FEATURE: Asian Advertising

Across Asia, advertising is turning away from Western ideals and celebrating a rich and heady mix of indigenous cultures.

Stretching from the east of Europe to the Pacific, Asia is a vast region comprising an overwhelming array of cultures, languages and religion.

In India alone, there are one billion people and 1652 languages - only 18 of which are officially recognised.

The region's advertising output reflects this rich diversity but it is only slowly being recognised by the West. Despite the volume of work produced, Asia rarely wins anything at international awards shows such as Cannes.

At the same time, Western agencies do not consider it as either a source of talent or inspiration.

But the problem is not one of quantity over quality; nor is it the case that Asian work simply mimics the West with its older, richer advertising heritage.

The reason is that to truly appreciate Asian creativity, we need some understanding of its cultural context. Of course, this goes against the school of thought which states that advertising should be universal; that it should transcend language and cultural barriers. But according to many, this has turned out to be impractical and, worse still, damaging to creativity.

Mohammed Khan, chairman and creative director of Enterprise Nexus in Mumbai, part of the Lowe's Network, cut his teeth in advertising in London, and has worked in - and founded - successful agencies in India during the past 30 years.

On the tape, he argues: "For years, Indian advertising tried to create an average Mr India or Mrs India that everyone could identity with. Sometimes they were third-rate copies of Western models - all in pursuit of a Gold Lion. The result was that these characters were flat, faceless and forgettable."

Gradually, however, Indian creatives have come to realise how ineffectual this approach has been and they are now filling their ads with memorable, varied and, above all, realistic characters.

'Femina' is a great example. It opens on a rough, black-and-white image of a young couple undergoing an arranged marriage. It cuts to the bedroom on their wedding night. The viewer is initially struck by the beauty of the scene but very quickly, there emerges a powerful sense of tension as the shy couple fail to make a move. It is finally the woman who takes matters into her own hands.

The ad is beautifully shot by Prasoon Pandey, winner of numerous accolades and most recently ranked as one of the world's top 100 directors. On the tape, he joins his brother Piyush, who - as executive creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India - is another major figure in the Indian ad industry.

The brothers discuss various traditions, the changing role of women and the difficulties of modernisation.

To explore the diversity of the region, we also interview one of Japan's leading creatives, Akira Kagami, senior creative director of Dentsu, Tokyo.

Kagami discusses the difficulties of telling a story in 15 seconds - commercials of this length are the dominant format in Japan. This format was also popular in the US in the mid-'80s and early '90s, but was abandoned when people began to question whether it was cost-effective, whether it's possible to be creative in 15 seconds and whether such advertisements can build a brand.

On the tape, Kagami reveals how these problems are overcome in Japan.

Finally, we look at the situation in Thailand in an interview with Siam Studios chairman Ctar Sudasna. Like Khan, Sudasna argues that Thai advertising is finally working because it has come to reflect and appeal to national characteristics.

"After years of learning the trade by adapting ideas from the west, Thais finally realised that what works best was what was intrinsically Thai," he explains.

Sudasna takes us through these characteristics with some highly entertaining examples.