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MARKETING: Advertising in China
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Interview with Carol Potter, CEO of Greater China BBDO

altCarol Potter, the CEO of Greater China BBDO, was interviewed by Business Tianjin about the advertising market in China. 
 
Please tell our readers about BBDO China?
BBDO is one of the biggest Global Advertising networks in the world, and has been consistently recognised and awarded at a global level.. BBDO has won the Cannes Lion 5 years in a row, and that is what BBDO in China has to live up to. 
 
In Asia, we are very strong and have continued to grow in strength  over the last 5 years. We currently have a good network throughout the Asian continent and we work closely together on shared clients. In greater China we have eight offices across five cities, which are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Taipei and Hong Kong. Within the group we have four different companies. BBDO is the biggest and the one that goes back many years. n fact BBDO has been in China for 20 years. Proximity is a global company focusing on Digital and CRM.  Proximity Live is a China specific company which focuses on luxury products and brands. And finally Energy BBDO was created last year as a second agency here in China, because our growth and the nature of our clients required us to have two companies. We employ almost 500 people  in China. We have really superb creative talent, and a great team . We mainly recruit in Asia, and 60-70% of our staff arefrom mainland China. We only have a handful of employees from the US and Europe working here. 
 
Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself.
I am British and I came to China in 2006 with my husband and my son, who was then 8 years old. When I came in 2006, BBDO had one office in Shanghai, but  since then  BBDO has grown 4-5 times. It has been an amazing growth – like nowhere else in the world. 
 
altBefore my job at BBDO, I had previously spent time in China and I lived in Tokyo for 2½ years. I have also worked in Australia. However, most importantly, I had done a lot of business in Asia and in China during my timein London as a Global Business Director for Unilever and DeBeers. Back then I worked for another advertising agency and this experience enabled me to have a very good understanding of China before I had arrived.
 
One of the things that I am most proud of is that we have had a very stable management teamduring my time here . There are four people in the management team of BBDO Greater China and three of us have been together since I came, and the fourth one joined the team 3 years ago. This is very unusual in our industryandI really think that it has been one of our more critical factors in our success. 
 
Which international brands are you currently working for?
Approximately 80% of our clients are international brands including Wrigley’s, Pepsi, Gillette, Mercedes Benz, BMW, FedEx, Johnson & Jonhson’s Baby brand, Hyatt and Tiffany. So we have a varied spectrum of consumer brands, business to business brands, service industry and luxury products. They are all big international companies with a lot of marketing sophistication and they demand world class service, thinking and creativity and they are all moving at a very fast pace. This is a great challenge for  us as the advertising industry in China is not yet as sophisticated as in the US and Europe, even though the industry here is developing very fast. 
 
Most of our international clients have a very intelligent approach to China, which means that they have global frameworks for their brands.  However, they do listen hard to Chinese consumers and therefore we do a lot of work here that is specifically for Chinese consumers, but within the overall framework ofthe global brand. 
 
When you are talking about listening to the Chinese consumers, how diversified within China does a companyneed to be ?
Good question, because this is a hot topic in the region at the moment. Very high focus is on tier 3 and tier 2 cities in China, and the question is how diversified are these compared to the rest of China. Interestingly enough there are more commonalities than differences. When you talk about fundamental needs and motivations they are pretty much shared, and frankly I have witnessed that globally for many years. For example mothers of teenage kids have some of the same concerns no matter where they are in the world. Having said that there are obviously some differences that you have to take into account, such as differences in the way people are consuming the message and the methods by which they consume it. TV is still very important in China especially outside of tier 1 cities.
 
No matter who you are talking to in China, I firmly do not believe in “dumming down” the message. I have seen several companies do that, because some of the Chinese people are not as sophisticated in how they consume the message – compared to people living in tier 1 cities. Some companies are treating them like children. I do not agree with that and I think that the message should be as emotional and sophisticated as anywhere else as long as you pay attention to the context in which it is consumed.
 
How do you gather consumer insights in China?

When I first arrived 6 years ago I was a foreigner and I needed to understand the Chinese consumers quickly.  However, unfortunately I did not have the time to go out and study them on my own. I found that there was a lot of information that was lacking, and  so we invested in doing some of our own research. At the time it was a big investment for BBDO, but it was necessary for us to do it. We did – and still do – our own online panels and we look into topics that our clients typically do not cover themselves. We can talk to people about their hopes, dreams, fears, anticipations, feelings, attitudes and so forth. For example, we have a very rich edition on women and more recently we conducted  some research on relationships and sex.  
 
How would you describe the Chinese advertising  market in 2012?
It is still growing and is very vibrant. I know people are talking about a slowdown, but BBDO is not experiencing that at all. All of our clients are investing heavily in China. 
 
I think it is a really exciting time for advertising  in China since this is a very online, digital and mobile market and there is a lot of innovation here  . Even more exciting,  for me, is the fact that I see some real changes in the content of the messaging and I think it is becoming much better. When I arrived there was a tendency for advertising to be too simplistic in China, but today we see much more creativity in the messaging. 
 
The combination of great innovation in how the message is consumed and the development in the messaging itself makes it the leading market in the world.   . That is why it is so interesting to be a part of.
 
How would you describe the current media trends in China?

The media trends all over the world are going in the same direction, but I think it is more accelerated and pronounced here in China as the emphasis on social media is huge. Chinese consumers are more demanding on companies behind the brand which is very understandable given the history of the country. The Chinese consumer pays high attention to whether or not the company is actually behaving according to its brand values or not.

How do you anticipate the advertising  and media market in China will change in the coming years?

I believe the Chinese market will continue to grow. I  anticipate that one of the greater shifts within the next five years will be that Chinese companies will start to put more effort into building their own brands and become much more sophisticated in building Chinese brands. I think Chinese companies will acknowledge that brand building is about much more than awareness, and that it is also about building a strong emotional brand.
 
How is it different building marketing plans in China compared to US and Europe?
The fundamental discipline iof course is the same, but the biggest difference in China is the amount of change and speed of change. A business plan can become redundant within 6 months. This is very demanding and you have to be very agile to navigate around  this. On the other hand, it is a good thing because it is actually possible to affect and alter perceptions within a 12 month period, if we set out to do that and focus on it. 
 
Are brands important to Chinese consumers – and how so?
It is incredibly important and far more so than in more developed markets. If you look at people in their twenties, they have seen change that is beyond our comprehension, and they do not have the same inherited relationship to brands as in the US and in Europe. So everything is experimentation and within that people need guidance in order to navigate. This guidanceis something brands can provide. It is not just about what detergent brand I use, it is about how I chose to live my life. So I think brands are more critical in China.
 
Generally speaking, how do you think foreign companies are doing in China – when looking at their advertisement?
It is mixed. The companies that listen generally do well, whilst thecompanies that tend to not listen, and feel they themselves have the answers, tend to be less successful. Unfortunately, you still see companies coming into China without listening to the Chinese consumers meaning they are unlikely tosucceed.
 
altWhat are some of the common mistakes made by foreign companies when operating in China?
Two things: Firstly Not tapping into the Chinese consumers. Secondly to oversimplify the messaging to the Chinese consumers. 
 
Some companies look at China and think it will be easy to get a sliceof the growth, but it is not.  You need to invest, be patient and do your homework in order to succeed here. 
 
Which foreign brands do you consider the strongest in China and why?
There are many, and many of them are our own clients. Wrigley’s Extra has done great work here, since they really listen and tap into the Chinese consumers. Their recent very successful campaign was a love story portrayedas a journey, and included all the different foods and flavours in China. It struck a cord with the Chinese consumers and they rewarded it. Pepsi is another example, and their activities around the Olympics are a prime example. Pepsi were outspent by Coca Cola big time and they handled this by taking on a very different attitude. They went out with young people and said “how are we going to enjoy this together – and what are we going to do together” and their whole approachwas much more understanding. Pepsi understood how the Chinese youth felt about the Olympics and so Pepsi managed to outperform Coca Cola, despite operating on a much smaller budget.
 
Which recommendations would you give companies planning to enter China?
Aside from the things I already mentioned, I see many companies coming in and being in a rush. But it takes time to establish a brand in China, so you need to be patient. 
 
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced  in the past 6 years at BBDO?
 
Finding the talent! This is a very demanding market for talent. Planning and digital competences are extremely hard to find. Even though this is a big challenge, it is a good thing for our culture, because we really want to retain our talent and so we are highly focused on being a good work place. The work environment is very important for us.  So yes, it has been challenging but to be honest there is no more exciting place to be in the world right now if you are in myindustry. It is where the growth is, it is where the clients are growing, and it is where all the innovation in communication is going to come from within the next 5 years.

 

 By Heidi Skovhus
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