Tonight, in the middle of a New York winter, you're surrounded by Asian advertising at the One Club: Print ads that were read for the first time in gleaming Hong Kong skyscrapers, the back alleys of Bangkok, the steaming rice paddies of Sumatra. TV commercials viewed beneath lazy ceiling fans in Kuala Lumpur, in the hilltop apartments of Taipei, in the jungle villages of Burma.
You'll see work from writers, art directors and cinematographers who have won multiple Golds and Silvers at The One Show; Gold at London's D&AD; Gold and Silver at Cannes. And I'm here tonight to lift the Bamboo Curtain and share the reality of Asian advertising ...
First, let's destroy some myths. There is no such thing as the Asian market. There are dozens of different markets. The Chinese in Hong Kong, the Chinese in Singapore, the Chinese in Taiwan and the Chinese in Malaysia share common values but they all think differently.
And, because each Asian market is at a different stage of economic and political development, so the needs and aspirations of a Taiwanese Chinese will be vastly different from those of a Singaporean or a Chinese Chinese.
Myth No. 2: What works in the West will work in the East. Sometimes it will-the Marlboro cowboy works everywhere. But, generally speaking, it won't. Asians think differently. They communicate differently. Surface appearances mean nothing. American culture, for example, is part of the Asian way of life. But beneath the veneer of pop music, McDonald's and Nike, Asian values-Confucian values, Buddhist values, Muslim values-are still firmly in place. Behind closed doors, the family unit is paramount. Filial piety-loyalty and obedience to parents-still governs behavior on a daily basis.
Myth No. 3: There is an Asian advertising style, an Asian look. Look again, and you'll see it's a fallacy. There are some common threads: there are fundamental differences in the way Asians and Westerners communicate with each other, and through the media. There are certain filters-social, racial, cultural-in every Asian society that will always give Asian work a different feel. And there are certain Asian virtues-humility is one-that preclude arrogance in your tone of voice.
But that's where the similarity ends, because each Asian market is at a different growth stage, and because each one is culturally unique. The Japanese, for example, are like the French: they are true to their own culture, impervious to outside influence. Thailand-the only South Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power-retains its own distinct, undiluted identity. In postcolonial Singapore, Malaysia and colonial Hong Kong, you will find greater evidence of Western advertising techniques. An uncommon mix (some might say an unholy mix) of British art direction and typography on the one hand, and American copywriting techniques on the other.
And, finally, myth No. 4: All Asians are rich. Well, of course they're not. But with economic growth rates of as much as 10 percent a year, things are changing. One phenomenon: in the last decade, right across Asia, millions of people have moved up into a new middle class. This has created greater social stability and an explosion in home ownership. It has also created a nouveau riche class, eager to accumulate more wealth and to express their new prosperity through designer brands and the mandatory Mercedes.
People are proud of their new wealth, they're in a hurry to accumulate more and they have no patience with negative headlines or subtle, obscure advertising. Asians are very pragmatic. They want the benefit, they want it now! In the West, governments grapple with ghettos of poverty and crippling, unaffordable welfare systems. In Asia, families look after their own.
So much for myths. Now, reality. What kind of advertising works best in Asia? Oddly enough, the same kind of advertising that works best in the West. Idea-driven, product-based work. Be simple, direct, focused. Avoid abstractions. Ads with a visual idea transcend all cultural and language barriers. Avoid the use of English language wordplay and puns. They are not ideas, and they won't translate.
The more direct you are, the better. Asians are pragmatic; being clever-clever gets you nowhere. But do be entertaining. Use humour, but not negative humour. The irony found in American commercials would be lost on an Asian audience. Asians don't want to lose face. They also take things at face value: surround your product with negative atmosphere, and nobody will want it.
Make your advertising more emotional than rational. Asians respond more to warmth than Western logic. Recently, after I presented a storyboard to a Caucasian client, he asked me what the audience would take out of it. I said, factually, very little. But it would make them fall in love with his product. They wouldn't be able to quantify their feelings, but they would have an emotional relationship with the product. Oddly enough, many Western clients would be happy if their commercials achieved the same result.
Of course, as always, the rule is: There are no rules. Take the telecommunications sector. One of Asia's best examples of emotional advertising is a commercial from Thailand in which a father going away on a business trip calls his little daughter from the airport on a videophone and reads her to sleep with a bedtime story. It was a heart-warming, moving commercial. In a less enlightened market you can see Asian businessmen strutting around in Dunhill suits, gaining lots of face using their cel phones while an unctuous voiceover rattles off a list of features.
Of course, when you create regional Asian advertising, you have to take all the different markets into account. Even more reason to keep it visual and to keep it simple. Our agency's business campaign for the Australian government is a perfect example. We wanted to create the perception that Australia was a source of new, inventive technology for Asian businessmen-and not just a source of meat pies, blondes and kangaroos. So in each ad we wrote an uplifting story about an Australian invention that was changing the world. Even though the stories were pragmatic, we made them emotional. Each story ran only 20 words or so-not 2,000 words! And each story became the headline, blasted across a beautiful color shot in a different typeface. The effect was visually striking. Each ad was signed off: "If you'd like to work with people who think like this, contact Inventive Australia."
Because the English words were simple, they were easy to understand in English. And because there was no wordplay they were easy to translate into any Asian language, from Thai to Korean. The campaign pulled over 700 responses in two months.
How do consumers perceive advertising in Asia? Overall, they trust it. In sophisticated markets like Hong Kong and Singapore, there might be pockets of cynicism. In newly emerging markets, advertising is the key to the toy shop. There are few consumerist movements to criticize advertising, and there are no consumer lobby groups. Or, perhaps seen from another perspective, Asian advertising hasn't done anything yet to alienate itself.
Are Asian agencies different from American agencies? Yes. It's a question of velocity vs. volume. In the States, you have bigger clients, bigger budgets. In Asia, you have to do a lot more work to make the same money. Asia is where you get real: No lunches, no unions, guts replace research, things move faster, time frames are shorter.
Is Asian work influenced by American trends? Asian creatives have read David Ogilvy. They understand all the concepts like USP and The Big Idea, and they devour all the awards books avidly. In the past, the tendency was to copy-slavishly. Today, input from the West is tempered with a greater Asian consciousness. Campaigns follow the American structure, and a lot of our creativity will be based on American disciplines, but young Asian creatives are interpreting them in line with Asian cultures.
Do Asian creatives try harder? I think they do. Because we're so far away from New York and London, there's a great passion to take our place on the world stage, to prove ourselves. Isolation breeds inspiration.
What is the biggest problem we face in Asian advertising today? A dearth of talent. Advertising's growth has been phenomenal, but there is a dearth of young talent and, frankly, it's our industry's fault. In creative, writers are in very short supply. Not just great young English-language writers, but great young writers in Asian languages. In account service, particularly, we lack inspired strategic thinkers. Because the industry has mushroomed, because there's been no time to train people, you can find young graduates entering agencies in their early 20s and rising to become account directors before they're 30.
So what is the creative state of advertising in Asia? We're going through a time of transition. Ten years ago, expatriates (mainly from Britain and Australia) found it easy to walk into a well-paid job in Asia: after all, it was a so-called hardship posting. Today, young Asian talent is taking over. In North Asia and Thailand, this new wave is breaking the mold in Chinese and Thai. They're tapping into very Asian cultural forms, their work resonates with a new Asian spirit. A lot of English-language work, especially in Singapore and Hong Kong, looks jaded to me. The Philippines, with its raw energy and vibrancy-and its American heritage-could well become a creative force in the near future. Malaysia is very inward looking, resistant to Western influence, but the top creatives there have produced some stunning work. Indonesia, with over 180 million people, goes its own merry way, but, like Malaysia, the talent is there and within five years their work could develop an amazingly fresh identity of its own.
Today, young Asian creatives earn more than many expatriates. In fact, expats often find themselves working for an Asian creative director. As a general rule, unless you have a truckload of One Show Pencils and a great book from Goodby or Fallon, don't expect to work in Asia for $20,000 a month. Expect to earn no more than $8,000 a month. But if you ever do get the opportunity to work in Asia-as a creative, suit or client-take it. You'll not only become a master of the Eastern way, but you will find your Western orientation clarified, purified and