Letter From Nanchang

Talent Pool in Ad Industry Can't Keep Up With China's Fast Growth

Ad Age Editor Abbey Klaassen Reports From Nanchang

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Abbey Klaassen
Abbey Klaassen
NANCHANG, China (AdAge.com) -- It's ironic, but the biggest challenge facing marketers and advertising agencies in this country of 1.3 billion people is a lack of human talent.

Nearly everyone I've spoken to on this whirlwind trip through Shanghai and now Nanchang, where the country's local advertisers are gathering for the China International Advertising Festival, has complained that the talent pool here is just not deep enough to support the kind of growth the industry is undergoing.

"Talent" was the unequivocal answer when I asked the general manager of one multinational's luxury operation in China what keeps him up at night. And Bryce Whitwam lamented the fact that there are lots of fresh grads in China, but too often the training and talent level just isn't there. "People can't find jobs. And we can't hire them," he said, recalling when his shop interviewed 30 people for a design position and none of them were right for the job.

Why is it so hard to find people to support the burgeoning advertising and marketing industry in the land of plenty? For starters, China's business culture is a young one and the training programs are still relatively underdeveloped. Many of the people running marketing teams and in senior positions in agencies are from Taiwan, Hong Kong or North America: "ABCs" and "CBCs" (American-born Chinese and Canadian-born Chinese, respectively).

There's also the fact that advertising hasn't been one of the country's more important sectors, as viewed by the government. Instead, it's pushed areas such as automotive or telecommunications, rewarding those industries deemed "pillars" of the economy with investment and development assistance.

And then there's the fact that the market is changing so dramatically and rapidly that many universities (which are mostly state-run), staffed by advertising professors who haven't practiced in decades, aren't training a ready-to-hire marketing workforce. And that's when there are advertising programs at all. Our own Normandy Madden, who covers advertising for Ad Age in China and greater Asia, has been invited to speak to journalism students at Shantou University about advertising because the school doesn't have its own marketing program, though it's developing one now.

There are other various theories, some more reasonable than others: Chinese youth don't grow up with regular part-time jobs, unlike many Westerners for whom it is a coming-of-age ritual; the millennial generation that's coming into the workforce simply doesn't know how to tackle difficulty and adversity; and the Chinese education system teaches kids to pass tests but not how to think and create.

From a creative standpoint, some blame for the talent drought probably lies with the fact that many of the local agencies make most of their money on commissions associated with media buying, relegating creative to a lesser role.

And, frankly, the situation is worse for agencies than marketers, as clients often poach their agency talent.

Viveca Chan, who runs a successful Chinese marketing shop called WE, describes a creative exodus from the industry that sounds eerily like what we've experienced in the U.S., with creatives leaving to launch their own creative boutiques, or taking on higher paying jobs in other sectors such as consulting or finance.

So with all of this, the market seems ripe for some education investment. Where is the VCU Brand Center for China? Some universities are adding marketing programs -- such as Shantou, mentioned above -- and there may be more on the way, given the government's recent interest in investing in the local advertising and media industries. But when I brought up the notion during my week of meetings, few people seemed to enthusiastically buy into the solution.

Perhaps it'll just take time, but the question is whether the market can afford to wait. Measured-media spending grew 16% this year, per Group M, and most suspect we'll see double-digit growth in advertising for the next five years, since ad spend tends to outpace GDP.

And when I asked Richard Lee, the CMO of PepsiCo China, what keeps him up at night, his response was as unequivocal as the aforementioned luxury marketer's: "Whether we marketers can keep up with the fast pace of development."

Abbey Klaassen is the editor of Advertising Age.
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