in which he was also a member of the jury. "One criticism I have is that I've seen one idea replicated across different media without taking advantage of the infinite possibilities of each specific medium and interpreting the idea in an interesting way."

The global recession is frequently cited both as a challenge to marketers and an opportunity for creatives, especially in Asia, which hasn't been hit as hard as the U.S. and Europe so far.

The theme of AdFest this year, "Made in Asia," was fortuitous, said Mr. Berglund. "Coming here has given me a chance to see what is coming out of Asia. ... There is a natural feeling that Asia is rising."

Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather in India, began his speech at AdFest on March 19 with a clip from "Slumdog Millionaire," the hit film set in Mumbai, where he is based. With the world's developed economies in trouble, "why shouldn't we focus on proudly on the region's heritage, progress and achievements?" he asked.

The location of AdFest has also been a topic of discussion this year. The festival is held in Pattaya, a resort town two hours by car south of Bangkok that is popular with Russians seeking sun during the winter as well as with lowlife tourists seeking affection from Thai prostitutes. The area sprang up during the 1960s because it's close to U-Tapao, a military airstrip used by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

Pattaya became a popular R&R destination for the American soldiers, essentially turning the area into one large red-light district, a status from which it has never recovered. Since most creatives in Asia are male, the seedy side of Pattaya is itself a conversation piece and group dinners often descend to "Walking Street," the main strip of go-go bars and clubs. The action in these places is far more explicit even than what goes on in Bangkok's Patong district or Soi Bangla in Phuket, the other main red-light districts in Thailand. (Suffice to say, the Chinese ping pong team could have a lot of fun in Pattaya.)

There is a growing number of women attending AdFest, particularly on the various juries, and they have staged a small protest. Several have started lobbying the organizers to relocate the festival to a more wholesome location. There are even rumors that AdFest is moving to Shanghai, which AdFest organizers deny but there is a delegation at the festival this year from Shanghai's local government. Also, the founder of AdFest, Vinit Suraphongchai, was a guest at the China Ad Festival in Qingado in 2007.

Given the rising prominence of China in Asia and globally, as well as the growing number of entries and delegates from North Asia, the move makes sense on paper. But the festival gained traction early from support in Japan. About one-third of the delegates still come from that country and one of the main reasons they support AdFest so fully is that Japanese creatives really like escaping to the sunshine, sandy beaches and "R&R" opportunities in Thailand at the end of Japan's long winter. I doubt they would give the festival as much support if it moved to Shanghai.

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