The mainland offers rich rewards and challenges, says advertising agency chief THE ONLY ADVERTISING in China 20 years ago was Communist Party propaganda, the only billboards on display the ones exhorting the masses to serve the nation. Those messages remain but are mostly crowded out by giant colourful testaments to a new culture of conspicuous consumption, a culture that Mike Amour is keen to promote. He is the chairman and chief executive of Grey Global Group Asia Pacific, one of the world's largest marketing and communications companies and earliest entrants to the last great advertising market in the world. Mr Amour is not quite immune to the usual maddeningly obfuscated language of the purveyors of the intangible but for an advertising executive he speaks reasonably clearly. He talks about the dangers of trying to build brands across cultural borders and gives an example that has become a cautionary tale in the advertising business. The Toyota Prado is a land cruiser like any of the others flying out of Chinese showrooms over the last few years. It should have been as popular as any in its class but failed in China because of serious problems with its sales strategy. Firstly, the geniuses in the marketing department decided to transliterate Prado into Chinese as 'Badao' using characters that meant 'high-handed' or 'domineering' and can also be used in the word 'hegemony'. Not an auspicious start for a carmaker from the country whose troops were rampaging across the Chinese countryside a generation or two ago. The strategy of Toyota's chosen advertising agency, which Mr Amour stresses was not Grey Global, took this cultural faux pas to a whole new level. In one of their prominent print ads the Prado was shown towing what looked very much like a Chinese army truck up a steep mountain road. But that paled in comparison to another print ad showing the Prado parked on the Marco Polo bridge outside of Beijing with a couple of stone lions bowing down before it and a tagline that read: 'You have to respect Badao.' Not only is the stone lion a traditional symbol of Chinese power but, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of modern Chinese history knows, the Marco Polo Bridge was the site of the infamous incident that sparked the worst chapter of the Japanese 'war of aggression'. Needless to say, Toyota pulled the ads and apologised for 'hurting the feelings' of the Chinese people. 'Sometimes people react to ads in ways you can't predict although I think someone probably should have picked up on that one,' says Mr Amour. At the best of times the advertising business is a delicate balance of trying to create edgy and successful ad campaigns without alienating the target audience. This is especially true when dealing with an alien culture and the stakes are even higher today with companies behind the brands under increasing scrutiny. 'The firewall has gone and the company behind the brand is as important as the brand,' says Mr Amour. Speaking of which, Grey's parent company is WPP, the global advertising giant led by Sir Martin Sorrell, the charismatic chief executive who has been quoted as saying if he graduated today, he would learn Chinese and move to Shanghai. Mr Amour doesn't speak Chinese but he does speak French and Japanese and has worked with many of the world's leading brands. He was responsible for revamping Nike's troubled 'Just Do It' campaign in Japan which meant using a blind Japanese long jumper instead of a brash American basketball player and using Japanese sports journalists, fashion editors and athletes for inspiration. 'We used them to help write the spots and then we put the Nike-ness on top of it because our own people just weren't able to get to the underbelly in terms of what was turning people on,' he says. 'The real significance was Japan for years would be very careful about not having people with physical handicaps anywhere in sight. If you walked around the streets you would never see poor people or people with any kind of physical impairment. This campaign was a big statement.' In China, cultural miscommunications are compounded by political considerations. Mr Amour says Grey's chairperson for greater China has a number of sources that help check if brand and advertising messages are potentially politically sensitive. Then there are restrictions limiting foreign companies to operating joint ventures with local partners. These rules will be lifted by the end of this year under China's World Trade Organisation accession agreement but until then Grey and its international competitors must operate through a complicated network of joint ventures and local tie-ups. The company faces a market that is already saturated after barely 20 years of existence. Nobody knows how big the China market is but at current 15-20 per cent growth rates it will definitely be one of the world's largest within the next couple of years. More than 660,000 employees work for around 80,000 ad agencies in China and every global player has a presence. At present the business balance for most global marketing and communications companies such as Grey is roughly 40 per cent North America, 40 per cent Europe, Middle East, Africa and 20 per cent Asia, but Grey hopes to move to a 30-30-30 split in the next few years and Mr Amour expects competitors to follow a similar strategy. 'There is going to have to be a real jump in the level of creativity. It's not going to be good enough just getting the message out there and relying on the name of a big company,' says Mr Amour. He adds that there is a growing number of extremely talented homegrown marketing and communication companies in China. When it comes to Grey's clients Mr Amour says a very high percentage of business is made up of local companies. The company he picks as a possible world beater is one that no one outside China is likely to know. 'One of our clients is Anta, the country's second-largest sports shoe company, based in Jinjiang, the sports shoe capital of the world,' he says. 'They don't sell premium price products at the moment but I did a presentation for them a couple of months ago and they were really only interested in understanding how Nike had built its brand culture.' Mr Amour says this culture is something not many Chinese companies understand because of their mass production origins. 'A lot of them are realising that to become global players there needs to be something a bit more substantial in terms of brand building.' He rates Anta, which translates as 'peaceful step' in English, among the few names the rest of the world does know such as Haier and TCL. He says five years from now the Interbrands top 20 best-known brands will include at least half a dozen Chinese and Indian company names. 'Google shows how a brand that barely existed six or seven years ago can become one of the most successful brands in the world,' Mr Amour says. Perhaps Google is not such a great example for him to mention considering the company has routinely spent nothing on advertising. Mr Amour is quick to point out that Grey is not just an advertising agency. Historically the company has been very dependent on the so-called traditional advertising media of print, TV and outdoor billboards. 'For 40 or 50 years these have made up 70 or 80 per cent of agency business but today it is much closer to 55 per cent traditional and 45 per cent non-traditional and non-traditional is growing all the time,' he says. By non-traditional he means interactive advertising, direct marketing, sponsorship, event management and public relations. 'With all the communications vehicles we've got now and the less time we all have to absorb any messages, you've got to be delivering those messages when consumers are willing to engage and know how to engage with them.' Grey has 62 offices in 17 countries across Asia and today the China operation is replacing Japan as the largest chunk of the business. 'China is growing so fast and it is important to recognise that in the space of 10 or 15 years Chinese consumers have become as savvy as those outside China,' says Mr Amour. Biography Mike Amour is chairman and chief executive of Grey Global Group Asia Pacific. A dual British and Swiss citizen, he has lived and worked in London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Portland and Singapore, managing operations and accounts for the world's top agency networks including Wieden + Kennedy, McCann-Erickson, TBWA and Grey Global. He joined Grey two years ago and took over his current position earlier this year. He is married with two children.