At last year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, China bagged a record 13 Lions for its tech and innovation prowess. However, it remained a no show in plenty more creative categories. From stereotypes about lazy ‘copycat culture’ to criticism of the country’s education system for killing initiative and creativity, China has long been reputed to suffer from creative block. But are these views outdated?
“Very little work—apart from scam work created by a handful of people in China—gets recognition in global awards because it doesn’t ‘translate’ well to a western audience,” says Chris Jones, executive creative director at Wunderman China. “But there is a hidden strength in Chinese creativity with a new generation of people making really inspiring things. As brands and the public open up to more originality this pool of talent will help China shine on a global stage.”
Others also sense a gradual shift occurring as younger people enter the industry with a more ambitious and open-minded approach to creative ideas. “The new middle-class in China have better appreciation towards creative ideas, and most of these people are at client-side, thus, helping to push for better works,” says Danny Chan, chief creative officer at DDB Group. “I have met clients who want agencies to be more daring and experiment more. Creativity was never cherished in the history of China, except now! The latest entrepreneur spirit is changing this and I hope to see more exploding ideas coming around.”
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Of course, one area in which China is not trailing others is digital innovation. The world’s largest online population, amounting to 772 million internet users at the end of last year, and the boom in mobile-first consumer behaviour and e-commerce has transformed Chinese society and is driving a new era of creative thinking for brands.
“China has been leading the trend of digitalisation for the past few years and as a result there are way more digital platforms out there than other markets and now digital platforms are the major media outlet for most brands,” says Ronnie Wu, executive creative director of TBWA Shanghai. “Creatives in China have established a certain fashion of leveraging these platforms to become an essential part of the creative process, resulting in many great digital works.”
Wu points to the example of brands using celebrities and key opinion leaders (KOLs) with their large online reach, which have become instrumental in creative campaigns. “China has witnessed the rise of celebrity, idols and key opinion leaders, and featuring them in campaigns is becoming the fastest way to attain awareness, especially among a millennial audience.” Last year Wu and his team worked on campaigns for Momo, one of the leading social network brands in China. “We featured upcoming celebrities and key opinion leaders that fitted our audience’s definitions of being bold and truthful. The campaigns were huge successes among our audience, helping double the revenue of Momo in three months and increase active users by double digits.”
However, not everyone is enthused by the overwhelming digital focus and its overall impact on creative standards. “The market here doesn’t seem to be as open as elsewhere in the world,” says Chee Guan Yue, group executive creative director for Ogilvy Shanghai. “In China, it’s all narrowed down to a few platforms, the BAT [Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent]. Creativity kind of takes on its own life and a lot of the ideas are restrictive to a certain formula.”
While Yue acknowledges that the rapid pace of change in the digital landscape has encouraged more creativity and innovation, he argues that a lot of it has become very “narrow” and “restrictive” which is against the nature of creativity and the nature of the open world of the digital landscape. “Everything is quite shallow. So much of the work needs to have a clickbait headline to hook people in and all these gimmicks in order to cut through. I can see this happening throughout the industry.”
Yue is calling for more ideation around technology. He feels more work needs to be done to know how to use technology to the advantage of creative ideas. “I think it’s come to a point where we have to pull ourselves up and stop lying about what the content is, stop tricking people into it,” says Yue. “Be honest about it, but use creativity to attract people so that when they click into your work it’s genuinely interesting. This calls for ideas and more imagination because I think we are lacking in this at the moment.”
A lack of depth in creative ideas and detail is something that Yue says is also characteristic of the working style of today’s new generation of creatives. “I’ve been working in China for nearly 20 years and I’ve seen the transformation of creative people and the agency way of working through these years,” says Yue. “They [the young creatives] are not so detailed and don’t look into the depth of the work as much. They grew up with touchscreen and they see and adjust everything with the screen. They come into an interview with their mobile phone to show their work—they think this is good enough to show their art direction skill, but it means they don’t look into the details because the screen is so small.”
Nike's 'My Sole Story' by AKQA Shanghai won silver and bronze in Digital Craft at Cannes 2017.
Yue adds that with the arrival of product lines that are incredibly fast moving to meet the demands of the digital age, the craft skills of making something look beautiful and well written and thought out are dwindling. “You just churn the work out and you don’t really pay that much attention to what is going on and so everything is quite shallow.”
Meanwhile, Supparat Thepparat, creative partner at BBDO in Guangzhou, agrees that the fast-paced nature of the digital landscape in China has had an adverse impact on the working styles of creatives and overall quality. “I think the creative output in China moves extremely fast. There are a lot of competitors, which fuels the need to produce things very quickly, but this means that sometimes the execution of the adverts is very rough and not well crafted. This is the weak point.”
However, Thepparat remains upbeat about China’s overall creative output. He feels that, more than ever, being creative and inventive has become a way of life for Chinese people. “They use creativity in a very inventive way to devise technology and apps to make people’s lives easier. For me these are already creative solutions for life,” says Thepparat. “That’s why I think the role of the creative agency these days is not so obvious, because a lot of these startup brands are already creative. Our role is just to showcase that creativity in a more obvious fashion.”
Kit Koh, executive creative director for BBDO south China, believes that this entrepreneurial spirit is enabling China to become a creative leader with increased competition aiding progress. “Our lives as creative agencies are becoming harder because brands are also hungry for creative ideas and will have their own creative team to come up with better products and services. This competitive culture is really bringing China’s creative capabilities to a different level.”
However, despite a more entrepreneurial and innovative environment, not everyone is as open-minded or willing to take risks. “As the clients are getting younger, they are starting to become more open-minded, but there are still some clients who are very conservative, have their own formula and don’t want to take too many risks,” says Thepparat.
Nevertheless, while China might be more risk-averse than other markets, brands are slowly beginning to take more creative risks, albeit carefully. Yue points to an example of a campaign that his team worked on for Ctrip, a Chinese travel services operator. Ctrip wanted to encourage Chinese consumers to take advantage of the many international destinations it offers, and so Yue and his team devised an idea to have a bit of fun creating images around the numerous western copycat cities that China is home to. “They thought it was quite a courageous idea—they wanted to try and give it a go but only on April Fool’s Day so that nobody could accuse them if they didn’t like the idea or they thought it was too bold,” says Yue. “The campaign rolled out across online and offline platforms starting from April Fools’ Day. It quickly caught consumer attention and ended up generating tons of buzz and linked to the promotional products.”
But is this bold, courageous and risk-taking approach the future for China’s creative direction? For the past three to five years Yue believes that the industry has been in a state of shock, caused by the new digital landscape and the technologies that have impacted on the creative business. He says that the majority of work has been reactive to this situation. “Click rate has become the measurement of the success of the work and things like that. I feel, at this point, people have come to realise that a lot of the digital ads are not converting into sales, or are not doing anything significant for brands.”
Yue foresees that at some point there will be a movement back to basics. “I think we need to reevaluate and rethink what we need to do and what is happening—what about branding? Because branding still matters. I think a greater focus on branding will eventually come back, as opposed to just promotional messages online and gimmicks that can lead to sales without building any brand equity. For me, this is something that I think needs to change.”
Riding on the trend of Chinese brands stepping out into other parts of the world, for instance Alibaba sponsoring major events like the Winter Olympics, Koh believes that the future for China’s creatives lies in opportunity. “There are some big level opportunities coming up but they needs to be executed well,” says Koh. “I see some Chinese brands sponsoring big events and the quality is sadly not up to the world standard. However, if brands have a bigger vision we are always there to help. A lot of the brands coming through are young and ambitious and so there is a chance for both us and them to work on something more creative.”