Minnie Wang
Sep 27, 2023

Ogilvy's Chris Reitermann addresses China's 'economic long Covid', creativity, AI and more

In an exclusive interview, Chris Reitermann, co-CEO of Ogilvy Asia and CEO of Ogilvy, Greater China, discusses creative and social trends emerging in post-pandemic China, AI-enhanced work, Cannes and the talent crunch for expats.

Photo:(L)Chris Reitermann (R) AI-enhanced social work for The Coca-Cola Company
Photo:(L)Chris Reitermann (R) AI-enhanced social work for The Coca-Cola Company

In September, a collaborative social video between Ogilvy's Taipei and Xiamen teams featuring Moutai and Luckin Coffee, took flight to become one of the most talked-about campaigns in China this year. The collaboration generated at least four hot topics with over 100 million views on Weibo all within 24 hours. 

For co-CEO of Ogilvy Asia and CEO of Ogilvy, Greater China, Chris Reitermann, this success is not newfound. An industry veteran, Reitermann has spent over 20 years in the advertising industry across Europe and Asia-Pacific. Reitermann began his career in banking, before moving into the ad world with Ogilvy Direct in London. Throughout his journey with the agency, he’s held a variety of senior management positions, running local offices with regional and global clients. In 2014, Reitermann assumed his current role, winning several accolades since, most notably in 2017 when he won Campaign's APAC agency head of the year, along with the gong of most effective APAC agency by the Effies Effectiveness Index.

Reitermann has become a well-known advocate for the power of creativity in driving business results, especially amid new client expectations in the changing climate of post-pandemic China.

In his latest exclusive interview with Campaign, Reitermann says clients are now not only turning to Ogilvy to boost short-term sales in the digital realm, but also to develop brand identities to stand out in a competitive landscape, leverage AI, navigate the changing expectations of the consumer market, and come out on top when it comes to awards such as Cannes.

Below is our interview with Reitermann, edited for clarity.

Campaign: Chris, how would you characterise the state of creativity in the Chinese market today? What is Ogilvy's role in that? 

Reitermann: When you look at creativity overall in China, there probably has not been the most stellar performance over the last two years. I think the reason for that is [at the moment], a lot of the work is more short-term and sales-driven. It’s being driven by a focus on social influence and social commerce, as many clients are still trying to figure out how to actually be creative in those spaces. When you look at what we’re doing for clients this year such as Coca-Cola or Mercedes, a lot of the good work is also social and digital-driven content. 

In terms of recently—probably, the most talked-about campaign for us has been Luckin Coffee and Moutai. But the funny thing is, when you actually look at the campaign, you realise it’s become so famous not only because of the creative work alone, but mainly because of the collaboration itself. So, when you look for creativity in our industry now, you increasingly need to look beyond just coming up with ‘fancy’ work. Often, the creativity may actually be a brand collaboration, an IP partnership or digital innovation. 

How have market demands changed over the past year as China recovers from Covid-related impacts?

People are talking about it as ‘economic long Covid’. I think on a short-term basis, Covid lockdowns definitely had some impact on consumer behaviours. For example, people don't want to buy [something] anymore just because it's cheap. 

You actually have a double impact. On one hand, you have behavioral changes because of Covid; on the other hand, with the economy becoming very challenging, people are also becoming more conscious of what they spend their money on. As a result, there’s a lot of ‘short-termness’ in what we do. Now, a lot of our clients don't talk to me about five-year brand strategies or big brand campaigns. I need to sell things today, and I need to do it cheaper, more effectively, and see the results right now—not tomorrow, not in three months or in six months.

You mentioned in August that media spending is down between 10% to 20% compared to last year, which was already down from the previous year prior. What impacts of this do you see on the advertising business in China, and how is Ogilvy facing this reduction in spend?

I think decreased media spending doesn't always translate to decrease in activity. This has to do with the fact that clients may spend their money in a more considered way. For example, they may spend less money on brand initiatives, which means they may spend less money on TV, outdoor, and less on long-term things. [But] they definitely haven’t cut their spending on digital, social or commerce, or anything that's more short-term.

So, for us the impact may not be as severe as it is for a media agency. Sometimes, it translates into us doing more work because if they shift from TV to social content, we have to do a lot more content. But all in all, the market is tough.

The beginning of the year was pretty good—in the first five or six months. We were growing as a business. Our margins are good. I think you just see an even more accelerated shift into social-driven work. And with that, I think what we set up for Coca-Cola has helped us a lot because that's increasingly the model clients want. They want some high-level strategic thinking. They want some great creative ideas, but they want extremely efficient, fast turnaround, integrated execution, and most of that is found in social and digital work.

4A agencies are facing growing pressures and competition from tech players, local agencies, etc. What is Ogilvy doing in China to maintain its position as a creative leader, and do you feel pressure from local agencies when it comes to talent recruitment? 

I remind our own people over and over again that we are not a local agency, and we don't have to be a local agency. But, we have to make sure we stand by our strengths. We are a global network agency. We are a creative agency with a lot of experience building global brands. A local agency or local social shop will never have that kind of experience. And that's what we need to stand for and be good at. Obviously, we also need to make sure that our offer is relevant in the market, that it's local in execution, and that it's price-competitive.

I'm not worried about local agencies. I'm worried about how good we are. If a client can't see the difference between Ogilvy and a local agency, then it just means we're not good enough. We need to look at ourselves. 

AI has been a hot topic off-late. Do you think the rise of it signals a calling for a new agency model? How is Ogilvy planning to tap into AI for client work, especially in the local market or for local clients?

I do think AI will transform not just our industry, but many industries, humanity, life and the whole world. I also think that our industry likes buzzwords. So, every year, we have a new buzzword. This year, it's definitely AI. When you went to Cannes this year, everybody was talking about AI. I think the hype will probably become a bit less going into next year, and people will start to really figure out what impact AI can make on our business—and it will make a big impact. There's no doubt about it.

Personally, I think that AI will help us to automate a lot of the basic tasks that we're doing at the moment, and in many instances, AI will not replace creativity or human involvement—it will enhance it. 

Speaking of Cannes, we witnessed significantly fewer entries and awards from Mainland China at the event this year, as compared to previously. As a top award-winning leader, what do you think are the reasons behind this?

It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for the past 25 years. I think there’s a variety of reasons, and it's probably not an easy fix. The main reason [if you look at it from a short-term perspective] is in the last two or three years, a lot of the work is becoming more short-term, more social, and more culture-driven.

On a more general level to be honest, China has never really performed well at Cannes. It's not only in the last few years—never. And I think the biggest reason is because it's not that important in China. They have other priorities. But I do think it would be good for agencies and clients in China to look a bit beyond and try to compete with the best in the world because it will make the work better.

You have a very localised executive leadership team at Ogilvy China. Is this something you’ve strived for?

Actually, I think we are even slightly too local. Our entire leadership is local. You obviously want local leadership. You want to be very close to the market, but as an agency, you also need a bit of cultural diversity—it drives creativity. Nearly 70% of our staff in China are female, and that is not just at a junior level. Even when we look at our senior leadership in China, it's fifty-fifty. I’m very happy about that. 

Finally, given the state of the post-pandemic economy, is it hard to recruit expat talent into China right now?  

Ten years ago, or 15 years ago, many foreigners came to China because they saw a lot of growth. In the past, China was like the last stop before you became a global CEO. I think it may no longer be as attractive. Maybe the skills needed in China now are quite different. It's still possible to find people, [it’s] just not as easy as it used to be. In the past, we hired a lot of senior laowai (expats in Chinese). I think we have a lot of local senior people, so now, we are actually trying to bring in more mid-level laowai (expats).

(This interview has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity.)

Campaign Asia

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