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

China Is More Than Just Big Numbers And So Is Singles Day …

As I’ve said many times, I miss China.

I miss everything about it. Except the pollution.

It was – and remains – an incredible important and special place in my life, personally and professionally, and I’m so grateful I get to still do work there.

That said, there’s days where I miss it more than most and today is one of those.

Singles day – because of the date 11.11 – has become the single biggest shopping day on the planet. Bigger than the global Black Friday and New Years Day sales put together.

I have had individual clients sell US$100 million+ of product on that single day … and as huge as that is, it’s nothing compared to some other brands. You see, for all the talk of Singles Day being the luxury brand bonanza, the reality is it’s the more mundane things that sell in far bigger quantities.

There’s lots of reasons for that, of which money is only a small part.

That aside, the whole thing has become an extravaganza … even featuring international celebs [before they were in disrepute] in the lead-up … and yet, while it has finally been ‘discovered’ by many in the West, it still blows my mind at how little they really know, or care, about what started it, what drives it and what it represents to millions in the Middle Kingdom.

Of course I shouldn’t be surprised, because where China is concerned, the West still prefers to be deliberately ignorant to the goings on there … preferring instead to either ignore anything until is comes to the West, or just repeating what they’ve read somewhere without delving more into the culture or the history.

And that’s what I saw a lot there.

In fact, it’s a lot of what I saw wherever I lived, especially in Asia.

The preference for headlines rather than the details.

Easy wins instead of earning your rights.

Acceptance only when it was localised.

What scares me is this attitude seems to be extending beyond just knowing other cultures … but approaches to planning.

Answers rather than listening.
Comments rather than thinking.
Responses rather than considering.
Generalisations rather than nuance.
Complicity rather than a point of view.

I appreciate we live in a world where there is commercial benefit in speed. And while that doesn’t automatically mean it is wrong, it only works if you have people with the real experience and knowledge to be able to answer the problems properly.

There’s a massive difference between someone looking things up on Google and someone who appreciates the nuance and layers that goes behind opinion, beliefs and behaviour.

And yet too often these people don’t get valued by their companies.

Viewed as too costly … when the experience and knowledge they have is the difference between resonating with culture or shouting at people.

Or said another way, doing work that is for people rather than about them.

It blew my mind how little Western markets, and companies, valued my – and everyone else I know who spent considerable time in Asia – experience. I constantly felt a sense of distain from those who had never been there … as if the work and culture didn’t count for anything … despite the history, the economy, the culture and the technology.

Fuck, I had someone recently ask me if I knew TikTok was a Chinese company. A person who claims to be ‘an expert’ in digital. You should have seen their face when I told them that not only did I know that, but it had been around in China for years before it had come to the West.

This does not mean you have to live in another country to care about it. But generally, you do have to if you want to have any way of understanding it beyond the headlines and the superficial clickbait.

Which is why in the next few weeks if someone tries to present you a deck entitled, ‘Singles Day: all you need to know’ … just ask them what the premise is.

If they only talk about big numbers – and, god forbid – something to do with Confucius, run the other way. And if you think I’m joking, I can tell you about the time I was in Beijing and sat in a meeting full of CEO’s and the guest speaker started talking about his proprietary strategy for using Twitter, until it was pointed out that the government ban it there.

This guest was the head of strategy of a major ‘global’ digital agency.

Whether you like it or not, China is vital to your business.

Might be directly or indirectly, but it can’t be ignored, even if your ego has to take the hit.

The fact I have to write this in 2021 is mind-blowing, but here it goes:

Hire Chinese talent.
Value Chinese talent.
Learn from Chinese talent.

I promise you they’ll be able to help you and tell you stuff that is far more insightful and valuable that someone writing a presentation on Singles Day from information sourced via Twitter or the Daily Mail.

Love you China. Miss you.

18 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Brilliant post Rob. So many good things in here, especially the devaluation of experience and the value of the superficial. Your point about China not being respected by the West is spot on. Very disappointing but spot on.

Comment by Pete

I remember being in a meeting at an agency in America.

The conversation turned to the brands new global photographic style which was made to be deliberately ‘futuristic’ so they could convey a message that their new range of electric cars were ‘from the future’.

The thing is, I recognised the backdrop of the photo was taken near a place near where I lived in Shanghai – a very futuristic part of the city.

So I pointed out that while this would convey the idea they wanted in Western markets, it would have issues in China given that is their ‘normality’, which ultimately means it undermines their message.

I was immediately hushed by a colleague who said – I kid you not – “It doesn’t matter because America is more important to the brand than China”.

I looked at them in stunned silence before replying – admittedly with a derisory tone -, “then you know nothing about our client, the World or China”.

Fortunately the client backed me up – because it’s true and China was/is THE market for them – but it was at that moment I realised I worked at a company who was so lacking in Worldliness that they thought nothing could possibly be more important or influential on brands or culture than America.

You’d have thought this exchange may have made them recognise the additional value I could bring to them … that I wanted to bring to them … they didn’t.

So I left and so did the client shortly afterwards.

Same thing happened at another company I worked with. One that had a global footprint and talked about their insight into culture. Total bullshit. Absolute bollocks.

Which is why when I left them, the huge Chinese clients I brought to the company came with me rather than stayed with them.

The prejudice in Western organisations towards anyone ‘not like them’ is insane. Even when their entire future depends on it.

Comment by Rob

I wish I could say I am surprised, but I am not. Though this has helped you make work that rubs the agencies arrogant and ignorant noses in it. Silver linings and all that.

Comment by George

My guess would be the impact of the One Child policy.

Comment by John

bet singles day has got a fuckload smaller since youve stopped buying any piece of electronic tat that was available.

Comment by andy@cynic

Not to mention the arrival of the great freebie drought.

Comment by John

I’m doing quite well with freebies.
In fact I’m having a boom at the moment.

Apple Headphones.
Lego sets.
Coke Zero.
Nike books/sneakers.
Even some bloody chocolate.

But no flights. Disappointed in you Lee. Hahahaha.

Comment by Rob

New normal. Same as the old normal.

Comment by John

nothing is ever fucking enough for you campbell is it? youre a black hole for freebies.

Comment by andy@cynic

Black hole for freebies is perfect.

Comment by DH

i still remember the time that prick from levis told us he wanted to give china the opportunity to buy authentic american culture. watching you explode was the best moment of that whole shitty experience.

Comment by andy@cynic

Yes. That was a memorable moment. Had similar ‘Incredible Hulk’ explosions with Skoda and some prick at NIKE. More people who thought that because they’d read some shitty article in a crappy magazine, they were experts and their view was everyone’s. ARGH.

It’s not that China is perfect – far from it – it’s just there’s incredible things that happen here and the things they claim makes them bad, are also happening in their own backyard, they just refuse to acknowledge or see that, because their ego and superiority complex won’t allow it.

Comment by Rob

The problem is the numbers in China are huge so it dominates Western companies focus and ambitions. Which I presume means they end up prioritising for scale rather than local needs and contexts.

Comment by George

Oh yes, there’s so many examples of that … Mattel and Aldi are standouts for me. Completely failing to understand the context or values of the market which led to them spending tens and hundreds of millions on something literally set to fail from the beginning.

Though to be fair, it’s those people that ensured I built amazing relationships with amazing brands who wanted to do it right. So their pain was definitely mine – and countless others – gain.

Comment by Rob

Is the Aldi example where they opened a megastore but didn’t realize Chinese homes were too small to hoard vast quantities of product?

Comment by George

We certainly learned the hard way.

Comment by Lee Hill

Oh yes, you had some good lessons.

Then you met us. Hahaha.

Comment by Rob

Yes George.

They were thrilled with how many people went through the store on opening but couldn’t work out why the sales were so low. Then they realised they were basically a curiosity destination – where people went just to check out what it was like – but had no intention to buy from them because the way they sold their products [volume] had no relevance to how people bought/stored and used products.

A hundred million dollar fail.

Comment by Rob

Leave a Reply