The World: Insider's View - China

In a country where all business revolves around favours and 'face', it's vital to learn where to put your feet, Lowe China's Addison James writes.

Yesterday morning, one of our two mobile phone clients (who don't seem to worry about conflicts) asked us to market a car they wanted to launch. "There's money in the automotive game," was the general rationale for getting into a completely unrelated business.

We had to say no. We have two car brands already and there's a limit to even our ambition. That afternoon, one of those car clients asked us to help change a city's taxi fleet car brand to their marque. At 4.30pm, we learned we'd won a brewery pitch - they have 17 beer brands. The creatives collectively swooned. We celebrated at a noodle bar, where the bill for 27 came to the equivalent of a Mr Chow's entree.

China's not all plain sailing, though. There are a few minor problems. Like not speaking the language. Like not understanding why an ad's reference to throwing won ton into the Yangtze is the funniest thing since... well, since I was told it was hilarious to feature a guy in a fur hat in Guangzhou. "A fur hat! In Guangzhou! Don't you get it?!" "Er, no, since you ask."

The creative work in China is probably the biggest challenge. It's not that it's better or, even, worse than in the West; it's just different.

Look at the aesthetic of Chinese films - more form over content - and you start to get an insight into why Chinese ads are visually, rather than idea, focused. But that is changing. As the consumer market has moved from being demand- to supply-driven, clients, not agencies, are pushing for idea-driven differentiation.

China's ad industry is a balancing act completely unlike anything in the West or the rest of the Far East. It's in the thick of an unprecedented social and commercial experiment, with the majority of its 1.2 billion people either lurching or diving headlong into a consumer economy. "New" China is here to stay, and it influences the nuances of aspiration that are so critical to all developing-market marketing. "Old" China is still very much part of the cultural furniture, and an understanding of this is intrinsic to the success of any advertising.

When you take into account the business of doing business here, it's more like juggling than a balancing act. Put a foot wrong and you probably won't even know you have. And, in a society where all business is built around the concepts of guanxi (a complex form of favours given and owed) and face (which you don't want to lose yourself, or take away from someone else), it's vital to learn where to put your feet.

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