This week, Clio Award jury members are in Sanya, China to begin judging this year’s crop of submissions. Although the aim is to take people out of their offices and conferences rooms to limit distractions and put all focus on the work at hand, the location this year has special significance given China’s strong push to have not just a financial impact on the globe, but a creative one as well.
As Clio president Nicole Purcell stated when the judging location was revealed last March, “It is impossible to ignore the thought-provoking, imaginative and beautiful work happening in Asia. The creative buzz in China is something we at Clio saw as a wonderful chance to celebrate. This is an opportunity to assemble leaders from the global creative community in the region to further conversations and camaraderie that will act as inspiration for future work.”
Although a global leader in social, mobile, and e-commerce thanks to home-grown giants like Tencent and Alibaba, Chinese advertising is still regarded a nascent industry, with Western ad firms venturing there just 25 years ago, after business privatization reforms. More recently, young executives trained at large multinationals have begun opening small, edgy creative shops, like W, The Nine, and Karma, infusing more Western strategies and pop culture into their campaigns.
“There’s definitely a sense of optimism,” says Paul Chan, the multi-award-winning executive creative director of Cheil Hong Kong, whose clients include Samsung, Wynn, and Sheraton. “It’s no secret that China is now one of the most exciting ad markets on earth—having grown to become the world's second-biggest ad spender after the U.S. Together, with the country’s growing middle class and relatively strong business climate, this presents a massive opportunity for ad agencies. Over the last decade, the country has started to find its creative voice too—winning awards in shows that matter.
“But it’s not trailblazing yet,” he adds. “While there are certainly great ideas being generated out of China, world-class ones are still few and far between. The general quality of work is still way below that of APAC neighbors, like Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. And for a country of China’s size, it still underperforms at major global festivals. Agencies are still figuring what content appeals to international judges and how to package their work. The Chinese ad industry is young and learning, but still has a long way to go.”
It wasn’t that long ago that brands didn’t exist in China, let alone agencies. So initial forays simply copied Western campaigns. “While the nature and pace of change has been huge, the evolution of creativity should be judged within this context,” says J. Walter Thompson Shanghai’s executive creative director Carlos Camacho. His agency’s winning the first Cannes Grand Prix for China with Samsonite’s Heaven and Hell in 2011 was a turning point. “It’s a moment the industry recognized that this country had the talent to be global creative force. That said, this year’s Cannes rankings showed China taking home only 13 awards, beaten by the likes of New Zealand, India and Australia. If the talent is here, what’s stopping China being in the top three rankings, or even first?”
Brand campaigns start with how they’ll play on mobile devices, with a spokesperson preference for domestic stars, people representing financial and social success, or influencers (called ‘KOLs’), who disseminate messages through the country’s unique social media ecosystem.
“There is an interesting lack of cynicism among people here about brands trying to make contact through social media,” says Camacho. “Agencies here have been quicker to understand the role that mobile plays in peoples’ lives, than in the U.S. or Europe. Mobile here is everything: content receiver for entertainment, connection to others through social, and WeChat, through which you can buy a coffee, order a taxi, pay your electricity bill, and almost anything else you can possibly think of.”
Yet, the advertising in this niche still begs improvement. “Ironically, most social and mobile advertising in China is still pretty awful,” adds Chan. “That's a massive opportunity right there.”
Despite China’s size, its complexity and diversity make it a collection of evolving and fragmented markets.
“You need to understand the culture, fundamental beliefs, motivations, and aspirations of the people you are targeting, and the role that brands can play in their lives,” says Camacho. “There are unique traits to consider here: Confucian values, the key role of the family unit in society, the need for order. If you can understand and leverage the fundamentals, then you can start to layer in communication techniques, which will really engage. There are also regional variations; engaging people in Shanghai or Beijing versus a tier four (smaller) city for instance will require consideration of different socio-economic realities.”
Then there’s navigating unfamiliar corporate managerial styles, government regulations over language and imagery, and priorities. “The pace at which the industry works is incredible—and not in a good way,” says Chan. “Things happen fast in China, which often compromises creativity and quality in favor of super-tight turnaround times. Clients want work fast, with low budgets. And when there is money to spend, very few clients are willing to take risks. They're looking for safe, tried-and-tested ideas.”
Ultimately, China’s opening to the world may have the most profound effect on its advertising prowess. “A huge number of people are travelling, exploring the world in a way that their parents and grandparents never did,” says Camacho. “There is the means and the interest to travel and experience different cultures, so this may change things over time.”