NANNING, China (AdAge.com) -- Imagine going three days without seeing a McDonald's or a Starbucks. Welcome to Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province, the site of the 16th China International Advertising Festival (CIAF) and, ironically, nearly virgin territory for international advertisers.
Nanning has "potential to establish a more global presence," said John Hegarty, chairman and creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and one of the festival's keynote speakers.
Apart from a Walmart and a handful of European and Japanese car dealerships on the outskirts of town, Nanning residents have little firsthand experience with the retailers and consumer brands that have saturated China's most sophisticated cities. Instead, they slurp noodles in dai pai dongs, pick up groceries in neighborhood wet markets and shop for household goods from mom-and-pop shops.
These scenes would not be uncommon in Shanghai or Beijing -- but the absence of foreign brands in Nanning is a clear indication that China continues to hold enormous potential for multinationals as they move from the country's so-called first-tier markets into smaller towns and cities. (As usual in China, "small" is a relative term. Nanning has almost 7 million residents, making it nearly the size of New York City.)
The three-day festival bears little resemblance to Western festivals such as the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival or even prominent Asian events such as Thailand's AdFest. CIAF attracts more than 30,000 people, most of whom are attending a massive exhibition for local firms involved in broadcasting, production and printing, including about 2,000 visitors who are paid delegates attending forums on creativity, internet advertising and auto marketing.
"The opening ceremony felt like the Olympics for an advertising festival, it was quite a surprising event. The crush at the door was almost terrifying. It's the broadest sense of advertising from print equipment to marketing and advertising and government officials, a testament to China's growing economy," said Rob Belgiovane, founding partner and exec creative director of Belgiovane Williams Mackay in Sydney, and another keynote speaker.
Historically, the event only attracted Chinese agencies, provincial firms working with local brands -- yet still accounting for approximately 80% of the ad industry's total billings in China.
During the last few years, the festival's government organizers, the China Ad Association, has reached out to the Western community. Today, a handful of foreigners, usually speakers such as Mr. Hegarty, take part in a one-day international creative forum.
"Bland advertising never offends anyone or pleases anyone," warned the BBH founder during his presentation. "The thing I notice more than anything else [about Chinese advertising] is enthusiasm. I think that's natural when you look at the nation and see what's happening in China today. There is a sense that anything can be done and that needs to be held on to. You can always tell a nation by its advertising. [But] sometimes you fall in love with a technique rather than an idea."
Multinational agencies have also started turning up at the festival to take part in the event's numerous awards shows, namely the Chinese Effectiveness Awards. This year, BBH was one of the top winners, picking up gold awards for Minute Maid and Mentos ads, a silver for a Johnnie Walker ad and a gold media award, also for Mentos.
Omnicom agencies also did well. BBDO Worldwide won best of show and the best idea award for General Electric Co.'s 2008 Olympic Games campaign, plus a silver for Visa's Olympic advertising.
DDB Group won awards for ads for Johnson & Johnson (bronze, Clean & Clear), PepsiCo (bronze, Gatorade) McDonald's Corp. (bronze, Taobao.com promotion) and Chinese dairy provider Yili Group (silver, Yili Milk). TBWA Worldwide won a gold for a McDonald's campaign and a bronze for a Unicef ad.
JWT picked up a silver award for a Bosch Home Appliances corporate-image campaign, and bronze awards for Ford Motor Co.'s Fiesta launch campaign and Yili ads. The WPP agency's Newsun Guangzhou joint venture won a gold award for a Wildlife Conservation Society campaign.
Bizarrely, there is also a popular Chinese Elements awards show, which rewards ads that draw on China's heritage and culture, one of the events that makes the China Ad Festival such a unique event. Held every fall in a different city, the organizers have not confirmed the location of next year's festival, although it is likely to be held in Hong Kong. Hopefully moving to a market with more Western influence won't take away the CIAF's value as a window into the mainland.
"You get to see a side of the industry here that you don't see in Shanghai and Beijing. You get more of a grassroots feel for what's going on in China," said Hong Kong-based Sandy Burns, managing partner, China of Red Spider, who also attended last year's festival in Hefei, China. "You get a fresh perspective of the work and the people. It's a good experience."