Youth expert Nick Barham

Teen survey yields surprising insights

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SHANGHAI--Nick Barham, TBWA Worldwide's Shanghai-based planning director for China, was the force behind the agency's recent youth study. The U.K. native was already an expert in the youth market in his own country, where he penned Dis/connected: Why Our Kids Are Turning Their Backs on Everything We Thought We Knew, published in January 2005. Last month, he met with AdAgeChina Editor Normandy Madden at an exhibit of photographs connected with the study at Xiantiandi, a hip mecca of bars and restaurant in Shanghai, to discuss his findings and how Chinese kids compare to their British counterparts.

AdAgeChina: What was the objective of the TBWA youth study/exhibit?

Nick Barham: We wanted to understand how urban kids feel about growing up in China today. There are a lot of changes going on, and it's impossible not to realize that the world's eye is increasingly focused on China. This generation have many expectations placed upon them, by their parents, by national and international media. How do they feel about coming of age at a time when China is doing the same thing on the global stage? We wanted to understand them on a personal level, which is why we got students their age to do the filming and take the photography.

AdAgeChina: What's the most surprising thing you learned about China's youth market from the study?

Mr. Barham: How keen they were to show and prove that they belong to part of a new, successful, internationalist China. They speak about their parents with fondness but also pity, as if they just don't get the way the world has changed.

AdAgeChina: What didn't you hear from these kids that you would have expected, based on your time in China so far and your experience with youth and youth marketers in other countries?

Mr. Barham: Lack of rebellion, boasting about having sex, taking drugs, getting into fights. Most kids love talking about being a bit edgy or outside the mainstream. This wasn't really mentioned here.

AdAgeChina: Comparing youth in China and the U.K., how do they differ in attitudes toward school, parents, peers, job-hunting and economic outlook for their respective countries?

Mr. Barham: There are lots of similarities between kids here and in the U.K. They love music and celebrities, sport and computer games. Friends are incredibly important to them, and they keep in almost permanent contact with a wide and fluid social circle via phones, blogging, BBSes and QQ (the No. 1 Chinese instant messenger service).

They want to be able to express themselves freely and creatively. They want to look good. Find love. Get drunk. Go dancing. They feel that their parents come from a different time, and don't really understand them. They are worried about their future, seeing the adult world as different and difficult. These are the constants of contemporary global youth culture.

But compared to British kids, they believe that their future is bright, and that almost anything is possible, if they manage to grab the opportunity. They are experiencing a very tangible improvement in their lifestyle. And they believe this will continue. If they try hard enough. They are very focused on material comfort and security.

Many British kids have developed a weariness and cynicism by their mid teens. Many don't believe that the adult world has much to offer them. They're much more likely to be critical of the society they're growing up in. They consciously try to distance themselves from mainstream society.

AdAgeChina: Does the youth market in China compare in trend-setting to the U.K., U.S. or other Western markets?

Mr. Barham: Currently Chinese youth has less influence beyond China, than the U.K. or the U.S. has beyond their own borders. China does not have a music/fashion/creative culture that exports far or easily. But this will change. As Japan and Korea have become more influential--especially in the region--so China's time will come. Especially with the attention that is directed at China. Within China, cities like Shanghai and Beijing play a role in influencing other Chinese cities. Kids look to these first tier cities for ideas, style, language, etc.

AdAgeChina: What do you tell youth marketers new to China is the most important thing they need to understand about this demographic?

Mr. Barham: They're ambitious and upbeat. They believe they are moving into a brighter future. They are looking for brands that will help them to get there or that they can enjoy when they"ve arrived.

AdAgeChina: What brands emerged as their favorites, and what attracts young Chinese to those brands? What motivates this demographic?

Mr. Barham: All of the boys talk about Nike and Adidas. Most of the girls [talk] about high fashion brands like Louis Vuitton. They're much more open to and interested in brands than in the West [and there is] little cynicism. Brands are a sign of membership of a successful aspirational China. International brands a sign of their global know-how, of being connected to a youth culture that stretches beyond China.

AdAgeChina: Who's your favorite person from the study, and why?

Mr. Barham: My favorite person is Xu Zheng, a skateboarder from Beijing. He was the toughest of the kids, but also one of the most thoughtful. He realizes that many adults found his appearance and pasttime upsetting, but was keen for them to understand that he might be different, but he wasn't all bad. He spoke very clearly and honestly.

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