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Strangers in a strange land 13 June, 2007

Posted by Hilton Barbour in Uncategorized.

china.jpg Even after the volumes of ink that has been spilt describing China’s meteoric rise to the “hottest” economy on the planet, it is still a country that defies description. It is a country that takes every possible dichotomy – communist vs capitalist, 3rd world vs 1st, 25th century vs 16th, blinding wealth vs abject poverty – amplifies them tenfold and then puts them out on display in a way that wrecks total havoc on the senses.

It was into this milieu that Rod Banner and I dove. Attempting to ascertain if there was the opportunity to expand Banner’s offering into Asia. To see the market for ourselves, chat to local experts and try decipher the complexities of China.

Our trip took us first to Singapore then on to Shanghai and finally to the centre of China’s technology belt, Beijing. Singapore has long been coveted as a natural “hub” for many agencies. Conveniently located between China/Japan/Hong Kong and India, Singapore also sports a deep advertising base exemplified by, as one local partner told us, more accredited agencies per capita than anywhere else in the world. After 48 hours of discussions with numerous media owners, several partner agencies and one or two client contacts, Rod and I had merely scratched the surface of “deciphering Asia”. It was time to get immersed in China.

china_2.jpgShanghai began with a white-knuckle taxi ride from the brand new Pudong airport into the city centre. From the moment we got into the taxi at Shanghai, China seemed intent on unsettling every single preconception we had about the country. The expressway into Shanghai was pristine and world-class in every way, the cityscape looked reminiscent of Blade Runner with world-class architecture evident in almost every city block, the buzz of activity also suggested Shanghai was trying to unseat New York as a town that never sleeps. Shanghai is definitely a global city with all the euphoria and turmoil that entails.

From our three days of meetings, a pattern was slowly beginning to form. However in a uniquely Asian way, for every two steps forward we seemed to make in building a picture of China, we seemed to take one sideways and another one back. Some insights though;

  • China is still in the throes of a massive manufacturing phase. Marketing is therefore seen in terms of stiff local competition, price reduction and increased manufacturing output.
  • Brands are an ethereal concept in a place that places more stock in tangible, physical concepts like price and distribution.
  • Relationships are crucial to gain access. Guanxi is the Chinese word oft thrown out. In short, it means influence and access and it is paramount. From knowing the right government officials, to having credibility with the key client influencers, no business is ever won (or lost) without guanxi. Gaining this would be imperative.

Beijing followed Shanghai and was also a frantic dash to try to glean insights from our numerous WPP contacts. A week of almost back-to-back meetings meant Rod and I left both physically drained and emotionally charged. Highlights of the Beijing leg included a visit to ChiTech or the Chinese version of CeBit. 4 massive halls filled with all manner of gleaming Chinese technology and hordes of local and foreign brands; local players Lenovo and Haier rubbing shoulders with Panasonic, Samsung, it was astounding. The design and innovation hall was particularly interesting featuring, amongst other great exhibits, a live football game between working robots. ChiTech was definitely a glimpse into the future with many of the (currently) unknown Chinese brands showcasing truly phenomenal products, products that would not look out of place in western homes. The day when Chinese brands are found in all of our homes is fast approaching…

Despite our best efforts, China did not conveniently open up all its secrets to Rod and myself. It did offer a fascinating glimpse into a market rich with opportunity. Rich too with traps, for those who don’t exercise caution and restraint. We are still digesting the China trip and mapping out how we tackle this vast market. Needless to say, having a China “strategy” is fast becoming a pre-requisite for any business. Stay tuned as Banner unveils ours in the coming months.

In the meantime, see the rest of the photos we took on the trip here.



1. Rob Pickering - 15 July, 2007

Really interesting. I guess that, like many others, I flip between thinking I can’t afford the time to investigate “the China opportunity” and that I can’t afford not to. An interesting read – thanks for sharing.

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