China's Got Talent, and GroupM Uses Reality Show to Find It

With Turnover as High as 50% at Chinese Agencies, Online Series Aims to Make Media Shop Exciting

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A promotional poster for GroupM's new reality show in China.
A promotional poster for GroupM's new reality show in China. Credit: GroupM

Sunny Sun, a 27-year-old GroupM employee in Beijing, just did her first-ever pitch to a client, Microsoft. Heightening the pressure and sleepless nights were the cameras: She stars in a new reality show designed to get Chinese graduates excited about a career at GroupM.

"24-Hour Pitch" is the media company's second micro-series on online video platforms. The first show, in 2012, had a combined one million views for all episodes and helped attract better job applicants who were more informed about media planning, GroupM said.

The eight-episode show, which debuted this week, is a creative solution to a major problem across the ad industry in China, from the creative side to media, and in the wider business world too – how to attract and keep talented young people.

Mainland China's ad industry has grown rapidly, keeping pace with economic growth, but the education system hasn't adapted fast enough. Well-prepared young hires are rare, agencies poach talent from each other and job-hopping is common. Several executives put annual staff turnover in China's ad world at 40 to 50%.

GroupM says its rate is 30 to 35%. The WPP company says the show's goal is to reach smart, tech-savvy graduates who might not know much about the business.

After GroupM's "The Apprentice"-style micro-series aired in 2012, corporate web traffic increased 5 times, and more than 15,000 potential hires sent in contact numbers. The company also says the show burnished its image, according to survey results, with more people associating GroupM as creative, passionate and devoted to training.

This time it selected 40 young employees, trained them, matched them with mentors, and pitted them against each other for a pitch on how Microsoft users need to update software as Windows XP and Office 2003 prepare to end service. The show has echoes of AMC's show "The Pitch," with media instead of creative.

Ms. Sun said she slept only a few hours during five days of shooting. "The show presents a real slice of our life," she said. "The pitches are very stressful but incredibly exciting."

The winning 8-member team is to share a $3,960 prize. The show is being promoted on social media and appears on online video platforms including Youku.

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Wendy Suen, national talent director, human resources at GroupM China, said candidates "really cried, they laughed, and they really didn't sleep -- it's all real!"

Another reality, she said: "Shortage of talent is a perennial problem faced by all the agencies in our industry."

Education and training are a focus of efforts to address the problem. The WPP School of Marketing and Communications opened in Shanghai in 2011, for example, and Omnicom works with several top Chinese Universities.

Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai is starting a conversation about ways it might drive Chinese youth toward creative careers, in the way the W+K 12 school does in Portland, said Jason White, managing director.

The agency also fosters creative energy in its Shanghai office by offering temporary leases to non-Wieden staffers involved in tech, music, fashion and design ventures. The goal is a "sticky culture" that draws people in and encourages them to stay.

"In a market where you can get a 30% raise (by moving to a new company), you have to have another reason to be there," Mr. White said.

Stefan Petzinger, managing director of Leo Burnett Shanghai, said he receives "hardly any CVs of people who've stayed longer than a year" in their jobs.

Job-hopping boosts low salaries so fast that it's hard to counter. While higher-level staff from the mainland have pay equivalent to that in fully developed markets, starting salaries in China are sometimes as low as 3,000 renminbi, or $500, a month, Mr. Petzinger said.

"If somebody comes to you and says, "I'll give you 4,500 renminbi ($750) a month,' suddenly that's 50% more, so what are you going to do?" Mr. Petzinger said. "Of course you say yes."

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