A peek at the private world of local agencies

The 14th China Advertising Festival in Qingdao

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QINGDAO--When Qingdao hosted the China Advertising Festival from Sept. 20-23, the seaside resort offered an illuminating perspective on Chinese advertising.

Held in a different city every fall, the festival began 14 years ago as a gathering point for local shops, which historically existed in a parallel universe.

International agencies like JWT and Ogilvy & Mather certainly have grown into sizable agencies, but they represent the tip of a very big iceberg. Local agencies handle the bulk of China’s ad industry, even though many are provincial shops working with local clients.

They operate differently from western agencies, and are less neatly divided into creative, account service and planning departments. But don’t write them off as minor players. They are profitable, often employing hundreds of staff and they have a canny understanding of local consumers.

The festival used to offer a fascinating glimpse into their private world, but that scenario is changing. Two years ago, when the event was held in Xi’An, I encountered only one other foreigner--Michael Lee, the International Advertising Associations’s executive director--and very few delegates from western agencies. And I’m still the only foreign journalist.

With astonishing speed, the organizers have opened the event--three days of seminars, award presentations, and obligatory song-and-dance cultural performances--to the outside world. A handful of international speakers turned up last year in Kunming, such as Jeffrey Yu, regional president of Bates Asia in Hong Kong. (See also, “2006 China Advertising Festival: Kunming,” AdAgeChina, November 1, 2006)

This year, the organizers--the state-run China Advertising Association--boldly invited some of the biggest names in the industry during an international advertising forum on Sept. 22, such as creative star David Droga (who backed out at the last minute because of meetings with a new client) and Terry Savage, chairman of the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

Richard Dale, Bangkok-based engagement planning director, Asia/Pacific at Leo Burnett Worldwide, shared examples of user-generated campaigns for brands like Fiat based on a similar presentation he gave at Cannes last June. David King, creative director of Aim Proximity in Auckland, spoke about the power of direct marketing, and Ng Tian It, exec creative director of BateyAds in Singapore, surveyed some of the strongest creative ideas around the world over the past year.

The response has been enthusiastic. Chinese agencies are ambitious, eager to learn from the outside world and determined to showcase their achievements. Mr. Savage was peppered with questions about when, not if, he thinks China will win its first Gold Lion at Cannes.

Foreign agencies are turning up as well. The festival “is getting bigger and bigger every year. I didn’t go until this year, and that was because two of our clients, Unilever and Johnson & Johson, were winners of effectiveness awards [organized by the American Marketing Association]. But I will definitely plan to go in the future and send a big delegation,” said Shanghai-based Kitty Lun, chairman & CEO, China at Lowe Worldwide.

But the festival also shows how little progress has been made, since Qingdao’s waterfront location is the only similarity to other festivals like AdFest in Thailand, the Golden Drum in Slovenia and, of course, Cannes.

There was no parading along a beachside Croisette boulevard, no late-night Gutter Bar, no glamorous yacht parties--and not much energy despite at least 30,000 attendees at the conference and exhibition, including many students and locals.

“I don’t feel passion,” said Mr. Savage, as a took a drag on a post-speech cigarette outside the venue, an enormous, soulless convention complex on the outskirts of Qingdao. “Advertising is about inspiration.”

Qingdao itself is a testament to China’s progress, with massive downtown construction, luxurious faux-European suburban homes, horrendous pollution and bottleneck traffic.

The decision to hold this year’s event there was also a salute to China’s hosting of the next Olympic Games, which are less than a year away. The games will be based in Beijing but Qingdao will host the sailing events.

Mr. Savage isn’t the only person who wants Chinese creatives to aspire to greater heights. Judges at the Chinese Elements creative awards held during the festival handed out six gold awards but no grand prix this year, because they felt none of the work was exceptional.

That doesn’t bode well for local agencies rooting for China to make a splashy appearance at the big international festivals--but betting against China’s determination to succeed is never a wise idea.

Next year, the festival will be held in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, in late October, and I expect more international speakers--including Mr. Droga, who has promised the organizers that he will attend “to make it up to them” for missing the event this year.

Here here two tips for newcomers: Bring ear plugs to the awards shows. Chinese ceremonies tend to be deafeningly loud, especially if you’re at the VIP table in the front row next to the speakers. Also, try the local food. Anhui is home to one of the eight most famous cuisines in China.
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