The Shanghai London Advertising Forum 2015: Day 2

October 26, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The second day of SLAF2015 was packed full of even more insights from the best of Chinese and global advertising thinkers.

After a stimulating day one of advertising east-meets-west thinking, the Sigma Film Club filled with advertising professionals from China and elsewhere for a second day of seminars.

First at the podium was Tim Lefroy, Chief Executive of the Advertising Association, and he began on a positive note, presenting statistics showing that trade between China and the UK has risen sharply in recent years, both in imports and exports.

He then moved on to explain to the uninitiated what the Advertising Association does – its goal to promote the role, rights and responsibility of advertising. He ran through the history of the association spanning more than a century. He also explained the role of the Advertising Standards Authority – the body that decides whether advertising is fit for the public.

Advertising is good for the British economy. This is a point that Tim and the Advertising Association have repeatedly made. Each £1 spent on advertising returns £6 to GDP.

But while ads are good for the economy, are they good for society? This is a question the Advertising Association has been focusing on more recently, as studies have shown more people now dislike advertising than like it. Tim suggested that this is because so much of it is pervasive, intrusive and often irrelevant.

Ultimately, he concluded that audiences just don’t like “crap creative”. Great creative work is the fundamental building block of trust, he said, before demonstrating the power of good creativity in ads from Lloyds Bank and the British Heart Foundation.

Jon Biggs, Creative Director at MediaMonks, hosted the next seminar, explaining how they stay at the forefront of interactive production. MediaMonks make digital “things”, as he put it. To begin with this was websites and banners, which are still in demand, but the scope has broadened to apps for absolutely everything, wearable technology, virtual reality, brain control devices, 3D holographics and all manner of science-fiction toys to play with.

To cover all this digital ground, the company have to employ hundreds of ‘monks’ with a broad range of skills in coding, design and UX, but also physical craftspeople.

He ran through their process of making an interactive film, a mainstay of their work, reminding us of a very low-tech medium – those ‘choose your own adventure’ books kids used to read, in which a narrative can be explored through various routes.

To create these narratives MediaMonks pair a film director with an interactive director, then draw on the pool of specialists the company has access to to put together a team. The key is to simply put all of these people in the same room, said Jon, as this gives everyone some ownership of the project.

Once everyone is together they throw ideas around and if they mess it up they just try another idea.

All of this is of course powered by the latest technology, but Jon stressed that true innovation looks for simplicity, like the gaming manta “easy to learn; difficult to master.”

Finally Jon demonstrated some of the most successful work MediaMonks has done – examples with outcomes that prove interactive production’s worth: IKEA, Where Good Days Start, which provoked 54% more visits on the beds and baths webpages over two months and adidas Nitrocharge Your Game, which helped to make the product the fastest selling football boot for adidas ever.

Switching to an eastern perspective, Andy Chan was next up to share his experiences of working with UK production – a situation he’s been in many times as ECD at FCB Shanghai. He admitted that clients are somewhat stingy in China and that budgets are low, but when has a budget ever been enough anywhere in the world?

He started with a list of reasons why working with UK production is great:
- World-class quality
- Global perspective
- Top-class creativity
- Highly professional
- Dedicated craftsmanship
- Pride in the work
- Breakthrough technology
- Trendsetters
- Award-winning
He topped this list off by saying UK production is Niu Bi (the bees’ knees).

But he balanced these points with some concerns. Local understanding is important to clients, who often doubt a foreign director or production company’s ability to understand cultural nuances. 

The usual system for UK directors shooting in China is to approach them through a Chinese production company, but Andy noted that this is not ideal, as Chinese production companies lack the years of expertise more common in London.

Through agreements between associations like the APA and IPA, the UK production industry is regulated, along with many other countries, as Andy was keen to point out. But China makes its own rules. Pile on top of that visa issues, tight schedules tight budgets and endless rounds of PPMs and working on Chinese ads can be exasperating.

He observed that the client / agency / production relationship in China is vertical, with demanding clients and usually five or six production companies pitching on a script, with treatments upfront.

The answer as he sees it is for UK production to respect Chinese culture, but to push for a better client / agency relationship while working there, aligning expectations as early as possible.

He also gave some advice for what to expect as a westerner shooting in China. His advice: be prepared to be arrested for no apparent reason, don’t annoy the locals, prepare to get lost in translation, don’t eat food offered to gods, be careful what you put in your mouth (particularly not rats), prepare for props to go missing and keep an open mind.

Finally, he summed up his tips for shooting in China in two words: flexibility and reactivity.

Andy’s practical tips were followed up with some more cultural ones by Tony Liu, Creative Chairman of M&C Saatchi aeiou, who delivered an amazingly compact history of China, describing the 3,000 years of self-sufficiency and inventiveness before the last 30 years of reform under Deng, during which China grew 103 times over. This has led to a culture insecurity, he said.

Not knowing something became an embarrassment and it became a taboo to ask questions. Discouraged creativity led to the shrinking of the right brain. Tony demonstrated this with a number of syndromes.

There's the 'Would You Like A Drink?' Syndrome, an analogy where it's asked:

Assistant: Would you like something to drink?

Director: Sure what do you have?

Assistant: Let me go back and check.

There's the 'Can you Show me a Reference?' Syndrome.

Because people don't believe or understand the power of imagination, reference becomes the brainless way to communicate.

There's the 'One Dollar Coke' syndrome.

If I ask you to get a coke for a dollar and you get me a coke for a dollar, you are of no use to me.

There's the 'Fresh & The Stale Apple' syndrome.

It's here where clients have a lack of trust, a lack of security, a lack of understanding, and a lack of experience. And of course there is always someone willing to do it cheaper.

Global VFX company MPC addressed us next. Having successfully opened a Chinese office, Steve Marolho, General Manager of MPC Shanghai, spoke about how hard it has been and the challenges that still lie ahead. After his colleague Dan Phillips showcased some of MPC’s top work (The Jungle Book, IKEA, Beds and John Lewis, Monty’s Christmas), he asked “when are we going to do work like that here?”

Noting that challenges of budgets and clients are the same everywhere, Steve made it clear that in China, there are more piled on top. Here are the main complaints from his “group therapy session”:
- Bandwidth and connectivity
Quite important to a global company working with huge file sizes
- Inverse bidding / pitch process
Bidding before anything is decided leads to a lot of guesswork
- Less time for pre-production
The pace of projects takes a human toll and limits development
- A lack of local high-end freelance talent
- The phantom deadline
“Does anybody ever know when it ends?”

But despite these, he admitted there are huge opportunities in China, with its buoyant market, international creatives and directors working there, home grown productions delivering international output, growth of integrated campaigns, an increased sophistication of the consumer market and higher demand for craft.

The next session, Shooting in the UK with Specialist Service Production Companies, started with Meriel Bunney-Gillies, Creative Development at LS Productions showcasing the vast location opportunities of Scotland, including all the castles and mountains that immediately spring to mind, but also the industrial and urban landscapes that might not be so obvious. With accommodation and surprisingly good transport solutions, she concluded that Scotland may not be as inaccessible as you think.

Henrique Goldman of Mango Films followed up with a similarly impressive showcase of Brazilian locations as well as some of their work out of London. His presentation included some remarkable testimonials from huge feature film directors, demonstrating the world-class quality of production services Mango Films provide. He finished by reminding everyone of the Olympics next year in Brazil, so looking to shoot in the country is particularly attractive.

BBH have been in Shanghai for 10 years now, and Johnny Tan, their ECD, gave a quick rundown of what they’ve achieved in that time. Firstly he wanted to clarify that the BBH icon is a sheep. Not a cow or a dog. For some reason the Chinese have a problem recognising this.

He made the admittedly pompous claim that BBH have been “pioneering new genres” throughout those years and quickly toned it down to “trying to do new shit,” which he equated to his daughter’s insistence on trying to make a laundry basket work as the next big mode of transport.

He ran through a list of case studies, starting with their online web series work for Johnnie Walker, on which the client said “Oh c’mon. How many people will bother to watch branded films online?” Johnny was glad to prove him wrong and web series have since developed into a mainstay of advertising in China.

He also demonstrated that branded music videos work in China, like Baileys / Shang Wen Jie and Harbin Beer / MC Hot Dog and Zhang Zheng Yue.

Johnny spoke about bringing new tones to boring categories and experimenting with new techniques such as recruiting rocket scientists to develop augmented reality experiences. He was also very proud to have resurrected Bruce Lee.

His advice to UK Production Companies wanting to partner up:
-  Positivity
-  Commit to pioneering together
-  Be flexible, be curious
-  Embrace the unique challenges
-  Create new properties together
-  Collaborate
-  Explore your talent in collaboration with ours

Chairman and CEO of Lowe China Kitty Lun had the enviable position of having been asked to brag about her agency’s success. As China’s most awarded advertising agency, it was her job to explain how they achieved this accomplishment. She spoke about their Human Traffic Signs campaign for Buick, which won them the majority of these awards. The arresting idea saw victims of road traffic accidents holding up road signs that drivers may otherwise ignore. 

This campaign catapulted Lowe China into the award shows, making them the first Chinese agency in the Gunn Report’s top ten agencies.

In answer to how they have risen to such prominence Kitty quoted David Abbott, who when asked what his secret to running a successful creative agency was, answered “Simple. I just hired the best people.”

She also focused on the “freedom of a tight brief”, noting that clients with clear aims lead to better creative solutions.

Building on the theme of cultural education for the day, Jimmy Lam, Vice Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of DDB China Group, offered a rundown of the most influential commercial films in Greater China’s history, with a moral to each story.


China loves red and gold, he asserted, and clients always want epic spectacles, no matter how low the budget. Marlboro’s huge Chinese New Year ad set the precedent for epicness (with plenty of red and gold) many years ago. 

Another thing Chinese clients love is the nostalgic romance. Great storytelling, basically, but a tad more cheesy than western audiences are used to. His example of this was Sovil et Titus’ massive campaign, The Flying Tigers

The Dawn of the Viral in Greater China was Nokia’s Bruce Lee Ping Pong video, and TC Bank’s Dream Rangers film showed that viral videos have no borders, as it became popular outside of Taiwan. 

Jimmy demonstrated the power of youthful love with a series for Extra called Flavours of Life. Apparently every 18- or 19-year-old in China loves this episodic campaign about a romantic motorbike road trip, featuring some strong female characters.

He concluded by saying foreigners who want to work in the Chinese advertising market should “know what touches the hearts of China.” If these ads are anything to go by, Chinese advertising is as concerned with emotional storytelling as the British ads.

Summing up the whole forum in a panel session were Jacqueline Zhang, Owner of Gwantsi, Tim Stephens, Interactive Media / Academic Consultant, Norman Tan, North Asia CCO for J. Walter Thompson Shanghai and Jonathan Lim, Creative Director at Grey Group Shanghai.

They began by discussing the Chinese preference for a local director due to convenience and understanding, followed by Asian directors and then directors from around the world.

In order to gain the trust of a Chinese agency or client, Norman suggested production companies should invest in shooting films with their directors in China. The first thing a director shoots is their Chinese reputation, so it is worth making a big effort to get this right.

Jonathan recognised that foreign talent is the first choice creatively, but noted that there are obstacles in making it work, number one for him being the speed of work in China.

Jacqueline, whose company Guantsi partners regularly with foreign production companies to work in China, was clear that the Chinese market is more ready than ever for Western production. Clients have seen foreign work from places like the UK online, so they now know what the best work looks like. But she noted that earning clients’ trust is vital. They want to work with UK talent now, and despite anxieties about payments and cultural misunderstandings, the Chinese market can only benefit from working with British production.

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