Close-Up: Learning the ways of China while flying the British flag

The IPA sent a delegation from UK agencies to the Shanghai Expo to advise the Chinese on building global brands. Chris Macdonald reports.

Normally when you travel somewhere new, you canvas opinion about the best places to go and eat, how much money you need, and find out if you have a local agency to visit and who runs it.

If you ask people about your pending visit to Shanghai, you get a fair few intakes of breath and a lot of "advice" about survival - watch out for the food, the smog, the noise, the jet lag ...

All of the advice is broadly valid but ignores one essential truth: Shanghai has an energy and scale that is breathtaking ... literally and metaphorically.

This is the biggest city in the world, with more than 20 million people (up to 24 million, depending on who you ask) working at incredible speed to build a new vision for China.

We have all heard the stats and cliches about the emerging superpower, modernising and embracing capitalism. We have spent the past five to ten years being told that the BRIC countries are where all the investment needs to go to deliver new growth for our companies and saw it for ourselves in the incredible display of power and beauty that was the Beijing Olympics.


But how much do we really know about China's brands and the opportunities for UK creative industries? Name five international Chinese brands. Three? One?

This was the challenge the IPA sent out to lure agencies into signing up for its "Advertising Works UK China 2010" trade mission - because the simple answer is that there are no real Chinese global brands as we would define them. Hence the belief that there is a massive opportunity for British creative companies to help the Chinese develop and export their best brands globally.

The initial challenge is to know who to talk to and how to reach them. So many Chinese companies are built to manufacture and import/export; they are less interested in brand development and understanding our markets, as they have always had Western companies that do that for them.

Also, many of the companies have been born out of the Chinese communist system of local/regional/national control and approvals - not the easiest backdrop for the leap into the unknown.


The IPA had secured support from the British Government, in the form of UK Trade and Investment and China-Britain Business Council. This gave our intrepid group - Jeremy Brown from Sense Worldwide; Sean Kinmont and Carol Stickler from 23red; Nicky Unsworth from BJL; Russ Lidstone and Fernanda Romano from Euro RSCG; Moray MacLennan from M&C Saatchi; Nick Blunden from Profero; our esteemed IPA president, Rory Sutherland; all led by Janet Hull and Pamela Perl from the IPA - a real aid in approaching our trip and access to Chinese companies, government officials and media channels.

The mission was planned to coincide with the Shanghai Expo; an event that will attract an estimated 70 million people. The theme is "Better City, Better Life"; so apt for a city full of construction and a belief in a new commercial world.

Our visit to the Expo on our first day highlighted the scale of the event itself: a 20-minute walk to get to any of the pavilions, spread over a massive space in the centre of Shanghai, jostling with the hordes of enthusiastic locals, clearly bursting with pride and wonder at the event taking place in their city.


The British Pavilion is an incredible testament to British creativity and helped us validate our theme for the week that British creative companies are the best in the world. We spent our second day with 150 invited Chinese delegates at our conference, presenting through the day on how we develop communications and our history in advertising creativity (Hamlet "photo booth" made the audience laugh; "hello boys" received a muted response; Cadbury's "gorilla" certainly challenged the group!). The mix of clients, media and agency staff provided so much texture for us in understanding the innate conservatism in the market contrasted with the energy of a communications industry that has only been in existence for 15 to 20 years.

So much of our trip reflected this tension between an incredible richness of history and culture aligned with an economy and workforce moving inextricably towards a new capitalist world - not like ours in the West, but also not like anything they have ever known.

It is clear the emerging market forces are working hard to construct a new way of marrying traditional approaches to Confucianism and inter-connectivity with market forces and an influx of international companies and personnel.

This was most clearly shown on our trip to Nanjing, the third-biggest city in China with a population of seven million and two hours by bullet train from Shanghai. Lidstone's height and blondness did lead to much laughter and staring from the other passengers; not a seat free on the £9 per head trip.

Nanjing was chosen for our visit because its mayor is determined to position the city as the leading creative centre in the country. This may well be his intent, but our tour comprised a beautiful "Creative Industry Park" with no businesses based there, followed by a visit to a new ad agency headquarters that was still being built. The agency was called Easy Ads - we did wonder if this was ironic or whether they had the secret we have all been looking for.

Many of the companies there knew that they would eventually look internationally, but worry about regulation. Panda Electronics, which manufactures TVs for Sanyo, reckon that licences for the European Union will cost them $10 million, so will instead go to South America first or prefer to use existing supply chains.


This became even more apparent when we hosted a UKTI Creative Workshop the next day and each had a table of Chinese clients. We were warned that the Chinese would not find a workshop easy, but we had younger clients who did it with relish and humour. They were briefed to choose three adjectives and six visuals to describe China and then select which ten companies (from a list of 100) they felt would make the best global brands.

The fascinating learning was that we started by believing the Chinese were desperate to launch globally; they aren't. They gave us four key reasons: 1) The local market is so vast and untapped; why bother going outside? 2) What is the process and steps that need to be taken to expand globally? 3) Help us make the value of brands tangible; worry that it could be an expensive and unnecessary pursuit. 4) Prove you are serious in understanding and investing in China; you learn Mandarin as we learn English.

I asked our group to summarise their feelings. Everyone agreed that they had learnt so much, but there was so much more to learn. China has a spirit and energy that is intoxicating. It is a country full of opportunity if you are willing to be humble, listen and accept that it will take a massive time commitment to develop your business there - but it will be worth it.

MacLennan summed it up best: "If you are not out there talking to people, you are never going to win any business ... and there are a lot of people in China."

- Chris Macdonald is the chief executive of McCann London.