This piece is a reaction to "China's dominance putting HK creativity at risk", by Spencer Wong, creative chairman and CEO of McCann & Spencer (aka McCann Hong Kong).
I have been a loyal fan of McCann, and even my WeChat signature displays McCann’s slogan, “Truth well told”. However, I cannot help feeling doubtful after reading Spencer’s article. Is the expansion of Chinese companies in Hong Kong really a threat to local creative folks?
Chinese companies flooding into Hong Kong may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to many of us, actually. I always believe that advertising and marketing are probably the least cruel and most heart-touching parts of the business world, as we are in pursuit of 'emotional engagement', which is rooted in the profound understanding of culture. Creatives might be one of the most innovative groups of people, who can appeal to emotions from unique perspectives. This is not something easily achievable, particularly for Chinese brands, many of which lack insight and expertise in this field.
However, obviously they understand the importance of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do", and try to seek assistance from creative people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who stand out from the very limited choices available to them. They believe these creatives can help them achieve emotional engagement with a global audience. And apparently the earlier generation of Hong Kong creatives did not let them down. Our predecessors, led by the 'four godfathers of Chinese advertising'—Tomaz Mok, David Sun, Peter Soh and Jimmy Lam—not only delivered creativity with an international flavour to Chinese brands, but also helped nurture a new generation of Chinese-speaking creatives in China.
Today, many Chinese companies are still counting on the Hong Kong creative community to help them fulfil their dream of going international, with confidence. Their confidence did not come from nowhere, but from their admiration of Hong Kong's cultural icons, such as movies or idols the Chinese executives got to know from their youth, or even from shopping mall events that they might have come across during tourist trips to Hong Kong. In other words, probably all the marketers working in Chinese companies were influenced by the cultural symbols and values advocated by Hong Kong. To them, these symbols might be more or less equivalent to the concept of 'internationalisation'. That’s why they would bring their brands and funds to Hong Kong, and seek cooperation with the local creative community.
However, are the creatives in Hong Kong ready to embrace this opportunity?
Judging by Spencer’s article, it seems to me that they are not. Their unreadiness is not on the technical level, but rather a state of mind, one which will lead to nowhere but regret and missed opportunities.
In my opinion, creative directors in Hong Kong focus too much on the local market. They are catering to a market that has never advanced from the heyday of filmmaker Stephen Chow. The nonsensical humour of Chow’s movies has been popular in Hong Kong since the 1990s. Do you really believe the world remains unchanged since then? I don’t think so. Even the Communist Party of China has changed its propaganda from depicting a perfect hero to telling a good story. It is time for Hong Kong creatives to realise that we cannot always rely on parodies or slapstick in marketing and advertising.
Is the Hong Kong market 'small' as many have described? Not really—especially not if you think in terms of cognitive landscape rather than simply quantifiable market size. Hong Kong has always been a window for China to reach the outer world, except during 1960s and 1970s when China was relatively closed. Starting from 1980s, Hong Kong has been serving as an important intermediary or 'bridge' to connect China with the world. This is really a unique and advantageous position. A tremendous array of new products and ideas have flowed into China through Hong Kong and vice versa. In recent years more and more Chinese companies, including state-owner enterprises and private firms, have tapped into overseas markets via Hong Kong.
China has in fact provided more possibilities and a larger platform for local creative people to showcase their talents. It is advisable for the local creatives to adopt a more positive and inclusive attitude, and try to create value for their Chinese clients. When growth has slowed down in the rest of the world while Chinese brands still demonstrate strong momentum (hence strong demand for marketing and advertising services), why should the creatives based in Hong Kong, who are blessed with international insights, be frightened or panicky?
Circling back to marketing, there are two key elements: the channel and the content. As an interface that connects China and the external world, Hong Kong is privileged with access to a variety of channels. Take social media for example. Creative people in Hong Kong have access to not only Weibo and WeChat but also Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, Line and LinkedIn, each with different audiences. Many of these Western channels are unavailable to advertisers in China, despite their longing for access. However, is this privilege cherished by the Hong Kong creative types? So far as I know, many of them do not even know how to use WeChat. Sometimes I will joke with marketers from the mainland that Hong Kong creatives are either reading Apple Daily news on Facebook online, or reading Facebook news on Apple Daily offline. It is a dangerous thing when consumption of information and ideas takes place inside a closed circle, particularly for the creative industry, which should embrace variety, innovation and challenge.
Furthering the discussion on content, many local creatives in Hong Kong see 100 Most or Apple Daily as the industry's benchmarks of creativity. They have been pursuing 'localisation' to extremity, and producing ads that can never be understood by non-natives. They draft scripts in Cantonese, use a lot of slang, and ensure commercials must be starred by local artists most popular among locals. Writing copy in Mandarin? “Sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin,” they say. You can imagine how well their work will be received in a wider market. When it is difficult for a wider audience to even understand the content, how can you expect them to appreciate it, not to mention be emotionally engaged? And when Chinese brands cannot get results, they will not give the local creative community any more chances in the future. As a result, the industry may just fall into a vicious cycle.
Thus, I do not agree that the dominance of China's companies has suppressed the growth potential of Hong Kong’s creative industry. On the contrary, they have brought a huge amount of opportunities. The key question is: how will local creatives react to these opportunities?
|Jonathan Jiang, formerly a digital marketing consultant with Edelman, left the industry and is now a wealth investment advisor at CMB International, a Chinese-funded investment bank in Hong Kong.|