INTERNATIONAL: INTERNATIONAL ISSUES; Hong Kong agencies form alliance to take on Westerners

Helen Deal reports on the newly formed ad club that aims to help native shops

Helen Deal reports on the newly formed ad club that aims to help native


As June 1997 moves closer, Hong Kong’s handover to China is never far

from the minds of the colony’s population. In the streets, for instance,

there have been demonstrations calling for democracy, and solemn

ceremonies counting down the days to the changeover and remembering the

students who were killed at Tiananmen Square.

But alongside anxiety about the future quality of life, there is a new

surge of pride about being Chinese, and signs too of a new resentment

against Western influence bubbling just beneath the surface.

In advertising, this has now crystalised around a recently formed

alliance of purely local advertising agencies, the Hong Kong Independent

Advertising Agencies Association.

With 13 independent agencies already on the organisation’s books and

ambitious plans to form a media-buying club next year for their dollars

50 million billings, the HiA’s stated aim is to scoop local - and

international - business in the dying days of the colony. More

importantly, it plans to do this using only local talent.

The HiA’s line is that the high level of expatriates in the advertising

industry is no longer needed. According to Jamo Lo, managing director of

the local agency, Fusion, and vice-chairman of the new alliance, the

locals simply don’t want ‘so many foreigners running the place’. Lo adds

that local input in multinational agencies in the past has too often

amounted to a translation service for expatriates.

Although dismissed as ‘smoke and mirrors’ or opportunism by Westerners,

HiA is undeterred and claims it will champion advertising in general as

well as encouraging home-grown expertise.

In particular, Lo questions the commitment of many multinational

agencies to the territory as the handover to China draws near,

especially since Singapore has now stepped smartly forward as a haven

for expatriate operations in Asia.

Naturally enough, Westerners deny any half-heartedness about the colony.

‘We’re not just in Hong Kong to keep a toe in the water for foreign

companies. We’re here to develop local brands for the future,’ Mike

Mosznynski, chief executive of M&C Saatchi, stresses.

As the colony shifts further away from existing as an import and export

centre, global networks could have added value for such expansionist

local clients, not less. But while Westerners acknowledge their personal

input increasingly lies in supportive marketing and strategic services

roles - an Asia-wide trend - a shortage of experienced local staff often

makes it difficult, in practice, to put Asian faces in the top jobs.

Despite this, Westerners may increasingly find themselves pushed to the

sidelines for other, less complicated reasons. Language, for example, is

becoming more of an issue as Hong Kong squares up to a possible future

as just one of mainland China’s advertising centres, rather than a

regional hub.

Although English is still firmly the main business language, the

increased emphasis on Mandarin - the language of Beijing and most of

the mainland - as well as the locally spoken Cantonese, can only serve

to isolate Hong Kong’s one-time colonial masters.

The executives best placed to take advantage of this will be the

bilingual or even trilingual second-generation BBCs, the British Born

Chinese, or their American counterparts.

Only one thing is certain in Hong Kong right now - no-one is sure just

what the fate of the colony will be after the takeover by China.


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