For those who live outside the Chinese Mainland and even those who live within it, China can be a mystery. The same might be said of the country’s advertising industry. In an attempt to increase our understanding of what goes on behind the Great Wall we are doing a series of interviews with the “Mad Men and “Mad Women” who make their trade in the Chinese ad industry.
The first interviewee is Clancy Dalebout. He currently works as a Marketing Manager at Ikon Group (Beijing) and for the last 10 or so years he has been working in the creative departments (most recently as a Creative Director) at a number of Chinese ad agencies.
Q1. So Clancy, what brought you into the mad world of advertising?
I did it the wrong way. Most intelligent people learn advertising, go overseas, earn tons of money, and then maybe pick up some language and culture while they’re there. I learned the language first, came here and then worked my way into advertising. Definitely not the way to go, unless what you’re looking for is a lot of odd stories.
Q2. What made you want to move to the Middle Kingdom?
I started studying both Japanese and Chinese when I was in high school back in the early 90s mainly because I was fascinated by the writing. Learning the language was an excuse to write and going to East Asia was an excuse to continue learning the language. Life can get pretty boring in Utah, and this was my escape.
Q3. For how long and where have you worked in the Chinese Ad industry?
About ten years in some capacity or another. I was hired to do networking for a Japanese telephone company and ended up in charge of their website and all their print ads. After that I moved to China and was a line monkey for a while in a few corporate design sausage factories. Then I started working for Beijing design houses and doing freelance work on the side, and now I’m marketing manager at a financial services company.
Q4. How do you think the Chinese Ad industry compares to its equivalents in other countries?
Oh wow, that’s a broad question.
“Chinese” in this case can mean a couple of things. There are the western (and westernized) agencies like Ogilvy who do things more or less exactly like they do them in the US and in Western Europe. In those companies usually everyone down to the creative director level is non-Chinese. They turn out very similar kinds of work to what you see in other countries, and they service the same international clients whose upper ranks are likewise full of executives and managers who are themselves foreigners and internationally-minded Chinese.
Incidentally, if you ever see creative work that’s really over-the-top “Chinesey“, featuring such things as acrobats and Chinese dragons for instance, these are probably the people who did it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met either with a client or just with a friend whose idea for making his product appeal to the Chinese market was to make it look as Chinese as they possibly can, regardless of what the product is. In my opinion this is an excellent way to sell Chinese things to Americans, not a good way to sell foreign products to the Chinese.
Then there are the Chinese-Chinese companies who service only local industries. They do things very differently and have a very different style that I think most non-Chinese would consider gaudy. I certainly do. China Unicom ads I think are a very good example of what this style is–lots of red, lots of gold, lots of symbols that indicating wealth, prosperity, etc. What any of that has to do with telephone service I have no idea. Probably nothing.
Q5. What level of influence does the Chinese Government have on advertising agencies and their work?
I think that’s a pretty common misconception. Actually almost none at all. The lack of creativity is systemic, not the fault of Party bureaucrats breathing down people’s necks.
Though I am very curious why almost all of the sculptures in the 798 art zone have their heads tilted back and their mouths wide open like baby birds. It’s run by the Party, so maybe someone high up decided that is the best way to depict the desperation of the downtrodden capitalist-oppressed masses?
Seriously though, the will of the Government has never been a topic of conversation. I remember once a meeting where we discussed whether using elements of the Chinese flag in a logo was appropriate or in good taste, but no one was concerned that we might get in trouble with the authorities over it.
On the other hand the Government influences what the newspapers print, and the newspapers will reject ads if they think there’s something in them that is appropriate. Just a few weeks ago a couple department heads from UC Berkeley visited Beijing and the company I’m currently working at did some ads promoting it. The Beijing Evening Post (北京晚报) rejected our first version because it described Berkeley as a 顶级 (top-tier) American university. Apparently the Party has become concerned recently about the income gap and believes one way to make everyone feel better about it is to prevent people from saying in ads that some things are better than other things. So for a while at least words like 顶级 are always rejected, regardless of context.
Q6. Do you feel you have the freedom to be as creative as your fellow designers working in other places around the world?
Definitely not. I don’t think that has anything to do with political freedom though, it’s just a product of how Chinese businesses are run.
For example, there isn’t much appreciation in China that there is method or strategy to good design or good advertising–that there are reasons why certain ads are more successful than other ads, or that there is a great deal of industry research behind why the industry is the way it is. This is something that is second-nature to Americans and the British who are saturating in advertising since birth.
In China though it’s often very difficult to convince people that this is the case. It’s usually assumed that design questions come down to personal taste, and that one person’s opinion is just as valid as another. What ends up happening very often then is that the big boss (who is usually very good at business but doesn’t have a creative bone in his body) ends up making all the design decisions.
For example I had one client who wanted me to develop a website and an identity for an educational television studio he was investing in. He had heard about one website that was a simple animation of a woman punching her husband repeatedly in the crotch and got something like 10 million hits in a single day. He wanted something just like that. Since then I’ve taken to prefacing every meeting with a short speech about the difference between “things I think are cool” and “strategies that are effective and will make us piles of money if we do them right”. The money part usually gets their attention.
Q7. Do you feel the Chinese Government stifles or promotes creativity?
They certainly spend a lot of money to “promote culture” but I don’t think I’ve seen any results. I forget the name of the program, it’s the one that was started just ahead of the Olympics.
I have seen the binders full of rules governing participation in this program though, it’s a whole lot of paper. Also I know of at least one company that is scamming the program.
Q8. How big is the issue of plagiarism in the Chinese ad industry? Why is it so prevalent?
1. Very big.
It’s not a cultural thing, I believe. Taiwan and Hong Kong are just as Chinese as the Mainland (some would argue more Chinese) and both have flourishing creative industries that produce tons of fantastic original work.
I think in the Mainland communism has engendered in the people a habit of thinking very short-term–that the way to be successful is to get results now, and then worry about the future later. After all, what is the point of investing your life building a business if it isn’t actually yours, and the state or whoever can move in and take it away at any time? Of course the Chinese government doesn’t do this very much anymore, but the habit is still there. There are exceptions (Haier and Aigo come to mind–and the many internet portal sites) but for the most part I find there is very little appreciation for the need to build a company or a brand slowly from the ground up and gradually earn the customers’ trust and recognition.
Another problem is copyright protection. There is no advantage whatsoever in expending a lot of time and money creating something original, since it would be nearly impossible to protect. On the other hand there is no risk at all in stealing ideas from other countries, since there’s nothing they can possibly do about it either. If you’re a Chinese businessman your choice is to spend a lot of money on something that may not work, or copy something that has already been proven effective. For most of them this is a very easy choice.
In the Chinese design houses I have worked for designers were instructed to copy, and punished if they did not. “We’re in business to make money”, one of my managers told me, “not to satisfy our personal creative urges”.
Q9. How would you describe Chinese consumers? How should Western agencies and their clients approach this important audience?
Not to wax overly philosophical, but what we call the “international style” really isn’t all that international. I think it’s a very Western European aesthetic with deep roots in our culture. The neutrality and international aspects of our style in particular are reactions to the excessive nationalism of the early 20th century.
The Chinese are on a completely different trajectory from that. Most of them aren’t more than a generation away from the factory or the farm, and they played almost no part in the events that shaped our style. Where we find expressions of nationalism and affluence to be embarrassing, anti-social or downright offensive, they most definitely do not. To get rich is glorious, and definitely not anything to be shy about.
In fact the Western ads I find that appeal most to a Chinese audience are our liquor ads, especially things like Hennessy and Rémy Martin. That is to say, images of very rich people being very rich and consuming conspicuously. They definitely don’t go in much for the understatement, simplicity or the wry self-deprecating humor that we like so much.
Latest Hennessy commercial on Youku
Q10. Finally, something a little lighter to finish, what is your favourite Chinese creative work of late?
That’s a tough question. While very nice, I don’t think most of the high-end advertising work done by the big agencies in China is really all that Chinese. I am cautiously optimistic about some things I see happening in the Qianhai hutongs, however. I’m not aware of anything really major I can point you to at the moment (there may be soon!) but there is definitely an emerging culture there that is definitely local and which appears to exist outside Party supervision.
Probably my favorite thing at the moment is Plastered8, which is a Beijing-based tshirt shop along the lines of Threadless. All the creative work is by Chinese for Chinese, and the quality is consistently high.
Plastered8 on Youku
Thank you Clancy and Xiè xiè
…stay tuned for the next interview in the coming weeks.