The State of Chinese Advertising

October 16, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

What does the ad industry in the world’s most populous country look like?

No business can ignore China. Now that one in every five humans is Chinese, that much is obvious. In 1979 the Communist Party of China legalised advertising as part of their Open Door Policy. Back then China’s economy was a small fish in the global capitalist pond. Now they’ve got the second largest economy in the world, with an advertising industry to match.

Ahead of next week’s Shanghai London Advertising Forum, the city's first joint advertising event between the British and Chinese ad industries since the first SLAF in 2007, we tried to gauge the state of Chinese advertising in 2015. We turned to two of China’s most successful creatives for help.

“It travels at a speed slightly faster than light,” says Graham Fink, Chief Creative Officer for Ogilvy China. “It really is 24/7 or maybe that should be 25/8.”

Examples of these time pressures can be shocking to our western sensibilities. Graham claims it isn’t unusual for clients to call an agency at 10pm and want work for the following day. But that’s how it is in China, as Graham accepts. “When they can construct a 33-storey building here in less than a week, then why can’t a client ask for three creative routes in a day?” It’s a fair point.

“It’s still a young business here,” says Nils Andersson, President and Chief Creative Officer at TBWA\Greater China, “but it’s changing quickly. China does everything at speed.”

“It's wild, pioneering, insane, glamorous, unruly, ever changing, and never, ever, ever, dull.” After four years working in the Middle Kingdom, Graham’s now an evangelist for Chinese creativity. “In fact, because of the speed, coupled with the fact that advertising here is still relatively young (compared to the West), it’s often possible to do very 'off the wall' creative work. I personally think there are 10 times the creative opportunities here than in London. Of course it’s very tough and can sometimes be very frustrating, but there’s also a constant feeling that you are a pioneer.”

The relative youth of the market can be seen in their legislation playing catch-up to advertising tactics. Last month it became illegal to use superlatives such as ‘the biggest’ or ‘the most’ in Chinese advertising, revealing that this was perceived as a problem in the first place.The creativity of their ad industry will likely benefit from such restrictions though, as more nuanced approaches will need to be found.  One needs only look to the ads made in the West after restrictions were imposed on tobacco advertising.

When launching in China in 2010 Gap's launch campaign paired Chinese and American stars.


If Chinese advertising is fast and furious, it’s only a reflection of the culture in general. “Social media is always trending,” says Graham. “Here it’s not just a way of communicating, it ’s a way of life. Your typically normal Chinese citizen is very humble, quiet and reserved. But on social media, they take on a different personality. Things get very noisy online.”

When Graham came to China, four years ago, he says Weibo (Chinese Twitter) was massive, but WeChat, a messaging service similar to WhatsApp, has since overtaken it. “E-mail is old news,” he boldly states. “In fact most people in the agency don’t even use it.”

“Social media channels have become indispensable to the young Chinese, who have become immersed in their mobile worlds,” agrees Nils. “Also, young start-ups are emerging all over the country.”

Keeping up with the culture is a huge challenge for agencies, and the topics discussed range enormously. “From the latest news at Alibaba, to a firework explosion, to dogs wearing stockings and high heels,” says Graham.

“Trends change faster than you can type it into your mobile phone,” he says. “We have a social media trend spotter in the agency and her WeChat makes my phone glow white hot.”

While the West has been advertising for much longer, the Chinese ad industry doesn’t deserve to be patronised. Their best work is some of the best in the world.

Nils throws out a few examples: “The GAP launch work, and the Adidas #thisisme campaigns are two that stick in my mind for things with real scale and world class quality. And just recently the Penguin Audio Books Mic campaign, and the Buick road safety work are also great quality pieces.”

Graham reminds us of more celebrated Chinese work. JWT Shanghai’s Heaven and Hell poster for Samsonite won China’s first ever Grand Prix at Cannes Lions in 2011 and Chinese work has been frequently awarded on the global stage ever since. 2012 brought Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai a Grand Prix for #CokeHands and they won a bundle more gongs this year for their Visit Britain campaign (which is genuinely funny to an English-speaker).

Coca-Cola Hands, probably the most celebrated Chinese advertisement of all time.


“But some of the most influential work doesn’t necessarily win at Cannes,” says Graham. “It’s often very local and wouldn’t be understood by a Western audience, neither culturally or linguistically. The work for Yihaodian or Suning for example. Exactly.”

It’s a point that WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell drove home recently when he stressed that the world’s largest advertising holding company remained “bullish” on China

"My sense is the local companies are doing better than the multinationals,” he said in a conference call to investors, reported in AdWeek, “partly because multinationals are seeing pressure put on operations around the world," he said. "I think actually the fact that we have a strong local business helps. Our strong local business – which is about 40% of the business -- buttresses us."

Realistically, China’s advertising industry has still got a way to go before it rivals markets like the UK on a global scale. “A lot of work that clients ask for tends to be very rational and literal, says Graham. “Analogies often don’t work very well, especially in lower tier cities. And often just using a celebrity, any celebrity, can work wonders. Whether they are relative to the brand or not. And sometimes the same celebrity will do ads for competing brands.”

Nils is honest about the Chinese industry’s weaknesses too. “There is often a pure sales-driven mentality, instead of making more emotional connection between consumer and brand,” he says. But he’s optimistic. “I do think there is a change happening now, as the country moves towards a domestic demand driven economy. All brands are facing the fact that distribution is no longer king. Now you have to stand for something.”

“The level of craft skills is nowhere near as apparent as, say, in the UK,” Graham confesses. “And car commercials especially, all look exactly the same.”

Graham’s hopeful that the APA’s visit for SLAF 2015 will be useful on this front. “I think where the APA can help make significant change is by educating agencies and clients about the value of craft skills and levels of production. To show what is possible and how to achieve it.

“There is a huge desire to do world class work in China, but most people don’t know how.  This change is not going to happen overnight and will take more than a few visits by companies like the APA, but by more and more good people coming out here, sharing examples, ideas and teachings, that process can speed up enormously.”

Nils partially agrees. “As the market develops so the need for better quality rises,” he says. “However, that can't be at the expense of local insight, which a Chinese director brings.”

We’ve heard a lot of foreboding forecasts about the Chinese economy in recent months, but the recent economic dip doesn’t worry many involved in Chinese advertising. According to eMarketer, Chinese adspend will total a mere $71.05 billion this year, up 13 per cent—a slight slowdown versus last year's 15.9 per cent growth. That growth is still huge by most people’s standards and the potential for Western creative industries to work with this exciting market is considerable.

Graham often tells people, “this is the new New York. It’s where the action is. Everything is increasing: From more UK post houses setting up here to more films being shot each month.”

TeamHW, a WPP team, have in fact just done two very big jobs for Huawei phones with Smuggler and RSA in the UK. “The results have been spectacular,” he says. “Not just by the level of craft skills, but the way these films have been received. More and more agencies are setting up here, both overseas and local and so the demand is going to keep going up.”

The Shanghai London Advertising Forum will be taking place at the Sigma Film Club, Shanghai on the 20th-21st October 2015.

Entry to the event is free to Chinese agencies, production companies and advertisers – simply email to register.

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