China: a burgeoning population, one of the world's most rapidly-rising economies, an APAC hotspot for innovation, tech and scientific design and an advertising industry spend forecasted to reach USD$193 billion by the end of 2023 and 92% of it being generated by digital advertising by 2027. Yes, that's billion with a b.
So why was China's presence at this year's Cannes Lions 2023 festival such a passing ship in the night - winning four Lions (two from Mainland China, one from Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively) including a shared Titanium Lion for Corona with New York), and entries reducing from 460 to 388 this year? With generative AI dominating the conversation topics and digital very much being at the forefront of impending change to the ad landscape, there also seemed to be no major announcements about the Chinese market, nor any insightful unveilings of thought leadership or perspective, drawing questions about their silence from industry professionals and journalists alike.
So, was the quietening of the Chinese creative voice a conscious decision, perhaps tinged by ongoing regulatory, political and economic constraints in the market? Or was the lack of acknowledgment of the Chinese presence an inadvertent slight or a blind spot in the Western notion of what constitutes 'award-winning' work?
Campaign asked six of APAC's top industry minds to weigh in.
CEO, Dentsu Creative APAC
While I can't comment on behalf of the entire industry in China, I can provide insight into how Dentsu showed up, some of the publicly available awards information and also anecdotally on some of the potential barriers this year. Firstly, I don’t agree that China was not well represented this year. There was strong representation from the major platforms including Tencent, Alibaba and Bytedance (Tik Tok) and well as CAA (China Advertising Association). Our meetings with them were productive and all focussed on driving innovation and moving the industry forward. Our China team also did well this year winning a Creative Commerce Lion for KFC and the Re: Store campaign where we helped KFC re-engage with their Gen Z audience by creating a full-service virtual dining experience.
The results were outstanding with 19 million KFC cyber store visitors in three weeks, 4.3 billion interactions and four million burgers sold out offline in one week. Our Young Lions team from China also came runners up against international competition. Overall delegate numbers from China were probably lower than previous years due to visa requirements and limited flight availabilities which made it difficult for people to get to Cannes.
On the awards front, China’s awards entries this year still ranked within the top 4 countries for APAC and I suspect the less award wins this year from China came down to:
The inability of judges to understand the cultural nuisances in awards submissions.
A reduced volume of entries from China vs. increased competition overall (6% more entries this year).
Higher standards of judging (I heard that judges were much tougher this year on the work).
What’s important to remember is that unlike the US and EMEA, in 2022 most of the APAC region was still in Covid-induced lockdowns and restrictions with China being the toughest and last to come out. This had an impact on the overall volume of spend and output of work. Therefore, it’s fair to say that given these circumstances, China’s showing is relative, and it remains committed to Cannes and creativity.
Co-host, ShanghaiZhan Podcast and co-author of Selling to China
Winning a Cannes Lions award requires strong collaboration between clients and agencies. If the client is unwilling to participate in the process, competing becomes very difficult. Cannes is extremely competitive, and winning requires both brilliant ideas and flawless execution.
China can leverage its cultural influence and claim that judges don't fully grasp the ideas, but Cannes Lions has made significant efforts to address this. If non-English language markets such as Brazil and Thailand can win, why not China?
It is unfortunate that many Chinese clients may fail to recognize the value of participating in global awards shows. However, considering China's status as the world's second-largest advertising market, it is imperative for it to gain recognition on the global stage. In an industry as hyper-competitive as this, participating in awards shows can significantly elevate the standard of quality work, which many argue appears to be lacking in China at present.
Chief creative officer, Greater China, BBDO
I think there are two issues we need to consider: First, whether Chinese work is actually of the right quality to win at Cannes, and second, why great work from China rarely succeeds.
It's easier to begin with the second question. As we all know, awards are hugely influenced by how they are entered. It's often not the work, but the case study that's being awarded. Case in point: The Sheba Hope Reef case study for One Show that didn't do very well in 2022, vs. the reworked one for Cannes that won Grand Prix)
With that in mind, Chinese entries already start out on the back foot. Not only is there the language hurdle to get over (most of the very successful campaigns in China play with the Chinese language in quite sophisticated ways), there's the whole cultural and lifestyle difference. That's not to say it can't be done, but having been a judge I can say, when you have to work hard to understand what a campaign is about you subconsciously mark it down.
I believe it is a whole ecosystem problem - that clients and marketers in China largely do not reward work that is simple and disruptive. It may be a sweeping generalisation, but the educational system in China is very performance-led and similarly does not really value artistic or creative thinking.
What’s more in the huge competition for jobs, almost everyone client-side has some form of post-graduate qualification (we joke that Masters are the new Bachelors in China). So, you have highly-educated junior clients who see their job in black and white, right and wrong…seeing briefs as exam questions to be answered. This doesn’t make it a great environment to be out of box and disruptive. On the rare occasions that China has done well at awards, it is because of a visionary and engaged CMO who pushes the work through, and those are not so common (or they move on to better things every couple of years).
An example is Matt Che at ABInbev for this year's Corona Limes. It’s worth breaking down this case: It’s a simple to understand problem (not requiring any language or cultural understanding); it’s an initiative that’s not part of their core scale campaign, so the team is not pushed to compromise the integrity of the idea for the sales and trade teams; and for the case study, Matt engaged David Bogotá to help package the case in a way that western judges would appreciate.
So that’s all to say it’s not easy for a great idea in China to maintain its integrity in an over-intellectual, creatively timid environment, and then be packaged in a way that captures judges' attention in the first 10s of a case study. It can happen but it's rare.
Co-founder & principal, R3
Brands that have invested in international creative awards, like Cannes Lions, see creativity as a clear contributor to overall brand performance. Within the marketing organisation, there needs to exist a culture that reinforces that creativity leads to brand differentiation and sales. And whether by supporting submissions of their work, or bringing their people to the festival, marketers also need to see the non-awards component of events as a learning and networking experience, and something that nurtures the competitive drive of local talent.
China is an outlier at international creative awards because of the unique nature of its market. As a country, its marketing ecosystem is highly insular and winning awards internationally might feel less relevant for China marketers as winning an award against local competitors within their country. At the same time, China is also more advanced and diversified than western markets in its use of new marketing approaches like influencers and content creators. How do we award the craft and creativity of those activations?
Chief strategy officer, UM China
There is certainly room for improvement on China’s presence on the international stage. After my experience in Cannes it has also become a personal mission to help turn this around and work with the local community here closely on this.
The market’s focus on ‘end funnel’ performance and commerce has diluted attention to creativity. Creativity is also often perceived to be only associated with upper funnel work. We need bring attention, and drive appreciation of creativity’s association with performance driven tasks, so that even when attention is placed on sales metrics, we have better stories to tell. This involves bringing back some traditional means of marketing into modern day sales techniques, being audience obsessed and deriving deeper, meaningful insights around them as well as bringing back the power of the brand.
Having clear, single minded, powerful narrative. Because of the complexity of the Chinese ecosystem, it is easy to fall into a pattern of saying too much, hoping to educate foreigners to form a base while conveying the actual work. Therefore most cases are saying more than it should and distracts people from understanding the core idea or purpose of the work. We need to help the local community on ways to package their work. In essence, each case (video) is a way of advertising their work itself, so bringing back the power of great story for Chinese work will be critical.
Founder, Wai Social
For me it’s quite a complicated, nuanced issue - sure I think there are some differences as to how Western creativity is seen, but many factors contribute to the disparity in awards received by China on global advertising stage. To name a few.
Cultural differences: Festivals like Cannes Lion often showcase creativity and artistic expression that align with the preferences of the organising committee and judges. Different countries have unique cultural perspectives and traditions that may or may not resonate with the festival's criteria or the global audience. In addition, some mainstream values championed by Western countries, such as caring for women's rights, pursuing fair play and freedom, sustainability, etc., most of which are understood in China but have not been thoroughly dissected and widely accepted by the majority of the population.
Language barriers: Language can play a role in how films, advertisements, or creative works are perceived and understood by international audiences. If a significant portion of Chinese entries at Cannes Lion are primarily in Mandarin or other regional languages, it might limit their reach and recognition on a global scale.
Access to global platforms: Promoting and distributing creative works globally requires resources, networks, and partnerships. Some countries, including China, may face challenges in terms of access to international distribution channels or limited exposure to global marketing networks, which could impact their visibility at festivals like Cannes Lion.
Cultural exchange and exposure: The global recognition of creative works often involves an element of cultural exchange and exposure. It can take time for a country's creative industry to gain prominence and establish strong connections with international markets and festivals. China's advertising industries have been growing rapidly in recent years, and it may take time for their presence to be more widely recognized and represented at global festivals.
What's more, today's purely local Chinese advertising is becoming more in tune with the ever-changing market trends, that is, advertising campaigns become shorter and more flexible in execution, so agencies prefer to please the market with small but practical advertising methods rather than come up with an award-winning "big idea”.
Dan Fitzpatrick and Tala Booker
As one of the world's largest consumer markets in the world, China's commercial connectivity to most markets is unparalleled. This year's Cannes Lions showing underpins a disconnect between what is being judged and the commercial reality of engaging with audiences in China. This reflects the industry's tendency to look at what China creatives can do to win more awards. It's time for us as a wider media industry place greater emphasis on the judging criteria to understand the nuance and effectiveness of what resonates with this growing consumer-base across China and Asia-Pacific more broadly and why. - Dan Fitzpatrick
Commenting on what agencies can do, Tala said: "We're expecting Chinese audiences to adapt and respond to creative practices curated and activated for western audiences by western agencies. We're missing a trick if we don't connect with greater empathy and understanding. The responsibility is on us as leaders in the media industry to reframe our approach to storytelling for brands we support in China. Our opportunity is to better understand what makes Chinese consumers and businesses engage with brands and content. If we make this shift, the awards will follow. -Tala Booker
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