The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

What Lies Beneath …
January 31, 2012, 6:20 am
Filed under: Comment

Hello all, how are you?

So this is my 2nd ‘new year’ of the year and I hope it’s better than how the first one started.

The beauty of having so much time off over the last 2 months is that I’ve had time to recuperate from the stresses and strains of the previous year as well as have time to think about what I want to do in the years ahead and one of those things is to be more involved in China.

I love this country … I love the beautiful madness of opportunity and frustration.

Call me a masochist, but this is far more fun – at least for me – than being in a land where you have a pretty good grip on everything that is going on.

Of course there’s times where having a ‘bit more grip’ would be very useful – not to mention comfortable – but one of the fantastic things about China is that it’s evolving so fast, that what is ‘normality’ one day may be confined to history within a matter of weeks.

But you wouldn’t know that if you saw most of the ads.

Oh no.

In China, the vast majority of communication focus on 2 things:



Now it could be argued that these 2 attributes are quite similar around the World, let alone around Asia … but the way brands communicate this in China is almost identikit.

There is literally no difference.

It’s not just a case you could change the logo on the ad and it would be suitable for any competitor, you could change the logo on the ad and it could be suitable for any category.

Seriously, the basic construct for a Chinese ad is this:

Celebrity + Family + Aspirational lifestyle + = Chinese ad, just add a brand logo.

It’s unbelievable.

Now I am sure lots of people who work in this country will go “but it works”

But my argument is that it’s not the ads that are achieving double digit growth for brands, it’s China’s fast growing economy mixed with a massive population that has started getting access to choices and money they’ve previously rarely [if ever] had.

I’m not denying the ads will have had some impact, but what bothers me is that too many people are solely crediting them with all this brand growth and that’s leading to the attitude that this ‘strategy’ is the blueprint of how to successfully communicate with the Chinese population.

And it’s bollocks.

Sure, China is under-developed in terms of marketing … but that doesn’t mean they’re under-developed in all aspects of their life, in fact, I’d say that in many areas, they’re way ahead of the rest of the World.

This reluctance to investigate Chinese attitudes and behaviour beyond family and status bothers the fuck out of me.

Actually, even that’s wrong because despite all the ‘data and research reports’ that are churned out by all and sundry, I question if people are even investigating family and status beyond the superficial levels of ‘People want status’ and ‘Family is important’.


This is why I love my job, my team and W+K … because we honestly don’t want to undersell the people in this great country … we don’t want to treat them as idiots … we don’t want to approach challenges with a ‘one size fits all’ mentality, or worse, import ‘global human truths’ that fail to take into account that while their beliefs might be similar, the way people express them are very different in China.

And then there’s the fact that a country this old, beautiful, rich, powerful and evolving deserves work that specifically reflects their character and views, not just an interpretation of global perspectives.

But I digress.

The thing is, contrary to popular belief, W+K does a huge amount of work on understanding people.

The reason our work is so good is because we ‘get’ culture … and we do this by constantly poking, questioning, challenging and listening.

Just recently I sent one of my talented colleagues to go backpacking around 6 of China’s fastest growing cities.

He wasn’t allowed to pre-arrange any interviews or stay in any nice places – he had to get a more ‘raw read’ of what people felt, thought and wanted – and while what he did simply touched the surface of attitudes and behaviour, you can see from his adventure that the people of China have far more going on in their lives and minds than 99% of ads give them credit for.

So if you want a taste of what lies beneath the over-simplified hype that mainstream media likes to present, go on a visit to boomtownstories and read stories of happiness, optimism, complexity and confusion.

While I know my job is to help clients get rich, I also believe adland has the power to make a major difference to people and society and these sorts of social experiments show just how much we could do if we didn’t always go for the lowest common denominator.

If there’s any country where this opportunity exists, it’s China.

If there’s any culture that would appreciate it, it’s China.

49 Comments so far
Leave a comment

so you decided to turn up have you?

well just so you fucking know campbell, absence hasnt made the heart grow fonder in the fucking least.

Comment by andy@cynic

is it because you feel so fucking guilty about having so many fucking holidays that you wrote a dan wieden fucking sycophantic love letter blog post?

shame its so fucking long he wont be arsed to read grade a corporate fucking toadiness.

Comment by andy@cynic

You imply that Mr Wieden [as I refer to him] comes to my blog … that is a huge compliment, even though we all know he doesn’t because if he did, I wouldn’t be employed by him anymore.

Comment by Rob

good fucking point campbell. even if he wanted to come here he wouldnt because it would be a fucking shitty reminder that youre taking his pension cash right out of his mouth.

Comment by andy@cynic

but if i can draw w+k hr attention to the bit about you sending employees backpacking. surely thats a stackable offence for either being a dictatorial prick or offering additional holiday time.

Comment by andy@cynic

boomtown is quite fucking good but not enough babes. how the fuck do you expect anyone to read this planning indulgence if you dont throw in some fucking babes.

now thats fucking insight.

Comment by andy@cynic

The guy who did it, Richard Summers, is a semi-ginger so he doesn’t know anything about babes because women tend to avoid him as soon as they see the glow of his hair approaching.

Don’t blame him … blame genetics.

Comment by Rob

hes a fucking ginge? no fucking wonder he works for you, no other normal person would hire him.

Comment by andy@cynic

boomtown and your meltdown about shitty chinese ads saves this post campbell by the skin of its teeth. youre back in bob fucking geldof mode which is better than when youre in oprah mode but it was touch and fucking go at the beginning of this fucking post i can tell you.

Comment by andy@cynic

Welcome back to hell.

Comment by DH

what the fuck are you talking about? were the best thing that has ever happened to campbell.

Comment by andy@cynic

I was saying it to all the commentators on this blog, not Rob.

Comment by DH


Comment by andy@cynic

Good to have you back Rob an this post shows you’re rested and reenergised.

When I read this, your comments on Chinese/Asian advertising took me back to my time there and how hard and frustrating I found it. A lack of client experience and a desire to do work that kept their bosses happy as opposed to their audience was one reason, but the standard of people heading departments in agencies was also another contributing factor. Many of the senior guys just want to make enough profit for their head office so they would be allowed to maintain their comfortable lifestyle.

I remember I told you that you should not take the Asia opportunity because it would drive you mad and it it seems I was half right. While you talk about the frustrations, you seem to thrive on them because you are one of the few people I’ve seen make World class ideas and ads (not scam) happen there which makes me proud and jealous at the same time.

I think what you say is not exclusive to China but possibly more pronounced and the way you get around it is a lesson to everyone. Great post to come back to and tell whoever you sent backpacking that they did a great job and got off lightly compared to the things you used to get Bazza and team to do.

Comment by Pete

If Rob is back to being the Bob Geldof of adland then Pete is definitely back to being the Oprah.

Comment by DH

does campbell pay you to be so fucking nice or are you that fucking mental?

Comment by andy@cynic

That’s what Asia does to you.

Comment by Pete

and being a sycophantic planner.

Comment by andy@cynic

You’re very kind Pete. Deluded, but very kind.

Oh, and your points about some of the reasons for the parity in ad styles and approaches is bang on … which is sad given you worked in this part of the World nearly ten bloody years ago.

Comment by Rob

so youre admitting you havent changed a fucking thing campbell.

Comment by andy@cynic

Let me get this straight, you fly around the world in business class and stay in luxury hotels in every amazing city possible and you send your colleagues backpacking to shitty industrial places IN CHINA and make them stay in hostels?

Something’s never change.

Comment by Billy Whizz

at least campbell paid for this planning twat to have a photographic holiday. i paid for most of campbells luxury and then the fucker fucks off with my cash. fuck being bob geldof, hes rupert fucking murdoch.

Comment by andy@cynic

We gave you a paid job Billy, that in itself should make you feel very fortunate and lucky to have worked with us/me.

Comment by Rob

Year of the dragon, same as the old year.

Comment by John

It appears I was right again.

Comment by John

this is campbell were talking about, knowing hell talk the same shit whatever year it is just means you know him well and that shows youre a stupid bastard not a smart fucker.

Comment by andy@cynic

At least I didn’t fund his habit for years.

Comment by John


Comment by andy@cynic

ive just seen campbell writes about his holidays helping get over the stresses and strains of the previous fucking year.

stresses and strains? of what campbell, is deciding where to go on your next free fucking holiday that fucking hard for you? prick.

Comment by andy@cynic

Maybe it’s because he worries he won’t be able to convince Lee to give him any more free flights.

Comment by DH

that shouldve happened fucking ages ago so he must have some fucking good incriminating photos on him because theres no other fucking explanation. as long as the jammy bastard has those, luxury fucking travel is his.

Comment by andy@cynic

I don’t know if it’s good or bad that this blog can immediately click back into top gear in the blink of an eye.

Comment by Rob

its the sort of efficiency the japanese and germans wet their fucking knickers over.

Comment by andy@cynic

How you haven’t got a job in the foreign office is beyond me.

Comment by Rob

I just want to say I agree that Bob Geldof > Oprah. Agree about that status and family thing too. Irritates me no end when I get those as “reads” from China esp.

Comment by Aditya

Definitely. Those things seem more tangible and understandable for those who don’t really get marketing and advertising, but hopefully they can be shown the opportunity of doing things differently.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Not to take away from Rob’s posts (which are always very good), but I oftentimes come back to the blog just to chuckle at what Andy had to say. ^^

Comment by Aditya

Will you be creating a tumblr account detailing your experience of exploring the region from the perspective of 1A and 5 stars?

Comment by John

You seem to be mistaking me with Kevin Roberts.

My seat numbers always start from 10A. Ahem.

Comment by Rob

The business class lounges

Or the gadget shops

Or red light districts

Comment by northern

Funnily enough, my preference is in reverse order to the way you have written it.

Comment by Rob

I like this post. I know that is not fashionable to say, but I do.
It’s passionate, inspirational & educational. I hope you keep it up. I know you can if you want to. And ignore Andrew’s barbs.

Comment by George

i hope to fuck youre pissed or drugged out of your fucking mind or youve got more fucking problems than seal after he sees his alimony bill.

Comment by andy@cynic

and the fucker has ignored every fucking thing ive told him to do for twenty fucking years (unless it involved him latching on to something id done that was sheer fucking brilliance so he could look like a fucking god to others because hes a bastard leech) so what makes you think hell change now.

the stupid bastard.

Comment by andy@cynic

I feel like I have to apologise for not reading the comments except for Pete’s.

Your photos and posts about China resonate with me in a sense that in 90% of specific scenarios you could replace ‘China’ with ‘Romania’ and some things would still hold true – the superstitions, reasons behind buying, traditions, lingering communist upbringing etc. I don’t want to sound too patronising but I can laugh at myself here. Heck even the buildings look the same, I blame communist architecture. So it takes me back to the days when I used to work there and I can’t emphasise how relevant this entry is because of that and the ‘status/family is important so let’s give consumers that and it’ll keep them happy’ thinking. It’s lazy.

I fall into the outsider/mere mortal camp as I’ve never been and I know nothing can prepare you for the actual experience but there are these two really nice books by Xiaolu Guo that seem to describe it just the way as your colleague does through that tumblr. They’re called ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’ and ‘A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’. Such brilliant reads, I’d recommend them in a heartbeat (I read both in about 8 hrs on plane journeys). They must be even more interesting when you already live there even though some people might disagree with me it’s the idea that counts.

If I were doing work in China I’d ask myself other questions before simplifying people to ‘status’ and ‘family’: given China is an atypical communist regime and people are free to consume, how come they’re not demanding democracy? (you only need to look at its neighbours) Why isn’t the internet toppling the regime? If China is so successful, how come no one’s replicated their model? (partly because they lack bureaucratic depth/tradition,and can’t mobilise resources and people – a la Foxconn – in the way that China’s party structure allows). But that’s just because I’m reading for a bloody boring master’s and took time to read a book on Deng Xiapoing and Mao’s famine.

So bravo to your colleagues. You make it sound like it was rough but those are probably the best things about the job really. Nobody sends me to Rochdale!

Comment by Andrea

*Xiaoping but I have fat fingers and can’t spell

Comment by Andrea

I’m very touched you read my comment over all the others Andrea.

To answer some of your questions, the reason the Chinese people don’t “topple” the government is because they love them. In the last 20 years they have given hundreds of millions of Chinese a standard of living beyond the dreams of their parents. Why would anyone want to rebel against that?

Of course the unspoken agreement is “we’ll give you more money and freedom on condition you follow our rules” but again, when they see the shift in their life and opportunities and compare that to the troubles they see in Western markets, they are happy to play the game.

You’re wrong to say the Chinese system has not been adopted by others. Singapore is, for all intents and purposes, China on a smaller scale with better PR, even the founding father LKY says so.

I would say you have a much better grasp of Asian/communist societal issues than many, but your assumptions highlight the need for “on the ground” experts because what is an expected outcome in the West does not automatically translate to Asian behaviour because as Rob likes to put it, their frames of reference are very different.

Comment by Pete

I hope I don’t sound like I’m a self proclaimed expert on Asian/communist culture, I’m not. Rob knows so much more than me but ever since my time living there, I have taken a close interest in its development and have friends, like Rob, who are still there and can fill in any gaps I seek greater clarity on.

Comment by Pete

Nono of course not, I totally get your points. My feeling (and emphasis on feeling, not conviction, I’m always open to learning/discussing stuff) a while ago was that a lot of people were going to Asia to work in advertising because it was easy; if you were born in the 70s in the UK your life experience was totally different for someone born under Mao’s idiocy (in which millions of people died, hence his ‘war is politics with the bloodshed, politics is war without the bloodshed view) so it’s very hard for anyone to begin to imagine why the country has been shaped the way it has…or even Asia for that reason.

I think most of those people are now the ones Rob actually berates all the time – the white people in China’s Campaign magazines and the likes. What’s their apport, really? Hence the frustrations…and I hope I’m not delusional here but only Rob can confirm. We can’t say we know the Chinese better than they know themselves of course. I wouldn’t even dream of that

When I said that other people haven’t copied it, I meant in the Western world – know what you mean about Singapore. Some other conversation, probably too long for these comment boxes 🙂 Am happy to chat via email though! You make some really good points.

My other feeling is that China’s middle class has too much to lose if they rise against. Can the party rule forever? It may well can. (Russia’s in a pickle because of that and I think dark clouds are gathering in that area but mostly because it kept people happy due to oil prices. Not for much longer) I agree with you that the freedom to consume – cars, lifestyles, whatever – is more attractive than vague notions of Western-style democracy. But alas. I’m not there.

I’ll maintain my caveat. But would love to see the place some day when I have money to travel there!

Comment by Andrea

Leave a Reply