The World: Insider's View - Thailand

After the gloom of political unrest, natural disasters, economic crisis and anti-business legislation, there's new hope that the ad industry in Thailand can smile again.

There were missing bodies. Of course, they could have been out at client meetings or on productions. But there seemed to be more missing than usual and all at the same time of day, 5pm. Strangest of all, clothes had been left on their desks.

What I eventually discovered was that a number of our staff were sneaking off early to join demonstrations. Whether they were dressing in the "yellow shirt" of the royalists who took over Bangkok International Airport at the end of last year, or the "red shirt" supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, I never did discover. The fad did not last long; soon they were disillusioned and had returned to the agency looking glum.

Glum is not something you see too often in Thailand, the land of smiles, but recently it seems to be a land that has been having more than its fair share of problems.

Domestic political unrest, buffeting from the global economic crisis, anti-business legislation and natural disasters have colluded to occur simultaneously - seriously denting the advertising business.

What is really being felt, what is really impacting the advertising industry's performance, are populist measures brought in by the previous regime.

Here are three examples:- Government anti-foreign ownership and work-permit legislation has resulted in several multi-nationals, such as Unilever, reviewing their operations and upping sticks.- A ban on alcohol advertising has resulted in the evaporation of major beer and spirit ad accounts.- The Food and Drug Administration, acting like an autarchy, banning food advertising on spurious grounds, whether or not that advertising has run successfully in every other country in the world.

Thailand has been an under-performer for a long time. With its natural resources, hard-working and intelligent people and delightful culture, it should be as rich as neighbouring Malaysia or Singapore.

But for years this country has been led by a corrupt elite that has focused on feathering its own nest at the expense of the whole.

Now it has a new government, led by the British-born and Oxford educated economist Abhisit Vejjajiva there may be hope. But his party is in a government coalition that includes several of the most destructive elements from the past. So the likelihood is Thailand will continue to muddle through.

The Thai advertising industry is one of the world's most creative. The award show wins are testament to that. But that great creativity is on the wane. It needs the joy and happiness to return to sustain it.

The hope is that relief from the buffering forces will abate. Then Thailand advertising will be back and the world had better watch out!

- Mark Ingrouille is the South-East Asia regional director for McCann Worldgroup.