First hand observations of Alibaba's 11.11 Singles Day event featuring Nicole Kidman, Pharrell and more

Alibaba 11.11 Singles Day gala was held at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai.

More than 700 journalists from around the world descended on Shanghai, China last Thursday (9 November), by invitation of Alibaba for its 11.11 Singles Day gala extravaganza and to witness the sales made in real-time.

The Drum was invited by the ecommerce giant for the first time this year and while the data is crunched and analysis is being made, here is the round-up of our experience at the event.

The gala felt like a Chinese game show combined with a concert

This reporter was initially supposed to watch gala on livestream at the media centre with other journalists, but was given a ticket to the show at the very last minute.

From our seats 100m away from the stage, we witnessed multiple stunts like tennis star Maria Sharapova outrunning dominos, former footballer Luis Figo trying to score penalties against a cut-out and athletes jumping sky-high hurdles.

There were also performances from Grammy and Academy award-winning rapper Pharrell and British pop singer Jessie J.

Hollywood star Nicole Kidman then gave the audience an exclusive sneak peek at Alibaba's founder Jack Ma's new 20 minute kung fu movie.

The cast of the show, which includes Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung and Jet Li, then appeared on stage to talk about their experience, as well as to close the show.

The humongous media centre was an experience and felt like a gala on its own

Spending an average of about five hours in the media centre every night, going past midnight, looking at 11.11 sales figures meant that Alibaba needed to make journalists feel comfortable enough to file their stories. They did that by providing two booths filled with cakes and sweets, and generally helpful support staff in the IT centre and translation booths. Every few hours it would be punctuated by live crossovers to other regions, as well as panel discussions on the stage. There were even lucky draws for the media.

No one-on-one interviews, but top executives were more than willing to talk to the media

Perhaps because of the sheer number of press that were present, no one managed to score an exclusive and quotes were limited to press briefings by Alibaba chief executive officer Daniel Zhang and chief marketing officer Chris Tung.

Tung, who gave a presentation on the 'uni-marketing' system that Alibaba uses to gather data on consumers and their purchasing behaviours, was pressed by two European journalists who were worried about the data falling into the wrong hands and what brands can potentially use the data for. One journalist described his shock that there was no data protection measures in place.

Defending the system, Tung said there was perfect 'transparency and accountability' because Alibaba 'will never' share personal data with brands. However, he was ambiguous on what protection measures are in place and would only say Alibaba follow similar measures practiced at Facebook and Google.

An Alibaba spokesperson later released this statement: "Our uni-marketing strategy is aimed at leveraging data and technology across our ecosystem to provide actionable insights for merchants and a personalized experience for consumers. Any information shared with brands, merchants or other third parties is provided on an aggregate and anonymous basis, and we are compliant with all applicable laws and regulations regarding data privacy and cloud computing standards wherever we operate.”

Meanwhile, Zhang's press briefing, was separated in to two sessions because of the size of the press corps. One with Hong Kong, Taiwan, European, Malaysian and international media, while another session was reserved for Chinese media. Still, the large number of journalists in each session meant that questions were limited, with one reporter overhead complaining during the first session: "They only took questions from the Southeast Asian press!"

Note: This article has been edited to include Alibaba's statement on its data protection measures and correct an earlier statement which stated that Zhang's press briefing was reserved for Malaysian and Singaporean journalists.

Shawn Lim

Shawn Lim is a reporter at The Drum, covering industry news around the Asia Pacific region with a focus on Singapore and Southeast Asia. Based in Singapore, he has worked across photography, video and online, covering a range of subjects including current affairs and sports.

Before Game of Thrones, he was a huge Breaking Bad fan. He does CrossFit and yoga to stay healthy.

All by Shawn