Darren Burns
Nov 14, 2016

Playing it safe is risky

CHINA INNOVATION 2016: The game has changed in China, and it’s no longer enough for agencies to simply stick to their brief: clients now expect innovative solutions that address their business issues, not just their marketing ones.

Marathon sprint: China is an exciting marketing playground but agencies have to race to stay ahead of the game.
Marathon sprint: China is an exciting marketing playground but agencies have to race to stay ahead of the game.

From messaging to mobile payments to even filing reimbursements for work, WeChat has become an inalienable part of everyday life for millions of Chinese — certainly the kind of Swiss-Army-knife tool the West hoped it created, but didn’t quite.

Dubbed a ‘super app’, WeChat is just one example of how China is marching down its own self-blazed trail.

So given the strides China has and will continue to make, what value can agencies bring to clients? 

First, close the last mile and deliver commercial results.

A survey of Chinese marketers by R3 revealed that innovation and creativity top their list of demands from agencies. Their pain points are business issues rather than marketing ones.

Agencies need to understand this goes beyond delivering communication solutions. Millions of hits, views and impressions are nice, but clients in China measure agency effectiveness by how much our work is really contributing to the top line.

We are a PR firm, but as a direct consequence of the environment in China, I have taken on a new title, covering innovation and creativity, since April. 

Second, adopt a management-consultancy mindset.

Responding to the brief will not cut it in China. We need to address core business problems, just like the way consultancies go downstream themselves. As business intelligence drives more marketing decisions, agencies in China will soon be expected to deliver the kind of work consultancies handle, helping clients grow new business lines. 

At Weber Shandwick, we have a task force for each client charged with bringing new ideas to the table. Once, we proposed a retail marketing extension to the digital work we were doing for an auto client without being asked. Impressed with the initiative, the client found us the budget to do it.

See all of our annual CHINA INNOVATION features

A lot of marketing innovation is not taking something from the blue sky, but taking something that already exists and building upon it. 

Third, innovate ‘from China up’.

Agencies need to capitalise on country-specific social trends. In China, influencers are capable of helping push both impressions and sales to astronomical heights. Unlike other markets, they are not optional extras. We invested in a solution to enable brands to co-create content with local celebrities, public figures and experts based on their scores on social impact, credibility and controversy. 

All kinds of commerce in China will have some form of social networking element, but a lot of MNCs almost resist this. “We don’t do things this way,” they say, but influencers are crucial to this trend. This is a ‘China thing’, and Chinese retailers are now the vanguards for social commerce.

People here have an openness and eagerness to try new things which has helped Chinese brands — and Chinese society — leapfrog the rest of the world into the future. Take artificial intelligence (A.I.) for instance, widely seen as the next frontier for marketing. According to our recent research, the rest of the world are nervous about the potential impact of A.I. to society while almost half of Chinese consumers (46% vs global average of 28%) say they are not at all concerned. 

China’s fearlessness makes it an exciting playground for marketing innovation, but success here demands agencies always keep ahead of their game.  

If you just want to do safe marketing, no way. 

Darren Burns (@ShanghaiBurns) is China president and Asia-Pacific chair of innovation and creativity, Weber Shandwick.


Campaign China

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