The first ever merger in Myanmar’s agency world was announced this week between PR firm Echo Myanmar and RevoTech, a digital marketing company. The new entity, named ERA Myanmar (ERA), has a team of over 70 staff covering digital, creative and strategic communications, and is now the largest agency of its kind in the country.
Saw Thura Win, formerly account director at Revo and now director of ERA Myanmar, says the “niche capabilities and diverse leadership” of each former shop mean ERA is also now the most “complete” agency in Myanmar.
The merger has “massive” significance for the country's marcomms industry, says Anthony Larmon, the American founder of Echo Myanmar who is now MD of ERA, because of the way the sector has evolved. “You had before a few big advertising agencies who, after seeing there was money to be made, started offering PR (easy to throw a couple letters into your credentials) and '360' solutions without necessarily being specialised in any one area. Shoot first, question later.
“A lot of the leadership at these agencies are now aging and losing touch with the realities of the way the youth or new generations consume media, and our agency is helmed by young, passionate men and women who 'get it'. We’re going to make communications cool again.”
Both Echo, founded in 2015, and RevoTech, founded in 2012 by Myanmar native Myo Myint Kyaw, have been pioneers in the Southeast Asian nation, which only started gradually ‘opening up’ to the outside world in 2010, after decades of authoritarian military rule. Larmon first moved to Myanmar in 2013 following stints at Omnicom in Vietnam and Edelman in Germany, drawn to the “intoxicating sense of potential and possibility” that comes with working in a frontier market.
Pre-publication censorship—the practice of submitting all articles to state censors for approval prior to publishing—had just ended when he arrived, and Larmon saw an opportunity to start bringing Myanmar’s communications world up to international competitive standards. While state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has received much international criticism since she was elected in 2016, and press freedom in Myanmar, as highlighted by the imprisonment of two Reuters journalists, remains a shaky concept, Larmon remembers a general feeling of “palpable optimism” when he founded Echo. “Before the election of now State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, everyone had such high expectations and a positive outlook. Many still have that, coupled with a desire to grow and become internationally competitive.”
In Echo’s early days, he recalls, PR was considered little more than basic media relations. Client needs were evolving fast, however, and Echo was able to offer the spread of in-depth communications services from brand reputation management to social media expertise, critical in a country where 18 million people (over a third of the population) are said to be on Facebook, according to a Statista report from 2017, with many considering it their main source of information.
Facebook ended up joining Echo’s client list, along with major international names including Microsoft, Huawei and Coca-Cola. Brands have gradually become braver in their Myanmar communications strategies, Larmon says. “One thing that has changed is clients’ willingness to be bold and go beyond traditional tried and true tactics and into more interesting integrated campaigns or ideas. As the marketing and communications environments get more competitive, you see clients beginning to take more risks—which means more fun in the hands of the right agency.”
Echo started to pick up PR awards from 2017, but its most successful work to date remains the anti-piracy campaign “Be Real: Microsoft Pirates a Celebrity”, which won the agency Myanmar’s first (and only global) PR recognition, a global SABRE award, in 2018. “It was a ridiculous idea to rip off the likeness of an agreeable celebrity and trick fans at consumer technology points of sale into attending a performance there,” explains Larmon. “They were greeted with the fake for a short time, then the real one would come out and finish the job and deliver the messaging that even if it looks the same, it likely isn’t.”
Of course, there have been challenges. Larmon started his company in the three-bedroom condo where he lived at the time, and says running water, electricity and a functioning elevator weren’t always guaranteed. He sees this as a badge of honour. “If we could achieve what we did there, we can definitely do it anywhere.”
But the benefits have mainly outweighed the downsides. Myanmar’s recent emergence in the digital world, says Larmon, means that a large proportion of the population still prefer print even as more and more people are starting to get comfortable online. “I think I can say it’s one of the few or only markets that spoil a PR professional in that sense. We still get to live the magic every day of finding our clients’ news in the papers—that feeling never gets old.”
The joint venture with Revo is, he adds, of “immeasurable” personal significance. “My mission from day one was to build a team that could stand shoulder to shoulder against any agency in more advanced markets and say ‘our work is just as good as yours.’"
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