Cannes Lions 2016: Creativity is Instrumental for China’s Future

by: Navjot Singh on 26 June 2016

12ahead caught up with Simon Cao, China Marketing Director at Beiersdorf and Wei Fei, Chief Creative Officer for Greater China at FCB to learn about their insights into China’s Digital Transformation

"Focus more on the user, rather than data itself"- Wei Fei

12ahead: Can you highlight a digital trend that you believe will be useful for your clients and creative agencies in China, and where do you believe they are going wrong when they shouldn’t be?

Wei Fei: From a creative agency's viewpoint we see digital being used a lot and applied a lot. Clients and strategists are talking a lot about it on a daily basis, and almost every client requests us to help them with social and mobile. In China, I find that it is chaotic and creative in the digital world. Clients are focused more on the volume versus the actual quality of the work because both of the volume and the market. All the creative agencies are rushing to chase the latest trend and apply it to their campaigns, and it is almost the 'last minute' kind of rushed mentality. This means that we are sacrificing the creative quality against all the latest new technologies and trends that are emerging. But now, I feel that creative agencies are focusing on the heart of storytelling, which is true to our industry and all the technology being used is great but these are just tools but they are not the solution to the issues of having a good quality marketing campaign.

Usually, I think that creative is all about solution and quality. But in reality this is not the case, in my opinion. So, for example, here at Cannes Lions, VR is a hot topic this year, and what worries me is that most of the time creative agencies will use a particular trend just because it is a hot trend rather than focusing on the quality. Agencies have the perception that just because something is a hot topic or trend, they assume that the clients and consumers will use it. But I think that is wrong because you need to really understand the user a lot before applying anything into the market. You have to think as an agency, and ask yourself, does it fit my purpose and does it provide a solution to my problem? Sometimes the problem cannot be solved by technology, but technology helps us to understand something behind the technology, and that is people. All the technology helps us to understand the people more.

12haead: So, it is really about understanding the user, right?

Wei Fei: Yes, indeed. For example, data is another big topic here at Cannes, but what I have found is that we have a lot of tools to capture the data but we (agencies) don't develop a lot of skills to analyse the data. People generate the data and data is about the people and so people are important when it comes to data. Things like their behaviour, their needs, and what it makes you feel and what can you do to change that thing to solve the problem.

12ahead: Simon, how does it seem to you?

Simon: This is my first time to Cannes, and from what I have seen here in the past two days, especially from the awards ceremonies in the evenings, it has turned out to be a big shock and quite sad for me. When they host announced the winners, and when you hear the applause from the audience then it is not just for one individual but it is for the whole country. When you hear, for example, the US and the UK and when they win like 4 or 5 awards for the same category, and that really shows the power and you feel very proud of the country. However, very sad that very seldom any China agencies or China cases even get to win one or two awards.

12ahead: Why do you think that is?

Simon: My thinking is that as a country the Chinese are weak in creatives. We have over 5,000 years of rich history and in this long history actually, no matter in painting or sculpture or in sculpture, we all have our big masterpieces and at that time these kinds of masters are well recognised by the ancient kings. So, the creativity at that time was much more important comparing to the current times. These days’ people don't recognise the power of creativity in China because these days the only criteria to judge success is more about materials and money. Things such as how much money you make and how big a business you build are all geared towards this hunger for speed rather than quality. So, if you judge everything by how much money you make then it will be a much short-term success. That's why when we work with an agency five or ten years ago, we would look at the objective of the campaign, we try to build a massive awareness, and now as a client we always put the purchase as first priority and see how we can drive purchase as a primary objective. Normally to achieve this objective we have to sacrifice or compromise creativity- basically the quality of execution. This is one of the reasons why in China in some areas, such as e-commerce, are developing so fast. That is why everything you see on an e-commerce website is about price-driven rather than content driven quality.

12ahead: What is your perspective viewpoint on Chinese digital brands going global?

Simon: Firstly, you need to have a local mind-set. Some of local players are robustly growing their business. There are examples where a local brand has come on the market and then after a few years they have disappeared because they have weak brand building skills. Brand building is not really there and they don't have the global mind-set. There are definitely a lot of things that we can learn from the global big players in terms of their strategic planning. Chinese local players have a strong entrepreneurs but they have very weak strategic planning skills.

12ahead: So, Wei Fei, how do you think your clients have evolved in terms of digital transformation in China in the past five years?

Wei Fei: Digital and mobile are almost like a revolution and both are big topics. Massive channels have been created, and the consumer’s touchpoints has become more complicated. It used to be the TV and print in the past. It is a learning curve for the agencies because agencies used to be proud to work with the TV and print companies, and everyone knows that the future is in mobile, social media, storytelling, big data and digital. All these are new to the agency work. Here at FCB, we are all experiencing these new trends and transformation. From the executive level, there is a knowledge shift and knowledge refresh course every year (provided to all staff). We have had quite a few structural changes and we have introduced innovation officers into our network. We have a lot of learnings every year. Just this year we arranged a visit to Silicon Valley in the US and spoke to leading innovation companies such as Google and YouTube to get their opinion on innovation and especially on the communication world. We are also changing our planning department. So, our planners used to be brand planners, now we have the brand planners, channel planners and also we have technology advisors in the network to provide different opinions.

12ahead: Are there any particular case studies you would like to highlight?

Wei Fei: Yes, Oreo sticks to mind. It is related to big data and how Oreo used big data. There are a lot of competitors in the cookie making industry in China. Oreo sales kept dropping and so Oreo wanted to target women for its next marketing campaign as this was an area where they were making losses, according to research data. However, the research in China showed that women did not prefer the cookies because they contain a lot of calories etc. and they only bought the cookies for their kids. So after lots of research & development in how we could get Oreo to persuade more women to purchase their cookies, we came up with an idea. So, we decided to change the product, we reduced the size of the cookie and the product box. We created a thinner Oreo. So, this is an example of where we used data and CRM insights to revolutionise the product to make it more sellable.

12ahead: What do you think are going to be the trends or areas that agencies and clients need to focus on?

Simon: Yes, I have four points:

1. Reach is very important when in China because in China, no matter if it geographically or in terms of the population, it’s too big and too complex of a market. If you look at the channel dynamics, it is super complicated. If you want to make your brand big and if you really want to make a sizable business then reach is still important. Having said that, even though TV is not watched by many of the young generation these days, but they still watch TV but only certain TV programs. I think TV is still the effective media channel in my opinion to build reach in China. Don’t reply purely on digital because you will lose many of the consumers.

2. E-commerce is important. Looking forward to the next five to ten years, especially in the FMCG industry, 40-50 per cent of sales will be coming from e-commerce and household brands Alibaba and Aliexpress dominate the domestic market in China. Besides TV, e-commerce maybe the biggest or the 2nd biggest you may end up using. TV is a push model and e-commerce is more of a pull model where you search for the keywords because they like your brand.

3. Big Data is going to be a big trend and going to be one to watch out for. eCRM is a trend I believe will dominate soon. We have over three million Nivea consumers on Tmall (managed by and we as a company need to understand those consumers (as an example) to be able to provide a better service and products to them.

4. Creativity. China is not a country weak at creativity but we need to bring this back as we used to be big on creativity. To build a long-term sustainable business, companies, agencies and clients need to build on superb creativity, and we need to bring back creativity. 

Wei Fei:

1. Content is really important because with technologies such as ad-blocking, you need to provide a really engaging content and this is something that people will buy. We always say that you can block an ad but you cannot block a story. If your content is really good and it is a story that is touching people's hearts they will talk about it and then it is not an ad (though it may work as a smart ad).

2. In an era of technology, we should really focus on people and not technology because it is really easy to get confused by all the fancy technology but don't forget that all the technology is for people and the data is created by the people. It is all about the people and the user. Understand the user. 

3. Keep refreshing your knowledge and keep understanding new trends. Treat your work as a project that will inspire others, through your learning curve.