China’s creative challenge

Just recently at the 2011 Cannes Lions awards, JWT Shanghai won the Press Grand Prix.
An amazing achievement from an agency consistently producing the goods under the leadership of the visionary Lo Sheung Yan. Hopefully it will be seen as further encouragement to a generation of young creative hopefuls that China can excel on the world creative stage.

However, undermining this is a worrying trend that could prove to undo all
of the good achieved by those striving to raise the bar.In 2010 I was invited by the
China Advertising Association to make a presentation at the China Advertising Festival in Nanchang (the venue changes every year, it was Nanchang for 2010).

Usually with this sort of invitation I am inclined to tailor whatever I might present
to be relevant to that particular audience. What is the theme? What might be of interest to them?

And while what I did prepare was an historic overview of the development of
creative advertising in Hong Kong (which I think is of great interest to young people
coming into the industry in China), the organisers made a specific suggestion that
I touch upon the problem of ‘copycat creativity’ in China. Which I thought was an interesting request.

Not knowing too much about the size and scale of the problem, I began to do some research into it and what I discovered blew me away. Upon asking around, I was pointed in the direction of one or two websites where I could find examples of the copycat phenomena. I found ads completely mimicking other ads, identical in every way except for a different logo.

Entire 30 second TV commercials which were copied, frame for frame, from other commercials. The examples featured listed dates when the originals were created, and nearly all of the copycat versions were from creative people in China.

Now over the many years I’ve been in Hong Kong, there have been one or two cases
whereby I’ve seen creative work which has felt uncomfortably similar to something
done elsewhere at some point, usually overseas, seen in an award book or something.

Some cases were clear cut, some were perhaps, coincidence or perhaps ‘influenced
by’ other work in terms of style. Usually these have been rightfully frowned upon
by the Hong Kong creative community. (We’re not talking about creative work which
has ‘borrowed’ from references like illustration or photography, I’m referring to ads copying ads. Designs copying designs.)

But in China, this is not the odd case, it’s something of an epidemic. And it does not
look like going away. I did some asking around via people with solid market experience,
either from China cities or having been based there for a few years, and it seems that
what is wrong with all this is that young people in China don’t see anything wrong with it.

To them, what they do is simply a means to an end. If ripping off other work gets them a
job, then so be it. The objective has been met. How they got there doesn’t matter.

How on earth did this get so out of hand, and who is doing anything about it?

To my (mostly young) audience in Nanchang, I did not hold back. First of all I showed
some of the examples (I hoped and wished that there were some uncomfortable bodies
in there). Then I showed the dictionary meaning (in English and chinese) of what it means to be creative.

And emphasised that it is about being original. About solving old problems in new and
different ways. Etc etc. And I stated loud and clear that unless there is a change of
attitude about this among the young creative industry in China, then the country will be frowned upon and laughed at on the global creative stage.

Time and again there have been examples from China whereby the originality of ideas, of brands and products, have been in question (has anyone seen the retail chain Vancle for example? Hm, wonder where that name came from? ).

It would be shame if the nation became famous for creative advertising which follows
the same shameful and sorry path. Especially as we see from JWT Shanghai’s recent achievements, there are those doing their honest best to take China further.

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