China may prove to be source of optimism in global gloom

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There is at least one place in the world where the rout of the Taliban was not the lead story in the media recently; where there was arguably a bigger story. That was Greater China (or, more specifically for this columnist, Hong Kong). The story was China gaining belated admission to the World Trade Organization.

To say business in Asia is salivating understates the case. As the greater Asian region follows the U.S. into recession (a mere four years after the last devastating crisis in the region), China is still the beacon for optimism.

Signature moments, such as the WTO decision and the award of the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing, can do nothing but generate yet more buzz and interest in the Greater China economy and fuel the pace of development.

However, as this is China, the potential obstacles are complex and unpredictable. The week before the WTO decision, the Chinese government announced it intended to force satellite broadcasters to use a centrally controlled transmission system, and have them pay for the privilege. Surprisingly, even CNN and MTV appeared relatively unconcerned and positive.

But then you look at the numbers. The $5.3 billion Chinese ad market (AC Nielsen) is expected to grow by some 10% this year over last despite the general regional slowdown. Of the 1.2 billion-plus total population, just under 600 million are aged 30 or under.

The excitement, however, is about more than the latent potential in these numbers. There is, at least in business and particularly in marketing and media, a genuine sense of energy about China and the younger Chinese consumer. If there is one clear message that emerges from time spent with agencies and clients alike, it's that China's young, having been exposed to Western consumerism and its products, not only "want it all" but want it all fast.

Don't take my word for it. During a recent trip to Hong Kong, Advertising Age sibling publication Ad Age Global arranged a roundtable discussion on youth marketing in China. It included regional marketing directors from Coca-Cola Co., McDonald's Corp. and Nike, in addition to the president of MTV Asia and several ad agency and market research big cheeses.

Arguments raged, particularly on the subject of the cultural influence of Japan among young Asians. But there was astonishing unanimity regarding the size of the opportunity, the pace at which growth would come and the readiness of nascent local brands to capitalize on complacent multinationals' errors.

Although many a foreign marketer has poured money into China for years, with few seeing any significant rewards, all the roundtable participants agreed this was about to change. Better still, China's youth seem only too willing to be sold to. They are not only embracing advertising messages but also the media through which they are received. The potential is almost limitless if those media do not fall foul of the authorities-always a distinct possibility, as anyone from the BBC to Time can attest.

Western media organizations that do upset the government have discovered they can get back into Beijing's good books by prostituting themselves shamelessly (e.g., Rupert Murdoch dumping the BBC from his Star TV transmitter and declining to publish the memoirs of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong).

Expect to hear a great deal more about China in the coming months. It's in part because of positive reasons (the hastened opening of what is potentially the world's largest market) and in part because there will be precious little exciting, positive or promising about much of the rest of the marketing world for the next year.

A final caveat: It is equally clear China is no longer content to confine itself in business to operating within its own borders. WTO admission works both ways and, at the very least, the Chinese have their eyes on greater Asia. We have all been warned.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity.

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