In Vietnam: Agency life at the Happiness Mansion

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The leaders of Happiness Saigon discuss their workspace and the creative culture in Vietnam

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — Seven months after opening Happiness Saigon (an office of Happiness Group based in Brussels), Alan Cerutti, co-founder and CEO, and Paul Busschau, creative director, share their experience of founding the agency in one of Southeast Asia’s most happening cities.

The "Happiness Mansion" is a four-story house in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 7 area. With a three-meter-high white gate and a green lawn lining the property, the house looks more like the dwelling of an affluent family than an agency. Yet inside, all the engine parts of a creative agency are in full swing: on the second and third floors, Happiness Saigon’s digital, strategy and creative teams are hard at work.

"Even in Brussels, Happiness is inside a house. You can feel the vibe in the walls and it’s what makes us different," said Cerutti.

"Naturally, a big mansion has its advantages too," he added. The bottom floor is used to host internal and external events such as company meetings, events for start-ups, and initiatives such as the agency’s "Help the Jobless" campaign, which brought together copywriters and jobless people.

The 'Help the Jobless' campaign and copy writing workshop in action.

Busschau, a 10-year creative veteran in Vietnam, who was previously with Cheil Vietnam, feels that Happiness Saigon’s culture brings a breath of fresh air to agency life.

"It’s great to be working inside a home. When I need to think of ideas I can stand on my balcony and look down at the street and see dogs barking and running around," said Busschau, laughing. "It definitely beats being in a stodgy corporate tower where you can’t even open a window and you get in the door with a security card every day."

Busschau inside his Happiness Saigon office.

The homely setting is supported by the team’s "flat structure," which puts strategy and creative together. "Normally you’d have the strat' guys go off and do their strat’ stuff and then come back and they’d have little say in my creativity as well," said Busschau. "Here we are all working together."

While the Happiness Mansion has an elevator in the house, a few kitchens, a 24-hour security guard and what you might expect in a large, well-guarded home, the fourth floor of the house is for accommodation, allowing the agency to host guests.

"We call it the Happiness Hotel," Cerutti said.

The Happiness Mansion.

Cerutti, who is in his 30s, has spearheaded the agency’s early-stage success in the region. Brussels-based Happiness Group and affiliate group FCB sent Cerutti to open the office in HCMC with anchor clients, Nivea and Oreo.

"They [FCB and Happiness Group] wanted a young CEO with some experience in Vietnam who could really be adaptable, learn on the ground and be hands-on," Cerutti said.

While Cerutti believes the challenges of setting up an agency are universal, in Vietnam he has concentrated on putting his "ear to the ground" and learning the local culture.

Cerutti shares his experience of setting up the agency.                                                          

 "You have to be patient and understand how corporations here work, listen to the talent and see things from their perspective, and how consumers look at marketing and advertising," Cerutti said.

"I’m learning every day and still in exploratory mode," he added.            

Crucial to the success so far, he said, has been the agency’s ability to bring on a strong local team that Cerutti describes as "East meets West." Networking in the right way and "remaining top-of-mind" in the Vietnamese marketing and advertising community have also allowed the agency to grow organically.    

"Being a new agency here, we’ve been included in a lot of pitches and brands have been interested in award-winning work, which the Happiness network has produced recently and have been awarded for at Cannes," said Cerutti.

In the past few weeks, Cerutti said, Happiness Saigon has won pitches for major SEA clients that are yet to be announced.

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