Asia's creative ascent: Y&R China's Nils Andersson explains why the 21st century will belong to Asia

Juliet Simms and Muma in 2010 ad for Gap’s launch into China

With advertising from Asia, and in particular China, beginning to make its mark within the industry and beyond, are we witnessing a flash in the pan or a fully fledged creative renaissance in the region? Nils Andersson, the president and chief creative officer at Y&R China, argues that the 21st century will belong to Asia as it assumes the mantle of global centre of creativity.

Within a wider historical context, it can be argued that the 19th century was Britain’s era of world-leading creativity, succeeded by the US in the 20th century – and therefore it is inevitable that, in the 21st century, the global centre of creativity will shift once again.

So will the 21st century belong to Asia? Most definitely. Are we there yet? Most certainly not. We are but 15 years into this century, with Asia having taken mere baby steps on its journey towards creative global dominance.

Within a global context, the greatest creative work in the world accounts for maybe 10 per cent of the whole. And the very best work from China still lags behind the rest of the world, in what can be best described as a thin veneer of excellence.

Certain problems with advertising in Asia are well-documented to the point of cliché – an over reliance on celebrity endorsement is probably the most frequent criticism levelled at China’s abovethe- line output. But going deeper than that, the industry is being held back by the old distribution model. Both local and international brands are very retail-led, with everyone far too entrenched in the outdated ‘sell, sell, sell’ model, with their focus on retail and distribution availability.

But change is afoot, with the government driving China towards being a consumption-led economy. As we’ve seen with many nations across Asia, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore for example, countries mature from merely manufacturing for the rest of the world, to becoming valuable consumers in their own right.

And as Chinese society develops, so we will see a move from sales to brands – from purely tactical communications to deeper branding. This will be a welcome departure from celebrity-driven advertising and spoon-fed messaging, and a move toward making emotional connections between consumers and brands.

When launching in China in 2010 Gap's launch campaign paired next generation Chinese and American stars

Gap China is a good example, being smart enough to refresh its own image in a country that knew nothing of the brand. Back in 2010, upon its debut into the Chinese market, Gap took the time to reassess the brand and put forward its very best self within a culturally relevant context. And it made a deep emotional connection, proving that the potential to connect is very real.

But the fact that it’s still just early days for China’s creative renaissance should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a deterrent, for brands. Indeed while the market, and its marketing communications continue to mature, the climate of mediocrity is ripe for brands brave enough to engage on an emotional, rather than a purely commercial level.

As Gap proved, consumers are ready to connect, and brands should capitalise upon that while they can.

BBDO Singapore's work for Guinness helped put Asia on the map last year, cleaning up at awards shows across the world

Despite it being early in ‘China’s century’, the country’s growth as a creative powerhouse should not be underestimated. The sheer amount of amazing talent; with a population of that size the law of averages dictates a phenomenal number of gifted creatives will emerge from China – many of whom are already gracing the local, regional and global stage.

And now that China has increasing access to the best of the rest of the world, it won’t take long to catch up – and overtake. In fact China’s ad industry is currently at its best in the digital world; because social media demands work that is worth watching and passing on, this is forcing a change for the better.

Overall there are huge opportunities in the digital, social, innovation space. China is developing its own advanced technologies, just as Japan and Korea did so, and these are spawning work that in some ways is more advanced than the west.

For China to truly achieve its creative potential the colleges really need to concentrate on developing the stars of the future. Not just the workers for tomorrow. And clients need to be more exposed to what the rest of the world is doing. It would be great to see more China clients going to Cannes. Once people see more, they try more.

Anything is possible in China. Dream something up, and there is always someone somewhere who wants to make it happen. It’s a very different feeling from working in the west. The Chinese wait for nothing; China does everything at speed. Sometimes you could argue, too quickly, but the rest of the world needs to wise up to the fact that, comparatively, they are moving in slow motion.

Starting his career in London working on campaigns for the likes of Land Rover, Ford and Woolworths, Nils Andersson left the UK behind for Asia in 2001, first as executive creative director at TBWA Japan where he created award-winning work for Adidas and Nissan, then as ECD at Ogilvy Greater China where he won China’s first ever D&AD Yellow Pencil.

In 2010 he moved to Y&R as CCO China, creating the launch campaign for Gap’s entry into the market and leading Y&R to become the country’s most influential ad agency and China’s most awarded agency at Cannes for the past two years.

This feature was first published in the 18 February issue of The Drum.

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