How are the protests in Thailand affecting the industry?

Four agencies in Bangkok provide insight into how the past few months of protests have affected business and communications.

Protesters during a pro-democracy rally at Thammasat University in Bangkok (Getty Images)

In Thailand, mounting civil unrest over the king's constitutional powers has led to the biggest demonstrations the country has seen for several years.

Tens of thousands of protestors have rallied almost daily in the capital, Bangkok, over the past few months, demanding reforms.

While the Covid pandemic appears to have escalated tensions towards the king, who has spent most of this year in Germany—issues at the heart of the protests precede 2020. Thailand has seen frequent protests and military coups since its transition to constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The current protests were triggered in 2019 following a ban on a political party that was critical of prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former military leader. Demonstrations paused when Thailand put in place restrictions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus earlier this year, but resumed from July when student groups began gathering. The protestors are demanding the resignation of the prime minister, a reversal in the 2017 increase in the king's constitutional powers, and the scrapping of lese majeste laws against insulting the king, among other demands. Criticising the monarchy can result in a 15-year jail sentence.

While the protests have been peaceful, mass gatherings can present logistical challenges for businesses. Then there's the more sensitive issue of how to manage communications during times of civil unrest.

Campaign Asia-Pacific asked four Bangkok-based agencies how the past few months have affected business and operations.

On the whole, all four agencies have seen little to no impact on their day-to-day operations.

Kornkamon Sriiem, the general manager of digital agency Winter Egency, which was acquired by Hakuhodo in 2019, says when protests are ongoing the agency will let staff work from home. Besides this, the business is "running normally". This sentiment was echoed by the other three agency leaders, who noted longer commutes as a result of road closures as the only logistical concern.

"On the day-to-day operations, we haven't seen any change," notes Antoine Blum, managing director of social media and digital marketing agency Garcon Consulting. "Everyone in our team is based here at the agency and can easily commute, attend photo-shooting and other production sets for our partners. 

"As of now, we do not feel there is the need to come up with a full-fledged contingency plan as we have exciting campaigns currently running and planned until the first half of 2021."

For the most part, marketing activity and adspend has been equally undisturbed. Mark McDowell, the chief executive of digital marketing agency Primal, says none of the agency's clients have paused or reduced spending as a result of the protests. 

"The situation has not impacted spending or buying behaviours related to digital marketing investments," he states. Garcon Consulting's Blum echoed that "media investments seem to be steady".

Winter Egency postponed just one launch campaign to next month, Sriiem says. He notes that the agency has been more selective on the use of KOLs, however.

"We have to select KOLs who are neutral about the issues," Sriiem says.

As we saw with the pro-democracy protests that swept through Hong Kong in 2019, brand communications have steered well clear of any form of association with the demonstrations. 

Jeremy Guessoum, the marketing director of Grey Alchemy, notes: "In terms of communication, we have not seen any major brands acknowledging the situation or adjusting messaging or tone of voice due to the political turmoil. It seems they would rather not take sides to avoid any backlash. Only some SMEs or independently owned businesses have shown support for the protests."

Alone among the sources we contacted, Garcon Consulting's Blum said his agency "took it upon ourselves" to tone down the communications of specific campaigns to be mindful of the emotional situation unfolding in the country. The agency also changed the publishing schedule of some campaigns to avoid clashing with news about the protests.

"We rerouted some campaigns to be earlier in the morning to avoid any unnecessary overlap with the main social-media focus being justifiably on the protests, usually held in the second half of the day," Blum says.

Interestingly, one positive outcome cited by two agencies is the acceleration of digital investments in areas such as ecommerce, as some shops in the capitol have closed.

"We’ve observed renewed interest in launching e-commerce projects or leveraging on existing third-part platforms like Lazada, Shopee, etc. as clients have seen their traditional retail sales drop due to the lower traffic in shopping malls," says Grey Alchemy's Guessoum. "It seems the protests have only reinforced the trend that started with Covid-19."

Guessoum adds that the agency has seen "substantial increases in ad spend" among clients who were already up and running with e-commerce or social commerce.

"Some clients have also put extra efforts in offering better delivery options," he says. "Overall, it seems both Covid and the protests have really forced some of our more traditional brick-and-mortar clients to make drastic changes in their business model."

Blum is similarly positive about digital spend in anticipation of major shopping events.

"What the future will be like is unpredictable, though we are quite confident," he says. "Big sales events such as 11.11. or Black Friday are still happening stronger than ever, while F&B and hospitality players are still pushing attractive long-weekend deals."

A version of this article first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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