Leon Lai’s viral sensation marks the rise of digital advertising in Hong Kong

Hong Kong companies are using stars in their online ads as digital advertising in one of the world’s most connected cities threatens to overtake advertising on traditional media

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2016, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2016, 2:55pm

Canto-pop star Leon Lai-ming’s deft crisis-handling last month, when he had to cancel the first of his comeback concerts at the Central harbourfront, couldn’t have come at a better time for Nestle marketing manager Kim Lam Ka-ki.

It was as if the company had hit the jackpot, says Lam, who was in charge of its instant coffee ad campaign.

The company had filmed a commercial for their Nescafe brand with Leon Lai that was scheduled for a month-long run on the Facebook platform. Released just after Lai became an accidental hero (praised for having better PR skills than Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying), the clip quickly went viral.

It has racked up more than four million views, making it the most-watched advert to be made in Hong Kong.

“The deal with Lai was finalised in March. It’s our first collaboration with him. Because we are doing an online campaign, we have to find a celebrity who is social-media savvy. Many celebrities have a big presence on Facebook and Instagram, but they don’t have Lai’s charm,” Lam says. (The singer has been dubbed the King of Golden Phrases because of his penchant for enigmatic comments.)

“We did research on the public response to his [social media] posts and found they had 99.4 per cent “like” and only 0.6 per cent “dislike”. For an online campaign to succeed, it’s important to find someone with few haters.”

Besides Lai’s pulling power, the Nescafe clip featured another stellar personality – Roy Tsui Ka-ho (better known under his pen name Lam Yat-hei), a co-founder of the irreverent weekly 100Most

and its multimedia platform, TVMost.

Produced by the 100Most team, the commercial illustrates how the advertising scene is changing in the digital age.

According to a recent Nielsen survey, television remains the leading platform for advertising budgets for now, accounting for 16 per cent of total spending, followed by newspapers with 14 per cent.

But some industry insiders believe spending on digital advertising in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most connected cities, may well overtake that on traditional media within the next few years.

Spending on digital advertising in Hong Kong tipped to exceed traditional media campaigns’ share in a few years

Kim Lam’s spending seems to corroborate that view: about 90 per cent of the advertising budget for Nestle’s coffee, confectionery and food products is now spent on digital platforms instead of traditional media channels such as television.

“The digital-to-traditional ratio is 9 to 1 now, compared to 3 to 7 four years ago,” she says. “The power of online media is huge.”

If it were five years ago, Kim Lam says, they would have placed the commercial on TVB even though a 30-second spot would cost more than HK$200,000. And that’s not including the production cost.

A four-minute clip to promote their new Nescafe white coffee would have been quite prohibitive to run as a television campaign.

But their social media push has been very cost-effective.

“We paid Facebook several thousand dollars for pay ads which ran for a couple of days after the campaigned launched. We also paid very small amounts to other channels like YouTube and some digital publications to promote the advert for a short time.But after the first couple of days, the advert just went viral.”

It amused viewers to see Lai cast against type as a dorky office worker who tries to convince his boss (Roy Tsui) to taste the new coffee. As social media users began sharing the ad with friends and followers, there was no need for a boost through pay ads, Kim Lam says.

Besides, 100Most is influential among young people and its team charged a very reasonable fee to produce the advert, the Nestle executive says.

The commercial was largely the brainchild of Tsui, who developed the script and also rewrote the lyrics of an old Leon Lai song to accompany the clip.

Indeed, 100Most has morphed from a magazine publisher into a production company, that has now produced more than 100 online commercials.

Echoing the satirical tone of their magazine,their commercials, which are released on Facebook and their 100Most online TV channel, feature plenty of celebrity send-ups. An advert for a Gatsby features popular radio host Lam Hoi-fung playing a hair-product salesman, who gives a humorous rendition of a romantic ballad.

Another, for Shell, takes a nostalgic approach with veteran actor Lo Hoi-pang playing a petrol station attendant, who launches into an amusing ditty set to a classic Roman Tam hit.

But RoyTsui says the 100Most repertoire is quite wide-ranging.

“People always think we do only send-ups and humorous stuff. But we make touching commercials too – like the one we did for Boxful [a storage start-up], which is a story with smiles and tears. It was popular, too. People also like suspenseful commercials like the one we did for Samsung, which was a ghost story.”

Tsui declines to discuss 100Most revenues but corporate sponsors financed its hugely popular awards show, featuring songs that satirised political and social injustice.

“Some clients reach out to us. Some are referred to us by agencies. As TVMost is free, advertising provides the bulk of our revenue,” he says.

“Advertising in the digital age requires even more creativity than the television commercials that he grew up with,” Tsui says.

“Audiences are forced to watch traditional adverts on TV. But now, if you like an online commercial, you share it. If you don’t, you skip it. So you have to strike a chord with the online audience.”

He adds: “Traditional advertising companies analyse data and present it to clients. But data analysis is not our strong suit, and we don’t have resources for it. We come up with ideas and tailor-make commercials to serve clients’ needs.

“While there may have been reference books for advertising executives in the past, there are none now in the age of the internet. Every commercial is unique [and] cannot be replicated. For example, the Nescafe commercial had explosive effect online, but you cannot use the same tricks again [for another campaign].”

Set up less than a year ago, 5Unit is among the new crop of advertising agencies that focus solely on digital content.

Whereas film or sports stars may be hired to front conventional advertisements, the young agency turns to influential figures in the online world – key opinion leaders, or KOL in industry parlance, who command mass followings.

5Unit is in touch with 500 such personalities, 60 of whom are signed to the agency, says founder Felix Wong Kar-yue.

“We get KOLs to endorse a brand through social media posts throughout the campaign period [at least three months] and place Facebook ads aimed at specific target groups for the client,” he says.

Citing the example of its client TCM Village, Wong says the agency recruited model Michelle Fan Hoi-man, one of its opinion leaders, to put up a post about her experience seeking relief for menstrual pain from the Chinese medicine chain, with a link at the end to help people book a consultation.

Wong, whose training is in law and criminology, reckons Facebook is the most cost-effective advertising platform as the threshold for placing social media commercials is low.

Moreover, it allows clients to gauge the effect by checking on the number of likes and the view times, he adds.

All businesses have to factor digital platforms when promoting their products or services, says advertising veteran Tsang Kam-keung.

Tsang, chief executive of The Bees Group, a local agency, says conventional advertising won’t go away but there will be more digital advertising as production costs are low and there are various low-cost platforms for distribution.

“Advertising agencies set up in the past two to three years are mostly focused on digital advertising. There are no formal statistics, but there should be several dozen such companies . However, the operation mode of 100Most, which is a media and advertising production company, is unique in the industry,” he adds.

Major advertising companies recognised more than 10 years ago that they would have to go digital; but transformation is difficult for such large, established groups and many didn’t do well, Tsang says, noting that three 4A (American Association of Advertising Agencies) companies folded in 2013. “Recently established advertising agencies are nimble and in a better position to take advantage of the opportunities in the digital age.”