China's Ad Festival Is No Cannes, but It's Getting There

Normandy Madden From Qingdao

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When Qingdao hosted the China Advertising Festival 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 parallel to those in the Western world. International agencies such as 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 advertising, though many are provincial shops working with local clients.
Normandy Madden
Normandy Madden is editor of AdAgeChina and Asia editor for Advertising Age. She is based in Hong Kong.

Don't write them off as minor players. They are profitable, often employ hundreds and have a canny understanding of local consumers.

Two years ago, when the event was held in Xi'An, I encountered only one other foreigner -- Michael Lee, the International Advertising Association's executive director -- and very few delegates from Western agencies (I'm still the only foreign journalist). But with astonishing speed, organizers have opened the event to the foreigners. A handful of international speakers turned up last year, and this year the state-run China Advertising Association boldly invited some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Terry Savage, executive chairman of the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

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.

But the festival also shows how little progress has been made. Qingdao's waterfront location is its only similarity to other festivals such as AdFest in Thailand, the Golden Drum in Slovenia and, of course, Cannes. There was no parading along a beachside boulevard, no late-night Gutter Bar, no glamorous yacht parties -- and not much energy, despite at least 30,000 attendees, including many students and locals.

"I don't feel passion," Mr. Savage said, taking a drag on a post-speech cigarette outside the enormous, soulless convention complex on the outskirts of Qingdao. "Advertising is about inspiration."

One of several awards shows held during the festival, the Chinese Elements Creative Awards drew just 159 entries, and judges chose not to award a Grand Prix. (The ceremony was scheduled at the same time as the Effie China awards.) That doesn't bode well for local agencies rooting for China to make a splashy appearance at the international festivals -- but betting against Chinese fortitude is never a wise idea.
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