Full Speed Ahead

From their raging mopeds to COVID-19 response, the Vietnamese are quick to move when it matters while still maintaining a relaxed outlook on life. Filipino advertising professionals in Ho Chi Minh share their observations

Interview Danielle Austria
Images Bebs Abrillo, Nichi Gatdula, and Moffy Wee

Clockwise from top: Moffy Wee, Nichi Gatdula, Bebs Abrillo; Header: The full group behind @hello_pho on Instagram

Sorry to cut into your Sunday plans. Are you usually together?

Bebs Abrillo, Hakuhodo Vietnam (Senior Strategic Planning Manager): Usually ‘pag weekends talaga lumalabas kami, which is Friday-Saturday-Sunday. Minsan we hang out, nanonood ng movie, nagta-try ng iba’t-ibang activities na pwedeng gawin indoors or outdoors, naghahanap ng new restaurants or coffee shops, o kaya travel somewhere outside Saigon.

Nichi Gatdula, Happiness Saigon (Partner Creative, Concept and Art): We live in different places—may nakatira sa “Makati”, “Pasig”, “QC” [of Vietnam]—spread out kami but the travel is significantly more convenient here. That’s why it’s so easy to get together.

Moffy Wee, Bates CHI & Partners (Group Account Director): We’re here in District 2. Think of it as Alabang then the city is in Makati but because traffic [isn’t as bad as in Manila], it’s easy for us to navigate because it would take us only, say, 20 minutes to travel.

Bebs: Mataas ang mobility dito sa Vietnam. In one day, ang dami namin nakikita, napupuntahan, at nagagawa.

Nakakainggit. Tell us about your work in Vietnam and maybe a brief flashback on your start in advertising.

Bebs: My name is Bebs. I’m currently a senior strategic planning manager in Hakuhodo Vietnam, but I started as an insight planner in Publicis Manila [where I stayed] for three years. Accounts talaga in-applyan ko noon kasi wala akong idea na may planner roles pala but after my interview, they told me na mas pang-planning ako so I did a revalida then ayun nakapasok. My first stint as a strategic planner was in Cheil Philippines. Then I moved to several other agencies before landing my first expat job in Leo Burnett Vietnam.

It’s been a decade since I started my advertising career and I’m very grateful na insighting ang foundation ko before I moved to strat kasi I had the opportunity to really immerse myself and deep-dive into the consumer’s life which is something na integral sa strategic planning.

Moffy: My name is Moffy. I am working here as a group account director in Ogilvy1. After graduating in Manila, I started right away in advertising. For the longest time, I was working in McCann, and I moved to the client side for a couple of years, then Vietnam. I’ve been working here for more than three years already. My impression of the workplace, the environment and what we do here has significantly changed from the time that I started. I can attribute it to how Vietnamese people can adapt very fast.

Nichi: Hello, I’m Nichi. Currently, I work at an independent agency called Happiness Saigon. I am very recently in a new role as a co-Creative Director. Prior to that, I was in VMLY&R. I’ve been here for almost three years. Before, I was in Publicis JimenezBasic—that was my last stint in the Philippines after Saatchi and FCB.

When I first got here, the process was quite loose. I really had to be more flexible in the way I did my work. For example, even if I’m in creatives, I had to extend my skill to accounts and strategy. [That’s because Vietnam has a] young advertising industry. There’s still a lot of demand for foreigners. But like Mof said, they’re adapting pretty fast and the market is growing. It’s a good time to be here.

Moffy: Advertising in Vietnam only started in the late 80s. The industry is still very new and right now, schools are yet to offer advertising in their curriculum. So most of the youngsters working in advertising are graduates of finance, economics, and marketing.

I did try to get a feel of what advertising in Vietnam is like (through the Internet, of course). I wasn’t sure if it was because I couldn’t search in the vernacular, but I couldn’t find much in the way of newsworthy ad work.

Bebs: Advertising in Vietnam is still in its infancy stage, but it’s adapting pretty fast. I think malaking factor din ang influx of foreigners here, since some of our roles are to share our experience from where we came from, somehow train the locals, offer a different perspective and way of working.

Nichi: But what they’re getting farther ahead than in the Philippines is digital advertising. Here, everywhere you go there’s WiFi, and it’s fast. I was very surprised when I came here. I survived a month without mobile data, just coffee shop WiFi. Anything here, you can order online and it’s fast. They can deliver now.

Speaking of WiFi, I lost you for a moment.

Nichi: Dahil nga WiFi is everywhere—even the small businesses have it—their e-commerce is strong and it’s very competitive.

Bebs: Aside from social media, meron tinatawag na “social outreach”. It’s very specific to retailers, may specific marketing efforts focused on those channels.

Moffy: It really bridges the gap between offline and online. Clients would always ask: “How would you connect efforts?” It’s dedicating a specific part of the campaign to social outreach to make sure that your brand is present consistently from awareness to purchase. We think of ways for FPT, which are stores like SM—

Nichi: There are many branches of it, every district would have one. It’s like a convenience store.

Digital behavior—that I found. I read somewhere that Vietnam is in the top five Asian countries that consume Youtube.

Nichi: Best in streaming everything. Hindi lang Youtube but Facebook Watch.

Moffy: It’s because the country is equipped with proper infrastructure. That’s why we’re seeing so much growth in content creation. Influencers here are multi-platform, too—Tiktok, Instagram, Zalo, Youtube. There are no bandwidth restrictions when people consume content.

It also has something to do with how the Vietnamese mindset has been shaped after the Vietnam War, when people started doing things on their own. They’re very entrepreneurial. Unlike Filipinos, who are very much into office jobs because our parents have been trained to think that you have to be a lawyer or a doctor so you can earn a living. But the Vietnamese, their parents are actually peddlers, sellers, and entrepreneurs.

Is it true that for the Vietnamese, happiness comes from the littlest things? Some observations from other foreigners frame it so that the locals seem to be quite optimistic.

Nichi: Sobrang chill environment. Tambay culture. The little chairs outside coffee shops, that’s where you can find them with their friends. They’ll be there for hours, people-watching. [I think] they strive for happiness in their own way. They would not be in the office working overtime; they would have their own businesses. You’d find stores that only sell a single product like keychains, and you’d survive like that.

Moffy: For most of the AEs2 I work with, what they really want to pursue is entrepreneurship. It’s easier for them to start a business at an early age because of safety nets that are set by the government. Most of them juggle work with their side business that would eventually become their main source of income.

How would you describe your general experience of understanding the local market? What are their key differences versus consumers in the Philippines?

Bebs: Bago ako umalis ng Pilipinas, that was my biggest worry as a planner kasi very culture-heavy ‘yung line of work ko. I prepared myself that I needed to immerse, kelangan ko magbasa nang magbasa, i-feed ang sarili ko ng maraming insights, etc. Pero sa totoo lang, yes, they’re different but also similar in some ways. At the end of the day, you just have to think in terms of “house of brands” 3. Let’s say your masterbrand is Asia or Southeast Asia. There are core and fundamental identities and attributes that are still applicable both in the Philippines and in Vietnam, even in the whole of Southeast Asia. What I do is collect syndicated studies, research reports, and indexes, then ask locals to verify my insights if hindi kaya gumawa ng custom research. So katuwang ko talaga mga locals, I always try to make sure that whatever I put in my strategy is relevant and grounded in truth.

In Vietnam, I think the biggest difference is hati siya sa dalawa—North and South (mainly Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi)—may pagkakaiba talaga sa mindsets4. Maraming interesting nuances like the way they speak, their values, lifestyle, etc. That’s why sometimes we need to look at those areas differently when we do campaigns. 

As people naman, I think they’re similar with Filipinos in some ways. Vietnamese are also warm and friendly, family-oriented, collectivists din, may sense of community (kaya malakas na channel ang mga online and offline communities dito), etc. Siguro mas chill lang sila as people, hindi hulasan, and very entrepreneurial. Malaking factor siguro yung support ng government kasi biruin mo pag nag-resign sila sa work, the government will give them 70% of their last salary monthly for up to six months until makahanap ulit sila ng new employer or until mag-decide sila to leave the corporate world.

Lastly, Vietnamese people are proud people and may K talaga maging proud. Sa lahat ng pinagdaanan ng bansa na ‘to from the war until ngayon sa pandemic, they really thrive in chaos. Actually nakiki-pride na rin kami kasi sobrang galing talaga.

Speaking of chaos, literal din siya. I mean, hindi pa kasi ganoon ka-industrialized dito, like until now ginagawa pa rin yung MRT nila. ‘Di pa ganoon kaayos ang sistema pero ‘yun ang charm ng Vietnam. ‘Yung mga hidden cafe and restaurants na nasa mga residential areas na hindi mo aakalain na may establishments pala. Sobrang unique and ganda ng vibe.

Moffy: Organized chaos [laughs].


Nichi: Someone mentioned that in Vietnam, there are no rules. On the road, there’s always someone who counterflows; they don’t use their lights. [The thinking might be] whatever you do, go for it as long as you don’t kill anyone. There are micro-accidents happening on the road, but they don’t make a big deal about it.

Moffy: You don’t even hear cars honking.

Nichi: Yeah, it’s like “let’s just move on with our lives”. They have somewhere else to be. That also applies to street food here. In front of someone’s house or commercial building, someone would just suddenly put up a shop.

Bebs: Going back sa motorbikes, kahit gitgitan o banggaan, walang road rage. Ang mga pedestrian, talagang tatawid lang. Ang mga motor, diretso lang.

I suddenly recall buying a postcard from a trip in 2019 that says: Green light means “I can go”, yellow light means “I can go”, red light means “I can still go”. True to my impression of Vietnam, whether HCMC or Hanoi.

What’s it like to be Filipinos in Vietnam?

Moffy: I think there’s a better visualization of that on the @hello_pho Instagram account [laughs].

Bebs: Background. Noong dumating ako sa Vietnam, meron nang grupo ng mga Pilipino dito. Sa ahensya, marketing—marami na sila. Pang-ilan na ba tayo, batch five? May mga nauna na noong 90s. 

Nichi: When you say OFW, the first that comes to mind are seamen, domestic helpers, or nurses, and you never really think much about anyone else. For @hello_pho, what we wanted to show is: what is it really like to be a young professional/white-collar worker outside the country? We wanted to share what we do through our daily vlogs.

Moffy: That nobody asked for.

Left to right: Nitchi, Bebs, and Moffy.

It surprised me when I first heard about it but in some overseas circles, there are discussions on whether to identify as OFW or Filipino expats. To be clear, I don’t think the two are even different things.

Moffy: With people in the Philippines, when you say “OFW,” people already have a profile or stereotype in mind. In our case, there hasn’t been a discussion about it only because being an OFW is our reality. We are overseas, Filipinos, workers.

Nichi: Because we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s not, “Okay, you live outside the country. So?”

Bebs: At the end of the day, sa OWWA pa rin ang bagsak mo. Para sa mga taga-OWWA, OFW ka [laughs].

Moffy: Sa totoo lang, if we are in the Philippines, we won’t have time to do these things (create and actually spend time and effort for @hello_pho). Kasi ang daming trabaho.

Are the working hours there not as long?

Nichi: Hindi ma-overtime ang Vietnamese.

Bebs: Sarado ang tindahan by 5 or 6PM.

That aligns with the Vietnamese’ chill disposition as we touched on earlier. How did they fare in the pandemic?

Moffy: Fortunately, we’re in Vietnam. The people adjusted so fast. January [2020] pa lang, quarantine na. During the time that everybody went home from Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), they already did the 14-day home quarantine.

You weren’t on lockdown very long nga. I saw from Bebs’ Stories that life “normalized” quickly.

Bebs: Minsan nakaka-guilty kasi parang we live in a bubble. Ang gulo-gulo everywhere else pero sa Vietnam? We’re having fun, we gather, we travel. We don’t really know what it’s like to be in a year of lockdown with lots of restrictions. Nakaka-guilty siya kasi ang mga tao sa Philippines would be like: “Bakit kayo nakaka-ganyan na?”

I don’t know if this is comforting to you, but I don’t think that’s something to feel guilty about. It’s more that we should aspire to achieve what it’s like there now.

Nichi: Dito, kunyari may suspected case, nandiyan agad ang ambulansya.

Moffy: They’ll cordon the street. Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown.

Nichi: Trace, trace, trace. Lahat ng pinuntahan mo within the week naka-bullet points. Pati oras ah. 

Moffy: The terms that we’ve been using here, we thought they are being used around the world, but apparently, it’s only in Vietnam. For example: F0, F1, F2. If you’re F0, you’re the positive case. F1 is someone who had contact with you, F2 is someone who had contact with F1. They classify suspected cases right away. The effort is so massive. Tapos.

Bebs: May SOP for each level.

Moffy: Technology plays an important role. There’s a mobile app called NCOVI by the Ministry of Health. Everyone needs to download that app. If you were on Facebook, Youtube, wherever, they send you a reminder to download the app and register.

We do have measures here. But whether they’re stringent depends on who’s implementing.

Moffy: They also had prior experience from SARS. That’s why it was easier for them to implement rules.

When COVID-19 first arrived in Vietnam, how did brands respond? Did they have a shift in messaging?

Moffy: Only in the first few months.

Nichi: Yeah. Right after the lockdown, life was back to “normal”. It was already about opening the economy up again. But some of our clients would still be cautious about gathering people. They ask: “What’s our plan B should there be an outbreak?” Once there is, no gatherings can happen.

Moffy: In one day, cancelled lahat.

Bebs: Tonight nila i-announce, bukas implemented agad. At hindi nagrereklamo ang mga tao kasi may clear action plan from the government.

Moffy: Most brands are more cautious and conservative, so they don’t really offer a POV. I’m working with a brand that’s considered essential; tinanong namin if they wanted to do something to address the pandemic. They said no. The overall sentiment is that the government is doing an effective job na.

What are the clients like there?

Nichi: They’re still traditional. When we present new ideas, there always has to be a case study from the past. Like, how would this work? We show them why they should do it a certain way, pros, cons, etc. 

In my independent agency, our push is to be the creative agency here. Even our CEO shares that objective. We’re ready to defend our ideas at all costs. We preempt [their hesitations]. We seed the idea even before the presentations. Everyone [from the agency side] has the same agenda. Clients are mostly still traditional, but then there are rare cases where you would meet one that would take more risks.

Moffy: They need to be reassured. And this applies to both global brands and local brands. Ina-assure na an idea can work. It always takes more time for us—the creatives and the accounts—to push for better creative work. Not because they haven’t done it before but, as Bebs said, the professionalization of advertising is still in the infancy stage.

Bebs: On the strat side, kailangan ko i-backup ‘yung creatives to sell the idea. May strat ako dati na pati super-specific creative guidelines for art direction and copy kasama, as in para talagang ma-rationalize yung creatives. And you also have to design your storytelling to say that “this is what the brand really needs right now”. That we need to push creativity to the edge, otherwise they won’t stand out. “Wala siyang kintab. Wala itong balik sa brand mo.” For strat, kailangan ko sila latagan ng data. Kailangan talaga ng masahe to convince them.

Nichi: The strat slides are often as long as our creative slides.

Bebs: Dito sa Vietnam, strategy is very important and highly valued.

Here in Manila, as we know, it varies from agency to agency. May ad tropes ba sa Vietnam? Do you play into stereotypes? Is the market sentimental? Is one medium more effective than others?

Moffy: Emotional communications are very seasonal, only during holidays. Celebrity culture here is very big. But the perception of celebrities is very different. In the Philippines, ang taas. You put them on a pedestal. Here, they’re more approachable.

Bebs: Meron isang music video for a shoe brand, Biti’s. ‘Yung celebrity endorser, si Soobin Hoàng Sơn, more than 80M views. Tapos meron din product placement sa isang music video ni Sơn Tùng M-TP, more than 200M views.

Moffy: Si Soobin Son, meron rin siyang Netflix show.

In conversations with creatives in other parts of the region—Singapore, Malaysia, Myamnar—they say the same thing. Even in countries with a few more known work, the day-to-day material really is more functional versus the Filipino tendency to capitalize (quite literally) on emotions.

Bebs: Dito sa Vietnam, wala pang mga award bodies like Tambuli, Kidlat.

Nichi: There is no gathering of ad people.

Moffy: Walang ASC5!

Bebs: Pero kaming mga planners dito (locals and expats) we created a community and we already did one gathering last year, magse-set ulit for this year soon.

Good thing or bad thing?

Moffy: Not having a community?


Nichi: They need it to grow. So they’d know what creative campaigns or ideas are like. But I do believe they’ll get there.

Would you consider coming home to resume your careers here?

Nichi: They need it to grow. So they’d know what creative campaigns or ideas are like. But I do believe they’ll get there.

Moffy: Right now, I’m very much keen on staying in Vietnam in the foreseeable future. Experiencing what I’ve experienced, there’s still so much that I can learn. For me, after Vietnam, maybe there’s another market where I can learn from. How has Vietnam changed my view? Pare-pareho lang tayong tao, regardless of where your background is, we’re all the same, so the simple virtues of kindness—as long as you stick to that, you won’t have a hard time anywhere.

Nichi: When I moved to Vietnam, I grew up. I was forced to really step up because there was no one else for me to really rely on. If I had stayed in Manila, I would just be in my comfort zone. Moving here, I had to push myself to even just do everything by myself sometimes. I got to know myself and what I really want to do with my career. Would I go back? No. But we’ll see.

Bebs: I feel na dito sa Vietnam mas malaki ang opportunity ko to build people kasi hindi pa ganoon kadami ‘yung mga pillars sa planning dito. In a way, gusto ko maging part ng pag-develop ng mga Vietnamese planners. Para in the future, sila yung maging bida sa award shows, big campaigns, etc.

Ang binaon ko from the Philippines—diyan ‘di ba ang tatalino ng mga tao, malalakas ang personality—I learned to think every time I step in a meeting that while I may be the smartest person in the room, I’m not always right. I still make sure that it’s collaborative; we’re here to stimulate ideas. What changed for me as a planner is that I was able to invite more ang pagiging maverick ko, shapeshifter. Nag-change ako ng culture ng market, so kelangan ko rin mag-adapt at maghanap ng resources to become a better strategist.

Kung babalik sa Pilipinas? I will go back pero hindi na sa advertising siguro. Bibili ako ng lupa sa Siargao, titira doon at magtatayo ako ng maliit na hostel with cafe. We’ll see, nothing’s set in stone naman baka may factor din ang lovelife [laughs].

Filipino talent having had a big presence in Vietnam’s ad culture for a long time, have you noticed that there are traces of your Filipino-ness being imbibed on the work that comes out locally?

Nichi: I wouldn’t say there’s even a distinct Filipino advertising style, unlike with the Thais, that we could pass on. Filipinos are very much influenced by Western culture. I think what our work here implies is that we’re adaptable.

Moffy: As an AE, I think it goes to the intangibles. Work ethic, presentation skills, diskarte.

Bebs: Sa akin, ‘yung ethics. Iba talaga ang gawang Pinoy. Talagang we always try to bring value to the table kasi para kang may pinapatunayan as expat ‘di ba? Bakit instead of a local eh ikaw yung nag-fill in sa position with probably a higher salary? So laging may ambag. Gusto mo lagi galingan, hindi gawang-paa. Kung meron man imprint sa strat, it’s the mindsets that we’re already familiar with sa Pilipinas. Remember “slashers”? “FOMO”6, etc.? We’ve been using it sa Pinas nagsisimula pa lang ako sa ahensya.

Moffy: Pero, alam mo kasi, ngayon pa lang nangyayari ‘yun dito. The slasher culture is something that’s currently happening. But really for me, it’s the ways of working, ‘yun ang ambag namin. The three Gs.

Bebs: Gilas, gigil, ganda [laughs]. •

See Vietnam from the eyes of Filipino ad expats @hello_pho on Instagram

1 Bates CHI & Partners is a part of the Ogilvy network.

2 Short for account executives, the liaison between brand teams and creatives.

3 The “house of brands” strategy allows sub-brands the freedom to navigate markets on their own terms (e.g. Procter & Gamble with its smattering of consumer goods) while a “branded house” moves and looks more unified (e.g. Apple, Google). 

4 While the reunification happened in 1975, there remain significant differences in culture between locals of the two regions.

5 The Advertising Standards Council (ASC) is an advertising watchdog in the Philippines. They regulate agreed-upon rules and limitations for publicized materials.

6 Slashers and FOMO were popular consumer profiles in the mid-2010s Philippines. These were creative nicknames for the multi-hyphenate nature of Millennials.

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