By Julie Bilby
Michael B Griffiths is Director of Ethnography at Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China. He is also Associate Research Fellow, White Rose East Asia Centre; and External Research Associate, Centre for International Business, University of Leeds, UK. We excerpted part of his book, Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In, on Wednesday. This is part two of our interview, read part one here.
Shanghaiist: How do you define creativity (in general)? Does this differ from your understanding of advertising creativity?
Michael B Griffiths: When you ask me to define creativity, I’m thinking of the ways people do things differently and uniquely, and why…
SH: As I look around Chinese cities, I ask myself questions like, ‘who is the arbiter of creativity’ and ‘who says the advertising in China is any more or less creative than what we see in the west’?
MBG: That’s exactly the sort of question we should be asking. You know, it’s not very creative to arrive at a fixed definition of creativity! And you can quote me on that. Rather, there are many different understandings of what creativity is. But at a certain level of abstraction, understandings of creativity familiar to, say, people in Britain, or people in “The West”, are different, are only so far overlapping, with understandings in China.
We’re talking about brands that are often marketed by multinational firms in a local market – a market where the meanings that circulate are partly informed by overseas cultures. But nevertheless, there are conflicts between locally agreed understandings of creativity. And certain sectors of the population take up different stances in relation to these conflicts: they’re disposed to like or prefer, or identify with particular meanings, often to the exclusion of others. So, when we look at advertising communications we can identify codes or patterns – sets of themes, regularities or differences. We can use those to create a sort of approximate map of the texture or the landscape. Certain brands may profit more favorably from adopting certain codes or different themes; certain codes or themes may play well in particular categories and perhaps don’t in others. But then, there’s an opportunity to borrow codes common to one category and use them in another. That’s often where the opportunity is…
Often you don’t need a systematic analysis. When you have developed a critical perspective on the meanings that circulate in the market or culture, you already have a sense of what might play well and what might not. Of course, local people do this almost automatically – by nature. But what local people often don’t have is the critical perspective necessary to harness what is implicit in culture for strategic advantage. None of us transcend our own perspective – and that’s really the issue – but through training in the social sciences you learn to critique your own perspective in the process of looking at that of others’. This is, of course, what anthropology is – it’s always been about people from ‘outside’ the culture looking at it. But then, you have plenty of Chinese anthropologists writing about China as well. They do, however, often on the basis of training by foreign academics, in overseas schools, and by reading texts not written in Chinese.
SH: For those of us Westerners who work in or around the ad industry, there is little question that advertising creativity is important, but do you think that Chinese consumers respond to more creative ads?
MBG: Advertising effectiveness correlates with creativity, but the definition of the creativity itself is culturally informed and understood differently by different people. And when a consumer sees an ad, they don’t say, ‘Oh I like that because it’s really creative’; they just like it or they don’t because it has a certain resonance. The simple fact is, the ad either gets you or it doesn’t, and it gets people in different ways. That’s why we use ethnography, because the consumer can’t really explain why ads connect. If you just ask them why they behave the way they do in a focus group, they can’t really answer you. That’s why you do deeper cultural analysis. Ads are creative to the extent that they connect with consumers.
Let me give you a concrete example of how this works because I can see that my pulling apart of all these fundamental constructs is challenging. We’ve got this massive transnational firm here – Ogilvy & Mather – and we’ve got local clients and international clients; they’re quite different. Again, we can’t just compare international ads to local ads; it depends on the brand and the category. But our KFC adverts are very different to our Lee jeans adverts. The KFC ads are quite localized in terms of the codes and colors that they emphasize, because localization is a major thrust of KFC’s strategy. Other brands chose to emphasize their foreignness – it depends what you’re interested in. Into this matrix we have recently had a new Chief Creative Officer arrive, a British guy called Graham Fink: a very highly acclaimed, very senior guy. I’m sure if Graham were here, he would say that he’s had to adapt his approach to China, adopt new strategies, and fuse where he’s coming from with where he understands the Chinese to be coming from – and that’s how you get results. So is our work creative? That’s subjective. Are they Western or Chinese, or both? What matters is that they work.
SH: So, in your experience, does Chinese ad creativity ‘look’ different to Western ad creativity? Are there specific Chinese tastes and characteristics that creativity taps into or addresses?
MBG: My opinion on this is informed not by making ads, but through my journey through China. In both the West and in China, creativity is about making the world your own. In the West, particular circumstances mean that a particular form of creativity is valued and agreed as creative – as a positive thing. And that usually involves attracting attention, taking ownership for that sort of stimulus: standing out, very crudely put. In China, a different set of particular circumstances means that a different kind of creativity is valued. For the most part, China hasn’t valued taking ownership of new interventions, rocking the boat, about attracting attention. Rather, it’s been about keeping your head down, about not getting caught, about being smart and negotiating other people’s rules whilst turning those rules to your advantage. It’s not simply the opposite of standing out – i.e. fitting in. Rather, it the case that one is socially recognized in that sense: you stand out for fitting in.
So, in Mao’s time for example – a period which still has a huge influence over contemporary China, individuality was remarkably standardized in accordance with Communism. Socially legitimate practice was distinctly political. Nevertheless, there was a legitimate practice so it wasn’t about just avoiding the things that you weren’t supposed to do. It was about getting things done in spite of constraints – through underground markets, obtaining restricted goods through your guanxi network, using your connections to facilitate things. But doing all this as if you were doing it for your superior, for the nation or the party: not for your own personal benefit. And then your skill or ability, let’s say your creativity, would accrue a sort of social value. You might even be a ‘fixer’ – someone who could get it done for other people. So the illusion that Chinese people are not creative is just complete nonsense. It’s just that they have to get things done in particular ways. The bureaucracy, the red tape; whole sectors of the economy are difficult to access. Yet people nevertheless still get things done.
Advertising creativity in China needs to strike an emotional connection. It’s about a resonance. And the most distinguishing criteria of professional insights expert is the capacity to feel this emotional response yet place it in context.
SH: A number of advertising practitioners have mentioned how difficult it is to recruit – and keep – talented Chinese-grown advertising creatives. They suggest that there is a creative skills shortage in China – at least in the advertising industry.
MBG: Is there a creative skills shortage in China? I pose that as a rhetorical question because, in light of what we’ve said thus far, I don’t think we can say that there’s a creative skills shortage in China. We must accept that, in their own ways, Chinese people are highly creative. It’s just that multinational firms, or firms operating in this marketing sector – which is largely imported from the West – find it hard to recognize creativity because the people that they find and employ don’t think in the same way as they do. I’m trying to avoid saying that Chinese people are not creative. Rather, I’m saying that they are what they are and they are creative in their own ways. But then you get these firms coming in… and this is where I come into it because O&M, like every other firm in our industry, struggles. We’re growing very fast. We have very talented people, but we need more people, and the universities don’t train people very well.
China has come from the fields in the last 20 or 30 years and getting creative professionals to behave in the hyper-creative ways familiar to Western advertising agency is tough. But Chinese people are all being creative in their own ways. They’re all communicating with each other across the room on these different digital formats. They’re working on all sorts of different things, expanding in all sorts of ways not simply prescribed by their employers. So it’s a function of the environment rather than something innate (or not innate) to Chinese people, and it’s a problem for the people formulating the question, rather than for talented creative staff themselves.
SH: So what kind of training do you think future creative and advertising professionals should have, if the universities are not meeting the demand?
MBG: We have to recognize that in the broader scheme of things, China’s ‘opening up to the world’ has been very much about the introduction, or re-introduction, penetration, distribution of fundamentally Western or increasingly globalized practices – rather than looking at local norms. And this is especially the case when we’re talking about consumerism and the production of consumer culture in advertising agencies. So although there is an onus on employers to try to understand the locals, we can’t get away from the fact that if the locals want to compete outside of the local market – in and through a transnational agency – then they need to adopt certain ways of doing things, certain modes of communicating, in order to make themselves heard and to take up positions in that. People are doing that everywhere and it’s not simply that people are becoming more Western: it’s just modernity, it’s about the changing relation of the individual to his / her environment.
I don’t think that doing qualifications in marketing or advertising are necessarily beneficial – perhaps especially in China. I go to these places where students are all studying marketing and stuff… and I’m sure there are some great schools. But I don’t think a business education necessarily prepares you for business in the world; in fact there are many flaws with business education.
We need people that can think and people who can craft. Both are important. We need people that can analyze and come up with their own ideas, ask questions and explore things. Following a prescribed course of study is only ever going to help you so much; it’s not going to help your clients really get ahead of their competitors in this field. I think that the people that will really make things happen in the future, the people who bring something else in, will be specialists in particular areas, consultants in individual areas, such as innovation and strategy. I’m not sure that you necessarily need a generic education in these areas.
Agencies should look for those kinds of people – they could be trained in psychology, they could be trained in cultural theory, they could have studied history. Our global CEO, Miles Young did. You’ve got to have that diversity. If everybody in your company’s done a marketing degree, then I’m not sure that’s adding much value to your business. What I’m trying to say is that it’s about people. You can take a person and you can more or less get them to work, but to a certain extent, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
That said, I suppose the final thing to clarify that it’s not a lack of something fundamental in Chinese people that is the issue, but an issue of institutions, education and training. I’m sure as China further opens up we’ll discover all sorts of Chinese creativity that we never knew Chinese people were capable of…
Michael B Griffiths is Senior Director, Ethnographic Research at Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China. He is also Associate Research Fellow, White Rose East Centre; and External Research Associate, Centre for International Business, University of Leeds. His book, “Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In,” is available at on- and offline bookstores worldwide.
Julie Bilby is a former advertising art director. She is now Program Director and a Lecturer in the Bachelor of Communication (Advertising) program at RMIT University, Melbourne. Julie is currently researching a PhD – looking at the role and value of advertising creativity in China.