Chinese advertising is seen by some as safe, conservative, and even boring, with a golden formula of user benefits and repetition, plus personalities and 15-second formats. How do you apply the concept of disruption to the market?
Take note that disruption is typically at the strategic, not the execution level. Disruption, a process of creativity, has to start before the creative process. You have to have a very different, unconventional strategy. I can understand why this is not yet very important in China because that comes when you have many different brands competing for the same business. Now everything is going so fast that nobody cares about being different. But when things slow down a little and, step by step, when the volume is not coming from the market itself, and market share is with the other guys, you have to be special to stand out. So disruption will become useful in China.
Right now, it's too formulaic, too many celebrities, too much use of 15-seconders. [I will] tell you something about the mathematics of advertising: 15 seconds is not one-half of 30 seconds, it's one-twelfth. Because you need some time to get into a commercial to 'get it'.
You say disruption is not yet at the strategic level in China, which is surprising because the country's age-old maxims of military stratagems have been a vital function of business throughout its history.
Yes, but nothing is as constant as change. Confucius said something to that effect. There's another saying in English: 'If you don't create change, change will create you' — negatively. If you repeat yourself and repeat yourself, nobody listens to you anymore. And incremental change is not strong enough, that's why we believe in innovative strategies. But I tell our clients, if you change nothing, you will die; if you change everything, you will die as well. So you have to toe the fine line, to decide what should be changed and what should not be changed. And this is what disruption is all about, to break — not all, but some — of the conventions.
To do that, we organise 'Disruption Days' (more than 5,000 to-date) with people from client-side and agency-side. Not only marketing and advertising people, but factory people and legal people. The head of our office in Los Angeles calls this our "unfair competitive advantage". It's "unfair" because it's difficult for the other [agencies] to do the same thing.
How are Chinese clients reacting to your insistence on disruption?
At the macro level, most of them have spent the last 10 or 15 years building supply chains, distribution networks and so on. And the economy has been growing at 10, 12, 15 per cent with millions of people coming to the cities, joining the middle class. Clients didn't have to worry too much about top-line growth. That's changed. When our client adidas recently took a three per cent share of the women's market off Nike, that was significant because five years ago we never talked about such things. As China changes, it's never been more relevant. In LA, for instance, our work for Gatorade shifted it from a sports drink to a sports brand.
You started your career as a P&G man. Have they embraced your philosophy?
If you look at the speeches of Mark Pritchard, P&G thinks it's in the business of improving lives, which is a big step from just selling Pampers or Tide or whatever products. They think not in terms of benefit, but in terms of purpose. They used to say Pampers keeps your baby's buttocks drier; now they say dry buttocks during the night means your baby will be in better shape physically and mentally during the day. Moving out of the single-minded user benefit proposition opens up many things like CSR initiatives for the brand. You know what, I started this disruption philosophy because I'm very conservative myself.
Has there been a tough client you had to 'force-feed' your approach to?
I don't think we ever used it on Apple, because they are so disruptive themselves. It's difficult to talk about clients, but we have more problems on the execution level. Some think the work is fantastic, some say it was not what they expected.
A French film director that I love used to say the quality of a feature film relies on 50 per cent script, 50 per cent director, 50 per cent actress, 50 per cent music, 50 per cent editing. If any one of them is a hit-and-miss, only half of the film is left. You can have the best strategy in the world, but poor execution is bad. If you have the best execution on the wrong strategy, same story. You have to have both.
When I owned my personal agency [BDDP], the creative director was allowed to refuse a strategy without any reason. And that's the time we did the best creatives. When you brief the creative people, you have to give them a good springboard to jump from.
So are the creatives at TBWA allowed to reject briefs?
Not anymore. It's not about saying flatly no, but saying 'this is not enough to work with, we need something more'. The whole world now is lot more collaborative.
Speaking of collaboration, do you think the Publicis-Omnicom merger is a disruption to the industry?
Yes. I'm not really entitled to make any observations to you before the process goes through, but from a client perspective, there is now no expertise in anything that cannot be found within the [merged] group.
I cannot help myself but ask about your expectations for the Chinese market, even though you do not directly run the business on a daily basis.
Ian Thubron grew the agency 60 per cent in two years. This country is now number five [in revenue contribution to TBWA], and until it is number two, behind the US, we have a long way to go. It's now still less than half of the size of the France business. China is the second largest economy in the world; TBWA China should be the second too. It cannot take more than five years for this to happen. The advertising world is very much the reflection of the overall mood and state of a country. In France we are in a difficult position, and the advertising is dull these days.
Are there any Chinese campaigns you think are exceptionally good?
There is one that is very interesting, not by us, the People's Car Project by Volkswagen. I hate to say that, but it's very good.