Ah Cuba.  Land of sunshine, old cars, real rum, grand old buildings, azure seas, Partagas cigars, and fishing.

I was strolling through Havana on a warm but rainy January evening, sun struggling to set over the Plaza de Armas and something struck me.  No advertising!

How refreshing.

Look at all the photos you see of Cuba.  Or just type ‘Cuba’ into Google images.  Where are all the ads?  Where are the posters for McDonald’s, AT&T, Verizon, Unilever?  Sky, Talk Talk, KFC?  Where are the ads for Pepsi, Coca Cola, Citi, Chase?  O2, Heineken, Vodafone, Asda, Unilever?  For HBO, Comcast, Apple, Samsung, Universal, and Cracker Barrel Old Country Restaurant?

At the moment commercial advertising is illegal in Cuba.  As is public relations.

As you’d expect, the vultures are circling.  The prize, as they sadly see it, is a healthy slug of revenues selling the eyeballs of the 12 Million Cubans to the likes of McDonalds, AT&T and the rest of the gang.

Google is on the prowl in Cuba.  They just offered the Cuba government free internet infrastructure for nothing.  Why? What’s in it for them?

Beware Geeks bearing gifts!

Be under no illusion.  Google isn’t interested in helping this country develop.  The users of Google (people like you and me) are not their customers.   We’re their commodity.  Google’s customers are the advertisers.  And the bigger the juicy corporate cash-rich customer the better for them. That’s how Google became the biggest company in the world this week, overtaking Apple Inc., and is now worth $520 Billion.

I find it extraordinary that a company like Google, that has made its billions on advertising, doesn’t even advertise on its home page. Think about that!

Wisely the Cuban Government has avoided the temptation to leap into a deal with Google, preferring a more considered approach on its own terms.  And Asian and European companies are already making inroads. We learned this week that Chinese giant Huawei is going to wire Old Town Havana with optic fibre broadband.

Sir Martin Sorrell’s been sniffing around too.  He wants WPP to open an ad agency in Havana.  What do you think Sir Martin’s motivation is?  Deep affection for Cuba?  Or does he want to plaster every available building, street corner, and bus stop with ads for his chums at Dell, Samsung, Nestle, GSK, and Mazda? Pretty gutsy on his part making a public announcement he is setting up in Cuba when advertising and marketing are basically an illegal activity.

Now I’m no reactionary old Saturday Telegraph reader who hates change for the sake of it.  But even I can see that part of Cuba’s charm, and Cuba’s wonderful reputation and brand is built upon its status as an unspoiled paradise, unsullied with identikit shopfronts and posters like every other city.

Iran’s facing the same challenge.  Coming in from the cold, embracing the international financial community.  But how to avoid the toxification and destruction of the existing culture and built environment?

For me, this is a no brainer.  Cubans, and especially their government, are going to need to have their wits about them.  They’ll need to choose their partners with great care.

As I wrote about the other day here, Cubans are very smart and savvy.

Investors and international businesses that might succeed in Cuba are going to be those that respect the knowledge and wisdom of established Cuban businesses, their government and its people.  And don’t want to trample over generations of culture, and landscape.

Cuba has a magnificent chance to do things their way and keep their country unique.

Cuba’s doing just fine, and the last thing they need is Sir Martin’s shiny posters or flashing bill boards.

Or the Geeks from Google bearing ‘gifts’.




Written by David Lenigas