With over two decades experience in the creative industry in Sri Lanka, the newly appointed chief creative officer at MullenLowe Sri Lanka, Dilshara Jayamanna is more qualified than most to speak candidly about his home nation. The creative started his career working in documentary television for not-for-profit company Young Asia Television. This first role gave Dilshara “a very different perspective into how things work”.
He has continued this opinion of what it is to be different and when discussing what is fascinating about Sri Lanka, he is quick to point out that the country is nothing like its neighbour. “A mistake that a lot of people make about Sri Lanka is that they just naturally assume because of the proximity to India, that it's probably a lot like India. Sri Lanka is it's an incredibly different place”
Point in hand, he explains the geography of the nation: “The terrain, the weather, the people, the environment changes completely if you travel in any direction for about three to four hours. If you go from the west inwards towards the east for about three to four hours suddenly everything becomes very hilly and it drops from about 32 degrees in the in the west to about 15 degrees or 17 degrees to an area called Little England.” And it's not just residents who are awe-struck by the beauty of the place, “Spielberg was here shooting one of the Indiana Jones movies that good a long time ago, and as legend goes he compared the country to a studio set.”
One of the reasons for this landscape of beauty,is a rather brutal one. The Sri Lankan Civil War
between the Tamil Tiger Rebels and the Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated government lasted for almost three decades between 1983 and 2009. The war meant that part of the country was closed up and the result is miles of unspoiled land. Dilshara believes that due to the war the country is one of “lost potential and lost opportunity”.
“If you look at advertising, movies, music, the creative industries and the work that was happening in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, you would have a lot of work, which was matching standards to what the rest of the world was producing. But what happened was we basically lost out 30 years to the rest of the world. The rest of the world continued, but Sri Lanka was just stuck. There's so much catching up yet that we have to do.”
Dilshara explains that his parents’ generation were used to being part of a strong cinema culture which thrived off late night movies and dedicated night buses to ferry masses of viewers home – but all of that has changed. “My mum and dad talk about these night buses that would bring them home from the cinemas. All of that is lost.”
However he quips that the industry is “trying hard” to make a comeback although it is “not doing that great”. “I think where we were really sort of making some ground is on musicians. We've got an interesting underground hip hop scene in the local language Sinhala, which is taking on the establishment, in particular The Drill Team. Like pop movements, these guys are very vocal about their beliefs and they're not they're not afraid to say what they feel.”
But for someone who works in the advertising industry Dilshara believes Sri Lanka’s “could be a lot more creative”. “What's happened is that there's a lot of safe work happening in many parts of the world and Sri Lanka is not very different.”
Dilshara explains that in the region what he considers “safe work” is ultimately work that is predictable. But there is good reason for this on some level. The depreciating value of the rupee has meant that those in the country buying equipment pay the same prices as wealthier agencies in the West making renting it out to production companies not as viable due to the lack of adequate compensation. The result of this is, according to Dilshara, a recovery that takes so much longer and causes a snowball effect. “When all of this happens when people are not able to be compensated as well as they should, creative industries suffer.
“We work with very small budgets and that means when you write a script or do a piece of work we know that the job will get done as sort of a more predictable piece of creative. So, you know that you will achieve X amount of growth but you know that to get exponential growth or exponential result out of it, it has to be something out of the ordinary, something extraordinary something left field, which doesn't happen enough because the thinking is that we've got only so much money and let's put that much money into something that we know will guarantee acceptable results.”
There are many nations in the world that have distinct advertising tones, from the humour of Thailand, the jingles of Malaysia to the comedy of the United States. Despite branding the Sri Lankans as “nice people”, Dilshara doesn’t believe the market over there has found its niche yet. “I wouldn't say that it's very unique, I'd say that it has a lot of growing up to do. I don't know that Sri Lanka has found its voice just yet. You’ll see a lot of work around music. We like a little bit of a song and dance as much as you our neighbours in India do.
“But in Sri Lanka because I suppose maybe because we're small and we are just a little bit of an anomaly when it comes to socio economic indicators, there really isn't a piece of work that happens in India that very successfully works in Sri Lanka. We're not that unique. We are still finding our voice.”
Does Dilshara hope his newly appointed role as CCO will help the country find its voice? “Absolutely. I think if the agencies really get together and speak to the clients and be unafraid to present creative that's different, be unafraid to show them that different creative that has a distinctive voice actually works.”
With new formats of storytelling cropping up all the time, Dilshara believes that the MullenLowe Sri Lanka team needs to be at the top of their game and be prepared to deliver in whichever format is popular, “but, a compelling story remains a compelling story.” His hope is to combine different forms of creativity, platforms and technology to push the Sri Lankan advertising industry outside of its comfort zone and into something that can be admired across the world.