Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Dec 14, 2012

Extraterrestrial monkey sparks wake-up call about lack of creativity in 'Copycat China'

MAINLAND CHINA - Commercial real estate developer Soho China's branding campaign for the launch of the Galaxy SOHO in Beijing was not what it first seemed—involving a monkey from outer space that beseeched the country to stop being a copycat empire.

Extraterrestrial monkey sparks wake-up call about lack of creativity in 'Copycat China'

Driven mainly by social media, Soho China's first brand-building campaign was created by Ogilvy & Mather to position Soho as the leader in its field since it's "pushing the creative envelope from architecture to branding". Soho refers to itself as a "commercial property developer who thinks differently."

The campaign certainly was different. It posited an alternate reality in which China, not the US, had sent the first monkey into space. The fictitious mission was deemed a failure as neither the monkey, named Abo, nor its spacecraft had returned as planned, leading to a coverup by China.

Zhang Xin, Soho China CEO, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that "we go above and beyond the physical construction and development of buildings and create the face of the new Beijing and Shanghai".

Zhang said Soho's buildings are equivalent to fostering a new culture. "Once a city is built up (like London or New York), the incremental number of new buildings are significantly less. Most architects and developers around the world never have a chance to build large-scale developments in their life; they have to settle for small refurbishment projects".

The objective of the campaign was to get folks to consider the value of creativity in modern China and to associate Soho with that creativity, though Zhang overlooked the fact that Soho commissioned an Iraqi-British architect (Zaha Hadid) instead of a Chinese one to build the Galaxy Soho.

Graham Fink, Ogilvy & Mather China chief creative officer, explained that the idea for the stunt came from the name of the client's new building—Galaxy SOHO. "Obviously, the name lent itself to doing something about space," Fink said. "We wanted to create huge buzz and provoke debate, so the idea of China beating the US into sending a monkey into space seemed plausible."

Taking the idea further, the campaign had Abo's spacecraft being intercepted by extraterrestrial beings who transformed Abo into a super-intelligent being with the ability to communicate in human tongues. No one on earth knew until Abo landed on the Galaxy SOHO building last month and brought back a message to Chinese earthlings—to stop being a 'shanzhai' nation and to "awaken China's own creative spirit".

Zhang pointed out that this campaign was different from what other property developers do because of the firm's "creative DNA". Soho China focuses on building iconic landmark buildings in the most central locations within Beijing and Shanghai. "We do not do housing projects or repeat any of our designs in cities across China," she said.

Even so, the Galaxy Soho may not be to everyone's taste. But Fink stood by his client's convictions. "Neither was the Eiffel Tower when it was first erected," he said. "The French were up in arms. Only years later did they grow to love it. I believe the same will happen with the Galaxy SOHO."

The main purpose behind the gimmick, after all, was to make people aware of Soho China and its creative philosophy to build buildings that challenge the status quo.

In the same vein, the brand also shunned traditional media choices common among other property developers, like print ads and outdoor billboards. The use of purely social media, according to Fink, is "perfect" as it allows the agency to see the comments on Youku and Weibo and react to them—something that could not be done with traditional media.

"I think of it as a fantastical piece of storytelling," Fink said, when asked how the agency handled consumers who were confused about whether the Abo space mission was real. "When we were children, we all had myths told to us. I think if people are engaged with it and are entertained then that's OK."

Soho China assembled a panel that included its own CEO and chairman, as well as real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang, author Jiang Fangzhou, and music maker Gao Xiaosong to take part in a 30-minute live debate hosted online, fuelling a long-drawn discussion about creativity in China, or the lack thereof.

"There is so much raw creative talent here—it just needs nurturing," said Fink, who feels that China's current state of creativity on the world league is well down the list, but catching up fast.

Feng Huang, creative director & art supervisor at Fred & Farid, commented, "The creative direction of the Soho campaign is good as it elevates the work from mere advertising to a platform of argument," he said. "And the rights to speak are now shifted to the Chinese themselves, who have been so long criticised by the West to be fake and uncreative".

Admittedly, in order to make attempts at innovation in the shortest possible time, the fastest way for China was to copy so as to avoid unnecessary detours, said Huang. This accelerated the speed of economic development of the country, but also proved negative for the respect of intellectual property and real creativity.

The reason, as Zhang described in the online debate, is because Chinese society does not permit failure, and pursues 'instant success' on the other spectrum of things.

Huang, who was involved in the launch of the Franco-Chinese agency's pet project Creative China, predicted it will take around five years for China to be consistently producing creative work that are not just photocopies. "Creative intelligence is actually abundant here, but needs to be honed".

"In future, when there are no more things to copy (since innovators from the West may not be able to catch up with the burgeoning demand and specifc needs from China), we will reach a plateau, and that's when the gap will narrow between the copied and the copiers," he added.



Campaign China

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