The World: Dark in the West but the sun still rises in the East

China and India's economic growth may have slowed a little but it's still enough to make the West jealous, Robin Hicks says.

To the average man on the street in Shanghai or Mumbai, the names Lehman Brothers or AIG mean very little. Even now.

The nightmare on Wall Street sent every stock market in Asia tumbling. The shockwaves are still being felt as signs of slowing growth spread ominously across the region. But the impact has not been big enough to derail the growth engines of Asia, China and India. At least, not yet.

The region's mature economies, Japan, Australia and Korea, will be grateful for low single-digit growth this year. But China and India continue to grow at a rate the West would give its eye-teeth for, to quote the WPP chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell. Predictions of 7 to 9 per cent growth next year have been cut to 5 to 7 per cent, but analysts doubt that these economies will slow further.

Of the two, China's growth looks the more resilient, even though it is more dependent than India on shrinking exports to the West. A post-Olympics come-down is unlikely to stop China's advertising market from leapfrogging Japan's as the world's second-largest by the end of next year. Spend could exceed $47 billion, not far off double that of the UK.

Not that a slowdown is necessarily a bad thing for China. "The Olympics created an almost infinite demand for advertising space, which drove media inflation to artificially high levels," Patrick Stahle, the Asia-Pacific chief executive of Aegis Media, observes. "Now we're likely to see more sensible growth as brand owners focus on the middle class."

Now 90 million strong, China's middle class is bigger than India's 50 million, but both are growing at a similar speed. By 2025, 700 million Chinese and 600 million Indians will be comfortably off.

"Americans are often guilty of seeing their country as the whole world. Well, the same is true of Chinese and Indian advertisers," Prashant Kumar, the regional communication planning director of Universal McCann, notes.

The most bullish estimates put the growth rate of India's ad market (20 per cent) ahead of China's (18 per cent), although from a much smaller base ($4 billion). China has the Shanghai Grand Prix and World Expo to give it a shot in the arm, but India has a general election. Even print advertising is growing in double digits in India. Retail marketing is also booming as family run stalls make way for monster shopping malls.

High growth has meant that local agencies do not come cheap for Western acquisitors, especially in China. But the slowdown is bringing prices down. "I have met with agency principals who tell me that, after 20 months in business and very little revenue, they will be conquering the world in ten years' time," Michael Maedel, JWT's international president, says.

The swagger of Chinese and Indian executives could mean that the East starts acquiring in the West before long. The Times of India's purchase of Virgin Radio was motivated as much by a desire to get one over former colonisers as anything else, Sam Balsara, the chairman of India's Madison Communications, says. But it will be another five years before local ad companies have the capital or inclination to wield their chequebooks in Soho, he adds.

For now, the big question in China is what effect a slowdown will have on a generation of marketers to whom slow growth is alien. Sars and bird flu were relatively brief interruptions, but they brought out the short-termism for which Chinese clients are notorious. Marketing budgets could shrink quickly, as could training budgets, exacerbating China's talent drought. So, too, could the length of client- agency relationships that, as it is, tend to last no more than two years.

For India, more of a worry is the high price of rice, oil and gas. The same problem is afflicting fellow Asian tigers Vietnam and Indonesia. Vietnam was the region's fastest growing ad market until the start of the year, and was dubbed "the new China" because of its exports-driven economy. But it grew too quickly.

"Now inflation is eating into company profits. Marketing budgets have fallen and many branded goods are out of reach for lower-middle income Vietnamese," Katryna Mojica, the managing director of Ogilvy Vietnam, explains.

Vietnam is still growing healthily enough, though, as international brands enter the market and local players fight back. So is Indonesia, but for different reasons.

South-East Asia's largest economy expects to see its advertising market swell by 15 per cent in 2009, which is an election year. Indonesian presidential elections tend to precipitate a media frenzy as political parties block-book up to 70 per cent of all available airtime by paying the TV stations cash in advance.

This might force brand advertisers to try non-traditional media, Joseph Tan, the chief executive of Lowe Jakarta, reckons. Outside of Japan and Korea, digital marketing still punches below its weight in Asia (in hi-tech Singapore, online takes just 2 per cent of total spend).

Some think a slowdown could reward more measurable media. Others say Asia's conservative marketers will retreat to what they know. Non-traditional activity could go backwards, as it did during the last slowdown in 2001.

But it probably won't. In October, a survey of Asian marketers by the consultancy R3 found that more than 40 per cent now invest more in unpaid activities than in paid traditional media. Which is just as well. Ninety-four per cent of Asian clients have already projected a decline in their budgets for next year. One quarter expects a drop of 20 per cent or more.

This presents huge challenges for agencies. "Until now, almost any agency in Asia could grow by 12 per cent or more simply because the market was growing at this rate," Matthew Godfrey, the regional chief executive of Publicis, says. "A slowdown will separate the great from the mediocre."