China requires special digital understanding and marketers need to ensure they and their colleagues understand this unique ecosystem. Matt Green, explains.
As with many parts of the Chinese economy, the media market has been characterised by a period of high growth in recent years. Investment into digital, in particular, has skyrocketed to such a degree that China is increasingly being perceived as a ‘digital first’ market. In markets such as this, traditional channels largely play a supplementary or support role, with digital the bedrock of channel planning for many brands.
Discussions at a recent WFA MEDIAFORUM in China, hosted by Unilever and attended by marketers from companies including Mondelez, Johnson & Johnson and The Coca-Cola Company, revealed several key steps for brands to consider in this market.
First, although the Chinese economy’s performance has been less robust of late, the pace of change of the media market remains rapid and the trajectory is upwards. And while the route to growth for many markets has been along well-trodden paths, China sets its own rules and is unapologetic in carving out a fresh track. The highly complex media buying market is one example of this, infamous for having layers of intermediaries and brokers, meaning visibility of the process is rarely more than can be obtained by peering through a keyhole.
This might sound arcane, but at the same time a growing interest in marketing, digital and technology-based communities and events has given rise to an increasingly open, collaborative and progressive marketing community.
This dichotomy is at the heart of the challenge that is marketing in China.
The best response to this when judging how your business should adapt and be resourced (both internally and externally with partners) is to be nimble. Adopt a culture which is open to change and collaboration, reflecting the start-ups springing up in Shanghai and Beijing.
Studying the marketing community closely, and routinely adjusting internal set-up and approach, to keep up with and reflect the level of dynamism in the market is perhaps more important in China than anywhere else. But MEDIAFORUM participants advised that this might not be enough. To survive in China, keep one eye in the present and one eye on the future. Aim to overestimate the pace of change as China has a habit of confounding even the most ambitious growth targets.
Second, the case was made for widespread digital competence. This isn’t an unfamiliar ambition and many companies have made this their target worldwide. But the bottom line is that anyone who can’t do digital in China will be out of work in five years. For one member a basic digital understanding is essential to give marketers a “license to operate”, without which it’s impossible to brief agencies or sign off digital budgets.
Brands need to develop as much digital in-house competency and understanding as possible, and increasingly beyond the traditional digital territories into areas such as e-commerce. While agencies are still viewed as critical resources in China, it was recommended to look at your agency’s current level of expertise as a baseline and aim to exceed this.
But organisations where digital expertise is owned by the few make themselves vulnerable, and it’s critical that this knowledge trickles through to the whole organisation. Companies should use their experts to drive overall knowledge up to a new level, empowering traditional marketing peers and also reverse-mentoring the C-suite, to ensure digital knowledge spreads both laterally and vertically...
Finally, members of the MEDIAFORUM argued that as with any market, metrics are important to assess the efficacy of spend. Marketers should aim to seek out the metrics that matter most and try to resist the temptation to add layers of metrics that divert your focus from core business objectives. The key rule should be to avoid metrics that serve as a proxy for something else (“Likes are not real engagement”).
That China is a unique and complex media market is uncontested. As one member said, the 20 years’ experience acquired elsewhere in the world is worthless here. The good news is that marketers are increasingly open to sharing common challenges and finding common solutions, and the WFA MEDIAFORUM looks forward to facilitating more knowledge exchange opportunities in the future.
The MEDIAFORUM is WFA’s peer-to-peer group dedicated to global and regional media directors. The China MEDIAFORUM was launched three years ago and has been holding regular meetings in Shanghai. It is being chaired by recently appointed David Porter of Unilever.