Donna Garcia, our General Manager at RICE Myanmar, was recently featured in Telum Talks. Having built the Myanmar office from the ground up, she shares how and why it all happened.
There was a business opportunity first and foremost, as some of our Singapore and global clients had been asking us about Myanmar. When I first visited Yangon in early 2014, I was immediately drawn to it: the people, the culture, the prospect of building an agency from scratch in a frontier market. I felt in my heart that there was something there; that I had to be there.
Of course, I had done my research: the country was a green field for PR, and local and foreign investment was increasing. Strategically located, Myanmar is the perfect base to build an agency that will eventually have a reach into greater Indochina.
At that time, RICE was five years old and it seemed like the perfect opportunity as well to start expanding overseas. It was a move that made sense. Singapore was also one of the largest investors in Myanmar so there was already a lot of synergy there. That means convincing the management team was quite straightforward. I came up with a simple business plan on the back of the trip – basically built a strong case for why RICE should be in Myanmar, and I was fortunate to get sign off straightaway. In a way, I suppose management saw my passion and cared less about what is actually going to happen or how I was going to do it than knowing that I was going to work hard to make it work.
The RICE Talent Programme is the first agency-led practical training programme for communications professionals in Myanmar. It was launched last year in response to the talent gap in the industry and as part of our commitment to capacity building. Our first batch just graduated last month: 16 very promising Myanmar practitioners in various PR, advertising, media and in-house roles.
Seeing the graduates become more confident and capable has to be our biggest achievement. They have all said they’re applying what they’ve learnt in their day-to-day work – writing better content, planning strategically, thinking creatively, etc. More importantly, they are more conscious of the power they possess as change agents. Above and beyond basic skills development, we have created an interactive platform for matters that Myanmar communications professionals need to care about – ethics, international best practices, and making a difference simply by doing well and doing good in their respective careers.
As 2017 / 2018 was the pilot implementation, we expected some teething problems and we were fairly adaptable throughout. One of the challenges (for both RICE and the students) was the schedule. It’s on every Saturday and we needed to make sure we were available and prepared for the coursework, no matter how busy the week has been. Another challenge was in terms of designing the training material. We had to ensure the content was relevant, practical and able to address different levels of experience and competence. We had to find that perfect balance between something too simple and something too complicated.
Fortunately, we received a lot of support from our team in Singapore and our partners in Myanmar. We had five senior consultants from RICE Singapore fly down to facilitate some of the key sessions, and experts who were very kind to lend their time for this, such as the Head of Communications for WWF-Myanmar (our client) who ran an advocacy comms workshop.
Everything they say about emerging markets is true: unpredictable, high-growth / high risk, volatile, and there is a huge talent gap. These are all realities that are present and ever-changing.
The key is to be on the ground and adaptable. In the beginning, from 2014 and until mid-2015, I was in and out of the country as I was still based in Singapore. It was not until I moved to Yangon that I saw the market with a sharper focus. You have to be on the ground to build the network, knowledge, and business acumen needed to succeed.
You also have to recognise what you do not know and constantly strive to learn. Don’t assume. Don’t under or over-estimate. Observe with respect. Embrace the culture and listen to the locals. Contribute where you can and don’t be afraid.
You need to find ways to work around certain barriers, such as language (I’ve started learning but can’t really speak Burmese!); and finding a segment of the business that will allow you to work around that barrier until you can overcome it. Finally, build a solid, highly-trained local team. For RICE Myanmar it’s always been our long-term plan and ambition to build an agency run by local staff.
A big misconception is that it’s easy. It’s not! Emerging markets like Myanmar are incredibly challenging but I guess, that makes it all rewarding if you succeed!
As a communications market, Myanmar has changed significantly since RICE set up four years ago. Back then, you’d have to spend a lot of time explaining what PR and advertising agencies do. Now there is greater understanding of the role of agencies and how they can support corporates, NGOs and governments. Technology has also made a huge impact on the media and communications landscape. Campaigns are becoming more creative, more sophisticated. Agencies thus need to up their game, propose ideas that will raise the standards and push as far as possible but still ever-cognizant of what works in the local context.
The comms industry is female-dominated, yet this is not reflected in leadership positions, what can PR companies and female comms professionals do to change this?
Help make the achievements of female professionals more visible. Elevate wins – big or small – by the women that we work with or for; and for women already fortunate to be in leadership positions to be quick in identifying young women who have the potential and passion, train and help open doors for them.
When it comes to diversity though, for me it isn’t or shouldn’t just be about gender. We in the communications industry should contribute to increasing diversity in leadership positions and do so beyond gender, i.e. male and female – but across the board LGBT, race, ethnicity and social class. We should encourage leadership ambition from all backgrounds and work towards equal opportunities for everyone.
Want to learn more about our Myanmar office? Drop us a note !