Telum recently caught up with award-winning China-based communications leader Jason Cao. Jason has over 20 years’ experience comms experience, in senior positions at leading firms including Golin, The Hoffman Agency and WE Communications. Now an independent advisor he shares his insights on comms in Mainland China.
You have developed a deep understanding of the specific needs of Chinese clients, what are your top tips for agencies to be successful in China?
I think an agency’s key attribute is quality of service but as this is hard to prove, agencies must win trust and respect from clients in China. Honesty, integrity, sincerity and empathy are top of the attributes your agency must show. Most importantly in the Chinese business world, you must demonstrate you are trustworthy and qualified to solve their problems.
Chinese clients are much more than a strategic proposal written on paper; they want to be able to see how exactly it will be implemented. I always put myself in the clients’ shoes. While agencies and corporates offer different services, they face similar core problems and I look for common topics and pain points when I offer my strategic counselling.
Honestly speaking, agencies’ service offerings are quite homogenised. How you provide the service and deliver results is what differentiates you. Agencies need to put themselves into in-house communicator’s shoes and find out what the real client challenges and expectations are beyond the RFP, rather than offering cookie cutter service offerings. You need to be a real partner, to listen and counsel, respect everyone and solve client problems. You need to avoid overpromising and take responsibility for what you say.
You have worked with both global and local players, what can Chinese and Western comms cultures learn from each other?
I use the metaphor: Tai Chi and Boxing. It’s hard to say which is stronger, but they both have their own beauty. International agencies have more advanced communication theory, mode and methodology, but relatively speaking they have gaps in understanding business culture and behaviour in the local market. In some cases they do not understand why Chinese clients ask for something urgently. To bridge the gap, agencies need someone who has an international horizon and understands how global agencies work but at the same time is a local culture expert who can communicate with clients effectively.
Local agencies normally have stronger resources and networks with a deeper understanding of the local market, which makes them understand clients better. This is why more international big accounts are moving to local agencies. International sense and language are the key challenges for local agencies serving international accounts. For example, international accounts normally have a higher quality standard and complicated reporting requirements in English. To improve this, local agencies need to be more open and humble, to learn how to think and act as international consultants and learn to communicate with international contacts efficiently and respect their working mode.
If you were to meet your younger self, what advice would you give him?
Storytelling is a mixture of talent, sense, art and copywriting. It is more than just techniques which could be trained and learned, so you need to get yourself inspired by everything in your life - movies, music, novels etc. and keep finding inspiration.
Media consumption in Mainland China is changing rapidly, what are your top 3 must-read publications?
China Daily, Caijing, China Economic Weekly
Do you foresee any new trends in the industry and how can industry new joiners prepare themselves to adapt to the changes?
There are three obvious key trends:
- Digital transformation is the top strategy for most of our clients, so understanding the digital ecosystem is a must. Apart from using popular digital tools and social platforms, you should also turn your thinking to a more digitalised mode to see things from your client’s point of view.
- Visual storytelling is another trend. You need to learn to tell the story by visual channels and make it visible and touchable rather than readable only.
- New PR joiners need to learn to join the dots from a business perspective as business is never too far away (even for consumer marketing). Be sensitive to the business environment even if you are not in Government Relations or Public Affairs. This will give you a wider perspective to address communication issues.