First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

WARNING: Boring Work-Related Post

Family In Beijing Countdown: T-Minus 6 days

Today's post is dedicated to my coworkers back home, who are probably the only people who will care (except for Ron. Ron don't care about nuthin' but Ron.)

I guess I shouldn't lose sight of the fact that I'm here on a work-exchange program, not a holiday, so today's post is devoted to some of my observations and learnings from 7 weeks in a major Beijing ad agency.

Turnover: I made a joke about Banana's going-away email a few weeks ago, but she wasn't the only one. In a span of less than 2 weeks, there were 4 "this is my last day" emails in the creative department alone, which is about 30 people.

While the concentration might be a little high, the trend is not. I asked my boss and he said the annual turnover is about 30 percent. The causes: poaching from other agencies and burnout. It's a young industry, and for the local employees (as opposed to imports from Hong Kong, Singapore or elsewhere) I imagine there isn't yet much loyalty built up.

Or is there another reason? Let's look at the distribution of recent departures:

Hmmm. Maybe it's an odor.

Global Politics: I get the impression that global brands love China and want advertising troops on the ground in Beijing, but aren't yet ready to fully turn over the reins. These global brands tend to be based in Western countries, and their lead advertising office is there as well. Work done in Beijing often gets routed through San Francisco, New York, London or Paris - which, needless to say, means more cooks in the kitchen, and more time to come to agreement on things like creative briefs.

I've heard stories of overseas offices taking over partway through a project; or asking for their work to be faithfully translated (which often doesn't work when wordplay is concerned.)

I've also heard horror stories of satellite offices (not in my agency, natch!) creating local work that creates a full-blown scandal, so how quickly do you let a young office with less experience call the shots?

On the one hand we have local offices to create work relevant to their market. On the other we have global leads to ensure consistent quality. And I promise you this is not unique to my agency. I don't have the answer, but I can say there is some tension there, and maybe always will be.

Equality: One effect of China's past is that women, men, minorities, EVERYONE has always been expected to do their share, and everyone has to be treated the same. Now that the market has opened up, it seems to me that people are judged and promoted on merit in the sliver of upper-middle-class white-collar China I've seen.

Both in the agency and at the client, I don't see any substantial difference in the number of men or women in positions of authority. Nor, as we were told growing up, have I seen a dearth of women - I'd say my office is about 50/50. Describing race relations is difficult - there are many ethnicities in China, but 95% of them are Han Chinese, and foreigners who are here both want to be here and are wanted.

I realize I'm only seeing a miniscule sliver of China, and I don't fully understand what I'm seeing even then. But worth mentioning just the same.

Work/Life Balance: Little to be found! As I've said, people often work 10-12 hour days, and often weekends - not just occasionally, like I do, but consistently. That's not to say they don't grumble, but it's an entrenched way of doing business now.

Overwhelmingly, my coworkers are single and childless. As one coworker observed, it's hard to tell "if we work so much because we're single, or if we're single because we work so much."

Audience Segmentation: Sure, you have 1.3 billion people, but they range everywhere from agrarian nomads to high-powered high-tech billionaire capitalists. This, needless to say, poses challenges for advertising.

Take computers. If you buy media nationwide to sell your computer, in Tier 1 and 2 cities, you have to convince them that your processor is superior to the one they bought a year ago. In Tier 3 and 4 cities, you have to educate them why they should buy a computer.

The obvious solution is multiple tiered messages. The solution that often gets chosen for budget reasons is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I think people find that very frustrating.

And online, where each site is purchased individually and sites report their own results - Good news! We hit our targets once again! - there is a lot of skepticism. I've only seen very rough media plans, but what I've seen seems to have been a 'wide net' strategy. Everyone reads news, so lets go to the news sites. Everyone uses search, so we'll buy search terms.

It's changing - DoubleClick just came to town - but since there aren't even common advertising formats from site to site, the efficiencies of scale and quantifiable results we enjoy back home are still coming.

And lastly, this will be funny just to select people back home, especially to John and Ron:

There is a very high-ranking global leader from New York visiting tomorrow. Last week, the managing director asked me to get involved in producing a video that captures the spirit of Beijing and showcases our work.

Not my area of expertise in MANY ways, but I think it worked out all right. I created a theme, a tagline and a structure for the video, including crude storyboards, then my boss created a visual motif, then people filmed it, edited it together, blah blah blah.

But then the managing director said the music chosen was too slow. She wanted something upbeat, energetic - you know, cool music!

In putting together showcases of our work back home, I've often helped select the music. Heck, my iPod is full of songs, most of which probably haven't been heard here. I sat with my boss and he selected Cobrastyle, by the Teddybears, as one he wanted to try out. I got a copy to the video guy (who doesn't speak English).

Today we saw the almost-final cut. There had been some debate about the song, so I wasn't surprised to find that an executive decision had been made to use a different song.

They wanted something uptempo, with a strong beat, something unusual and modern that will sound good to Western ears. It was signed off on by everyone up to and including the managing director, despite my expressing some concern about this particular song.

Which is why, when this high official from New York arrives at his Beijing welcome dinner, he will see traditional Chinese motifs in a video featuring his Chinese counterparts - set to an Irish jig.