My Chinese New Year

He might tower over most of the population, but Graham Fink admits to being occasionally out of his depth when it comes to China's weird and wonderful ways.

Graham Fink, Ogilvy China's chief creative officer
Graham Fink, Ogilvy China's chief creative officer

Ground control to Major Wong ...

Imagine you're an astronaut floating in space. You look down at planet Earth and see one specific area where all the action is. That bit there, the huge landmass with that Great Wall running through it.

Look closer, and you can see they are, in fact, having a party. And it's growing by the second. They don't let everyone in - especially not that Zuckerberg fella - but, by golly, it doesn't half look fun.

Well, fortunately, I got an invite from China, and I've been staying over for seven months, so far.

Actually, it's maybe less of a party, and more like the world's biggest theme park, with rides for everyone.

If you decided to build a ride and only 1 per cent of the population formed a queue, that's still going to be the longest queue on earth. So, for young entrepreneurs, this is the place to be.

In terms of creativity, compared with, say, London, it is way behind. Not surprising, though, when you think about it, because advertising here is relatively new. Two "characters" in a kitchen: breakthrough. But the creative departments, and China as a whole, are quick learners. They're catching up faster than a six-legged sprinter with a 100mph tailwind.

Just look at JWT's Shanghai's gorgeous Samsonite poster, which is winning everything in its path.

I swear that even the molecules move faster here than anywhere else on earth. A country so driven in its efforts to be number one that any doubts it may have are left trailing in its wake. The future tense has already went.

Clients live up to their name as being some of the toughest in the world: you serve them up one campaign, and half an hour later they're hungering for another.

Funnily enough, being here reminds me of being at Saatchi & Saatchi in the 80s. It was the only agency that the average person in Britain had heard of then (has that even changed?), mainly because of those great Conservative Party posters. Ogilvy in China has the same cachet. If you're carrying a red Ogilvy bag as you wander the streets, it's not unheard of to be stopped and asked if your name is David.

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived was how little I knew of a place that is home to one-fifth of the world population. Sure, I'd heard of Shanghai and Beijing, a bloke called Mao, and the fact that they had a pretty good wall, but that was about it. (Apparently, it's not true about being able to see this wall thing from space. Maybe Trevor Beattie can clarify when he's up there.)

As it's so large, China is also fragmented. Ads that work in Shanghai may not work in other cities. So, trying to flog your rice cooker to all and sundry is problematic. The "Way Of The TV" is still the most popular, but it's insanely expensive. Digital is, of course, a powerful option. With more people signing up to the internet each week than the population of New Zealand, the opportunities are immense. I recently read that Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) broke the record for the most "Tweets" per second during Chinese New Year - an incredible 32,000 compared with Twitter's record of 25,000.

The interesting thing about Weibo is that it provides a soapbox for your beliefs. Yes, the other Party going on here may remove the odd Tweet, but there are too many young voices out there conversing in this free space for censorship to truly work. And a great deal can be learned about your target audience's real feelings, especially as the Chinese are fairly introverted and don't tend to put their heads up over the parapet.

People here spend nearly twice as much time online than they do in the US. And, because shopping is cheaper that way, most families' entire lifestyle relies on a computer. Your typical family from a tier-two city earns just $5,500 a year. And that's a combined salary from two hard-working parents. Yet, with that tiny amount, they manage to support their "golden" child, supplying him or her with their own laptop and study room. They pay the mortgage on their two-bedroom house and strive for better-paid jobs so that they can give their child a better computer, more books and a bigger study. An incredible amount of effort is given to bringing up their child and getting them into university because, if they don't make the cut, the future is bleak.

You may have read that fascinating book Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother. It's a real eye-opener. Schoolwork comes first, no matter what. An A-minus is a bad grade. The only activities a child can partake in are those that they can win a medal in. And that medal has to be gold. Amy Chua, the author, taught her daughter the alphabet by the time she was 18 months old. Her paediatrician scoffed at the notion, saying it was neurologically impossible, but when he tested her (with no coaching from Tiger Mum), he was made to eat his words.

Whether you think this is the perfect way to bring up your kids or not isn't really the point - I just find it an intriguing alternative point of view.

They say Asia is different to the West but, in China, it's very different again.

I have attempted to learn a bit of Chinese, although it lives up to its reputation as one of the hardest languages in the world to pick up. One expression I have learnt is "Guanxi", which means building up a good relationship with someone. The trick in China is to have good Guanxi, especially with clients.

So, after I'd been here just three days, one of the Chinese creative directors, who spoke a little bit of English, asked if he could see me. I invited him in, pushed up a chair and he proceeded to open his laptop and show me some ideas he'd done in the past few months. He complained about one particular piece not going through, at which point I started talking very passionately about my creative vision for the place, telling him I would create a lot of opportunities for him and his work. We spoke about his home life, his hobbies etc, determined to build up some top-notch Guanxi. The whole session took over an hour and he thanked me profusely. I felt pleased. I thought: I'm going to be OK here. Guanxi rules!

That night, I went out for dinner with our MD, Yuan "Rambo" Yong (don't ask), and told him about my session. He looked at me in amazement and said: "Why did you do that?"

"I'm working on my Guanxi," I explained. Rambo stared back at me and eventually said: "But he's leaving." Then he pondered: "Ah yes, that's very Chinese."

It's all about not wanting to lose face. As I had been so passionate talking about my vision, the poor guy didn't then want to tell me he had resigned a few weeks before.

Loss of face is a massive thing here, and you have to be careful how you turn work down. In London, if a team presented crap work, I might kick their ass to encourage something better. That may not work so well here, especially in a group setting.

I've had some fun listening to some of the ideas, though. Especially if it's from a team who can't speak any English. I then call in my trusty assistant, Eno, who resembles a six-foot-four version of Odd Job. He explains the idea to me, and I watch the teams' body language to try to gauge their mood. Is it funny? Are they excited? And so forth. I try to grasp the gist of the idea, often questioning the inclusion of extraneous objects such as a pink balloon, a blue baby, a cloud of rice etc. The team often defend their ideas, telling me it's to do with Chinese culture, and not something I would understand. "But it would work brilliantly in China!" they always claim.

It's then I have to make a judgment whether they have a point or are just pulling the Chinese wool over my Western eyes. It's great fun, though, and one thing I have learnt is the Chinese have a very poetic way of speaking and writing. It's no good just writing the ads in English and then translating them - they lose so much. For example, the simple phrase of saying "Hello" is "Ni Hao" (literal translation: "You good"). The word "good" is made up of two Chinese characters, the first being that of "woman" and the second that of "baby", because when people saw a woman and a baby together, they thought it was "good".

Imagine a whole language built around storytelling like that. The symbolism used in some of the advertising, once understood, is quite wonderful. Of course, it will be hard to explain this to a jury in Cannes.

A famous campaign running here is for VANCL, a low-cost clothing company. One execution features the world's most-followed blogger, Han Han. This guy dropped out of Chinese high school, yet has written 15 books, is a successful racing driver and a rebellious public speaker. The ad talks about his likes and dislikes, ending with the line: "I am a VANCL" (translation: "I am an average person").

Hardly the potency to make a Western jury's knob hard, but this campaign has reached legendary status in China, with a thousand rip-offs and spoofs.

Of course, China is known more for its copying than its creating. When we were pitching for Philips recently, I was told that any new product it brought on to the market was immediately bought by local brands, and fake versions were in the shops within three months. You must have heard of the fake Apple Stores here, where all the products look like Apple's, and the staff wear the blue T-shirts with Apple identity badges. The best bit is: they really think they're working for Apple.

But for all the fakes in China, there's some great talent. I'm currently into the artist Jiao Xingtao, who makes cool sculptures of things such as crushed-up Hermes bags or Wrigley's chewing gum packs. Then there's a very interesting Beijing-based architects company called MAD. Check out its Absolute Towers project in Toronto - it certainly lives up to the creator's name. Or, perhaps more simple and philosophical, is a calligrapher I've seen in the parks. He holds a giant brush and draws a beautiful Chinese character on the pavement in water, and after a few minutes it evaporates.

As you delve deeper into this amazing culture, the talent, ideas, art and stories are never-ending. Someone told me that Beijing has bad sandstorms in April. This is because it's only 200 miles from the Gobi desert. The sand is red and covers everything and is a real nightmare. So the Government decided to plant millions of trees around the city to help stop the sand coming in. I asked if this worked, but found out that all the trees they planted happened to be female. So when the winds came, they not only ushered in red sand but also fluffy dandelion-type seeds with it. So now they are injecting the trees with a hormone to give them a sex change. You couldn't make it up.

Some days are an overload of crazy shit that makes the Western brain go gaga. When that happens, you just have to go home for a large glass of wine. We call them "China days".

Lots of TV ads start with shots of the product, then a pink balloon floats by, all cut together with nice music and a voiceover, which, to Western ears, sounds like an angry Chinese person shouting. A lot of it tends to be on the rational, factual side - the Chinese want to be told things quickly and efficiently, and have no time for subtleties.

But what excites me are the opportunities to do something different. There seems to be a wind of change blowing, and clients are changing their attitudes and asking for more emotional work. The hardened exterior is revealing a softer centre underneath, paving the way for a creative revolution in China.

The world doesn't need another shouty ad. So creativity here now is perhaps more important than at any other time. It's going to have a humongous impact on the culture, and when that culture is a fifth of the world's population, well, you can't really dream of a bigger canvas.

Major Wong: this is your moment.

Graham Fink is the chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather China.