Emily Tan
Sep 4, 2014

Spikes judges: Asia needs to stop playing safe

Award-winning countries in Asia have the most daring advertising. To win awards, overcome your fear, say Spikes jury presidents.

Cowabunga: Asian creatives need to take the plunge
Cowabunga: Asian creatives need to take the plunge

There’s a reason that most of the creative awards won in Asia go to Australia, Japan and India. It’s not that the other markets lack size, scale, talent or sophistication, it’s because unique and provocative creative does better in these key markets than direct selling. 

But what’s holding back creativity in Asia’s other markets? Perhaps two of the main reasons are rapid growth and multiculturalism. As long as growth is sure and swift advertisers see little need to move beyond the direct sell and on to branding and with multicultural markets, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, advertising tends to play safe to please the largest number. This can be a real handicap to creativity. 

“The best work, I believe, has an element of sacrifice about it,” observes Rob Campbell, head of planning at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai. “Some viewers will love it and some may hate it. But this part of the world [Asia] doesn’t want to alienate anyone.”

Whether the desire to please everyone stems from the agencies or the clients, Campbell refuses to say. But his view serves to explain the rise of award-winning cause-based marketing in Asia-Pacific as agencies grab the chance to stand out and be provocative for a good cause. 

“The brands making a difference are the ones with a strong point of view, who can commit to it and go for it,” says Campbell. 

Quite a few cause-based campaigns from Asia-Pacific were well rewarded at Cannes this year, including ‘Mother book’ by Dentsu for Bell-Net Obstetrics which earned a Grand Prix and three Golds in Lion’s health and Whybin TBWA Melbourne’s LGBT-awareness oriented GayTMs for ANZ Bank walked off with the Outdoor Grand Prix. 

>> Complete Spikes 2014 coverage <<

Despite these victories, cause-based campaigns are no longer a golden ticket to award-wins. This year at Cannes, China’s Lion-tally dropped to 21 Lions (from 26 the year before), Singapore’s was 19 (down from 22) and the Philippines dropped to 9 lions from 13 last year. 

Asia needs to stop jumping on trend bandwagons as few things are worse than an idea that’s trying to superficially ride a theme to glory. The difference when brands in Asia try to copy cause-based marketing instead of truly embracing it is stark, says Campbell. “There’s an awful amount of stunts being done, to gain coverage rather than shaping and impacting behaviour and change. Instead brands should find out what people are interested in and have a point of view [on that].”

At Spikes this year, Digital and Mobile jury president Jean Lin hopes that both clients and agencies will wean themselves from the safety of the TV spot. “Asia-Pacific (and China in particular) are extremely TVC-focused. Clients that prioritise the importance of a 30-sec spot don’t always get to great digital or mobile campaigns,” says the global CEO of Isobar. “It’s when digital is used beyond just communications, that the bold ideas stand out and that’s what I’ll be looking for in Spikes entries this year.”

It will be the original ideas that inspire instant action that the jury will be looking out for this year, says Direct and Promo Jury President, Josy Paul. “Ideas that don’t need a long case study video, ideas that one can write as a simple text message, ideas that push, push, push.”

PR jury president David Brain, however, believes that work in Asia is under-appreciated by global juries. “There is great work out there and it can be more emotionally risky than a lot of western award-winning work that in comparison often seems defensively ironic and intellectually self-referencing,” insists Edelman’s president and CEO of Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. “From judging Spikes, AMES, PR Week and Holmes Report awards for the last many years, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and, of course, Australia and New Zealand have consistently delivered bold and emotional work that stands against the best from anywhere.” 

Why the Philippines is raking in awards

Few markets in Asia have catapulted themselves up the awards ladder as much as the Phillipines has done in the past two years. In 2011, the market earned only five Lions at Cannes.

David Guerrero, chairman and CCO, BBDO Guerrero believes that the surge in awards is partly caused by the interest the market’s 100 million-strong population has generated among brands and agencies. “Our young, vibrant population, combined with a mobile and internet penetration rate of over 60 per cent, makes this a favourite testing ground for startups, outsourcing and web companies too.”

Havas Media Asia-Pacific’s mobile advertising arm Mobext, for example, road-tested its Atom fund initiative in the Philippines before rolling it out to the rest of Asia. Tired of waiting for brands to invest in mobile, the agency started a fund to match first-time mobile client investments into the medium up to US$5,000. The initiative has since been rolled out across the region. 

As a creative market, the Philippines has always been strong, but a combination of technology adoption and greater regional interest has really jump-started advertising. “It’s a wonderful combination of factors that signal a new maturity and confidence for one of Asia’s earliest adopters of Western marketing,” says Guerrero. 

Consumers in the Philippines, like most of Asia, have also taken to social media like ducks to water and are voicing their views on just about everything. So while some brands still put out terrible ads targeting the country — such as one by Singapore Tourism Board that was so badly mocked for its poor production quality, terrible dialogue and ham acting it was pulled — the brightest marketers are listening.

“While there may be some brands who aim for the lowest common denominator in their advertising, the best clients are now making their budgets go further with innovative thinking and responsive strategies that take the conversation forward rather than back,” adds Guerrero. 

The truth is, the Philippines does its best work when it’s trying to solve a problem stemming from lack of resources, says Merlee Jayme, chairman and COO of DDB DM9 JaymeSyfu during an interview at Cannes. The best campaigns happen when clever and pocket-friendly executions are combined with ideas that help disadvantaged Filipinos, she adds. 

Last year, DDB DM9 JaymeSyfu earned the country its first Cannes Lions Grand Prix, in the mobile category, for its TXTBKS campaign. “The secret was that it was a genuine campaign that answered a real need,” says Jayme. “We didn’t do it for awards but to solve a problem back home.”

Listening, storytelling to the fore in China

Advertisers in China have also been listening to an increasingly vocal consumer base. While brand communicators have resisted change and generally care more about price than brand value, Chinese consumers have not only demanded higher standards from brands, they’ve rioted for it. In 2011, when Siemens ignored customer complaints over fridge doors that did not shut properly, they saw their fridges dragged out into the streets and pounded with hammers. More recently, unhappy with treatment received from Malaysia Airlines, families of passengers on the missing MH370 have organised rallies and have even starved themselves to “learn the truth”. 

“A comment I hear too often is ‘people in China are not there yet and they don’t appreciate quality creative as in the West’,” says Campbell. “That’s bullshit. It’s the oldest culture on the planet. The standards are there, they’re different but they’re there and some brands have hit those standards and the response has been powerful.”

Some brands have realised this and have been running campaigns that share brand values and involve storytelling, interactivity and engagement. Burberry for example used WeChat to give its fans a behind the scenes ‘personalised’ peek at London Fashion Week. The North Face focused on getting urban Chinese to go exploring rather than on their products, and even Unilever’s fabric softener brand, Comfort, created a mobile app to ‘rate’ selfies on the brightness and freshness of their clothes. 

Storytelling with a soap-opera-style campaign on teenage love, ‘Dive into love’, has worked well for Cornetto China since its launch in 2011. Its 2013 campaign, ‘Love in a different tense’, won Gold at the recent Asian Marketing Effectiveness Awards for a series of mini-films on the different tenses of love.

Most however are failing to take advantage of a “huge opportunity” and are still confusing branding with the simple desire to “sell short-term”, says Nils Andersson, CCO of Y&R Greater China and regional head of art. “The Chinese consumer now sees what brands do in the rest of the world. In comparison, advertising in China seems behind the times. Particularly for domestic brands. Creating desire through long-term thinking and dialogue is still rare,” he adds.

What’s really holding China back, says Andersson, is that advertising has yet to truly become part of the nation’s pop culture. “China has always had its own voice. However, it’s one that doesn’t easily translate to an international audience. A lot of it is to do with the language and how a single character can have many meanings. There is a directness to the work here. When advertising is embraced [by local culture], things will change dramatically.”

For more thoughts on fulfilling creative potential, watch Campaign Asia-Pacific’s session at Spikes Asia on 25 September at 12.40.

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