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A peek from the top of the Great Wall: Learnings from China to innovate and refresh the advertising industry

The Great Wall of China

By: Kelvin Co

In 2014, advertising campaigns in the Philippines were dominated mostly by films, print ads, text blasts, and flash mobs. It was also then when I first saw a campaign unlike any other, produced by an independent advertising agency in Shanghai.

The key piece of the project was a basketball court equipped with motion-tracking technology and an interactive LED playing surface that projected the movements and reactive sports drills inspired by one of the world’s best basketball players. Consumers werethen able to follow the moves and train like a world-class athlete. This level of engagement opened my eyes to the possibility that advertising could be much more than just posters, films, and one-way conversations with consumers, and could actually feel like real world experiences.

That same year, I was fortunate to have been offered a job in China, where I witnessed the growing interest in using innovative technology for brands. I was able to work with multinational companies, local startup agencies, and brilliant clients from China’s “BAT” (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent), the country’s biggest technology companies.

After years of living and working in Beijing and Shanghai, I’ve learned a few things that we can all replicate, as the advertising and marketing scene has infinite room and potential for growth.

Imitate then innovate

We know that plagiarism is unethical because it’s passing off someone else’s ideas and work as your own. To get around this, what some practitioners do in China is to imitate or take inspiration from an idea, and then innovate to make it even better.

Being a copycat or shānzài (山寨) in China requires a lot of ingenuity and craft, since those who can create exact copies of work must not stop there but should aim instead to go a level higher and inject their own amount of originality. For them, the purpose of imitating is to gain a deeper understanding of the process and its basic principles so that they can learn how to break, innovate, and apply them to their other ideas. This leads to efficiency
because you discover how to reverse engineer and how to do things better. You discover and create new processes.

From being seen as the world’s copycat, China is now considered as one of the world’s top innovative engines.

Think collaboratively, not competitively.

According to the book “The Medici Effect,” increased creativity and innovation occur through diversity. When ideas and talented people from different fields are brought together to collaborate, innovation can thrive as different skills and points of view converge.

To illustrate, Shenzhen is considered an “instant city” in China because it was built in only a few decades. This former fishing village is now a bustling megalopolis that can compete with Silicon Valley. Their secret? Collaboration. While other nations are experiencing barriers to innovation because of the current restrictive traditional patent system, SME Chinese companies encourage the sharing of Intellectual Property (IPs) with others,
believing it will eventually lead to a win-win situation and help everyone prosper. They call this the Open Source philosophy. They know that to build a better service and product without shelling out a huge amount of capital, it’s better for people to find someone in their networks to help them build it through the principle of peer production. You will see small independent advertising agencies taking advantage of this, and they now have award-winning, tech-centered portfolios. Startup FMCG products and companies are gaining more momentum compared to old traditional companies because their systems allow for more space and flexibility to collaborate with other great minds.

As an example, when one of China’s tech giants was lagging behind Western companies in the autonomous driving business, they opened up their systems or made it open source for other Chinese companies, even for their local competitors. As a result, in only three years, they are now at the forefront of autonomous car innovation.

In China, they don’t view physical and digital as separate but as a holistic system that acts as a whole.

Upgrade the experience through Gamification

The Chinese digital landscape is complicated and overwhelming. But once you understand how it works, it is a black hole of fun and is tremendously engaging.

With millions of ads popping up every day all over China, competition becomes tighter just to grab a few seconds of every audience’s attention. Those who stand out are those who can provide engaging and rewarding interactions to their customers.

Take for example Alipay’s donation drive, Ant Farm’s Digital Pet Chicken, which launched in August 2017. To encourage people to donate to various NGO charity programs, Alipay created a simple mobile game within their app that featured a chubby chicken you could take care of. You could purchase food, skins, and more for your chicken. Every time you purchase items to feed and play with your pet chicken, proceeds go to the user’s chosen charity from Ant Farm’s list.

Up to this day, millions of Alipay’s customers still play the game because of its entertainment factor and altruistic nature; people feel good and continue to avail of their service because they know that their purchases are helping the world. The Alipay campaign is indeed a great example of what is called the ‘gamification of philanthropy,’ of using public interest in games for social good.

Gamification increases entertainment, makes information more palatable to consumers, and even generates more sales. In China, it’s also ageless, as gamification is engaging even for the elderly.

Design your creative evolution

The biggest lesson I’ve learned throughout my years in China, which has now become my personal work-and-life motto that I live by today is, “There is always a way.” This was especially true in startup agencies where budgets were smaller, timelines tighter, and where everyone was forced to be multi-tasking hybrids. The more challenges our teams were faced with, the more we were able to fine-tune our ability to find and create innovative and even unorthodox solutions. We experienced how problem solving and processes should evolve; how skills have to adapt, and quickly, to be 10 steps ahead of the demands of the market.

In China, I also experienced the benefits of seeing job titles as fluid and flux. The skills needed from a creative professional are rapidly changing, and the same applies even for marketers and brands.

In general, China’s brands and agencies don’t believe in the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” because they are aware that disruption can happen at any time and that complacency will result in stagnation and even extinction. It is more costly to fall behind than to invest, experiment, and understand the latest technology that will bring efficiency and value to their service. They don’t wait for technology to outpace their agencies and brands.

Infrastructure and government play a big role

Every now and then, the Chinese government sets clear goals for the succeeding years. These goals and long term plans, which usually last 5, 10, and even 50 years long, affect the innovation and ideas of agencies and brands. The government pours massive investments into infrastructure which improves the country’s ability to make the whole
market highly efficient and connected, which in turn also affects how advertising campaigns are made and perform. I’ve witnessed the rise of ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) campaigns in China which entailed close collaboration with the government.

The country enjoys a shared economy, partially due to their National Identity system. This system cultivates accountability. Everyone is conscious of their actions, and unmanned convenience stores, gyms, experiential booths, public bikes, and car rentals flourish because of this system.

Convenience is also experienced, even for logistics. Operations are efficient. Buying products on e-commerce sites, brand collaborations, and brand experience are more seamless, usually with just one click or scan. This helps make every brand, whether big or small, more visible and available in every part of the country.

In short, the government plays a major role, and their actions and plans will always affect the quality of campaigns, ideas, talents, and innovativeness.

To successfully make the work and process seamless, we have to take into consideration our infrastructure and our government’s short and long term plans. And their plans should tick accountability, convenience, availability, and visibility.

Change is fast, disruption in business is inevitable, and attention span shortens as technology advances every day. Taking a glimpse at the world’s innovative engine will help us see the future so we can sharpen our tools better to create opportunities today.

There are many more lessons to learn from China—an ever-growing pool of insights, technology, and skills we can apply. If you’re interested in sparking your brand by applying these new resources on your next projects, let me know how I can help by messaging https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnkelvinco/.

Kelvin Co 李启民 is an award-winning Creative Director and China design experience & tech expert. He first joined the advertising industry in 2008 as a below-the-line Art Director, and then molded himself to become a tech-driven art-based creative for BBDO Interone Beijing, McCann Shanghai, F5 Shanghai, Serviceplan Shanghai, Media.Monks Shanghai, and 180 Amsterdam. He handled some of the world’s biggest brands, namely Coca-Cola China, PepsiCo Global, Google China, BMW, Tencent NBA, Nestlé, Baidu, Alipay, Midea Global, and Pfizer with projects launched across China, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. He won numerous awards from Cannes Lions, London International Awards, Adfest, Shanghai International Advertising Festival, Spikes Asia, One Show, Modern Advertising Awards China, ROI Festival China, and AME New York. He has also consistently been listed as one of the top art directors in the Philippines and China by Campaign Brief Asia. Kelvin is also a board member of the Philippine Chamber of Shanghai and often serves as a resource person and keynote speaker.

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