Feng Huang is clearly a loyal person. The Chinese creative has spent almost his entire 14-year career working with the dynamic French advertising duo Fred & Farid.
First at Marcel, then at their eponymous Paris agency, and finally in 2012 launching their Shanghai office, which now has a staff of around 50. Mark Tungate recently chatted with him about how he combines two different cultures in his work, the modern Chinese consumer, and how advertising is changing in China.
You were born in China. When and why did you move to France?
I studied multimedia design in China, but after my studies, I said to myself that the country was not open enough to different methods of creativity. I would have to leave China and see more if I was going to be sure that I was moving in the right direction creatively. France is a country I adore: it has fantastic art, fashion – so many things I love. So I decided to do a two year Master’s in visual communications design there.
What was your first advertising experience in France, and how did it shape your creative approach?
My first major experience was with Fred & Farid, to help launch the agency Marcel. They were looking for young, dynamic creatives to work with them. At the time I hadn’t even finished my studies, but eventually, I joined full time and stayed at the agency for their entire period of two years.
FF are very open to different cultures and the creative electricity sparked by diversity. The second thing I’d say is that we’re always changing. We don’t stick rigidly to one creative approach or one way of thinking. We like to change the way we look at things, the people who work together, even the categories of brands we work with and the challenges we take on. We’re in perpetual movement.
What are the differences and similarities between Chinese and French creativity?
The biggest difference is that in France, we pay lot of attention to the beauty and quality of the work. In other words, the French care a great deal about craft. In China, while today clients are beginning to demand more beautiful work, the main aim is speed. Everything has to move fast. Rapidity is something very important to the Chinese. But now they want the craft aspect as well. It’s a big challenge – but I think after seven years we’ve managed to combine the two.
You opened the FF Shanghai office in 2012. What was the first challenge when you arrived?
The first thing we needed to do was establish our core value in the market. It’s important to say that we didn’t come here just to make money. We didn’t think: “The Chinese market is huge, we can do a lot of business there.” No. We came here with a purpose, which was to create a bridge between France and China. We clearly saw that as our role.
I remember reading at the time that FF wanted to position itself as a Franco-Chinese agency, with a mission to bring the two cultures closer together. How has that evolved?
Internally, French and Chinese employees have always worked together. In fact, we have an exchange policy that enables French employees to work in Shanghai for a couple of months, and vice versa, in order to experience another culture. The French and Shanghai offices are constantly in touch. On the client-side, we help French brands communicate in China, and of course, we help Chinese brands develop in France.
We also have a platform called Creative C which showcases emerging creative talents from the two cultures – in art, fashion, food, architecture and so on based in LA, NY, Shanghai, and Paris.
Of course, there’s another dimension now in that we’ve since opened offices in New York and L.A. So the bridge has become an ultra-bridge – a sort of overpass. And Creative C celebrates talents from all four cities.
How has the Chinese advertising scene changed since then?
As I mentioned earlier, there’s been an evolution from “do things fast” to “do things fast with quality”. That was the second stage, about four or five years ago. As an agency FF Shanghai became known for its emphasis on craft. In fact, we’re often described as combining French craft with Chinese speed.
Today we’ve entered a third stage, which is that many Chinese brands want to become international, with communications driven by global insights. Universal human insights, rather than local ones. And the companies themselves want to be able to compete at an international level in terms of quality. That’s a big trend right now. They want to be in Europe, Africa, India, Russia, the United States…and we can help them with that “international feel”.
So do you think Chinese brands and products are gaining more respect in Western markets? Because we tended to associate the country with cheap goods…
Yes, because there’s another trend that I should mention, which is that Chinese consumers now have a lot of respect for creativity. They’re expecting and demanding more creative products. Brands are fighting to become creative, to favor creative design. It’s no longer “Made in China” – it’s “Created in China”. That’s why we’ve run quite a few campaigns encouraging people to be more creative, including one in association with WeChat, China’s biggest social platform.
Tell us about a couple of projects you’ve worked on recently that you are particularly proud of?
One of them is the campaign I just mentioned, with WeChat, where we explained how the platform gives everyone the power to be more creative. Not just in one domain, but in art, music, acting, in everyday life. I loved the purpose behind it – the idea of unlocking China’s creative spirit when everyone thinks we’re about copying or reproducing.
Another one was for China’s biggest food delivery company, Eleme, where we created an edible chopstick. There’s a terrible waste of wood in China because everyone throws their chopsticks away after using them. So we solved the problem by making chopsticks out of wheat flour. You can literally eat them when you’re done. Or if you throw them out, they decompose in a few days.
Once again, I loved the purpose behind it. The Chinese economy has developed very rapidly, but we somehow forgot to pay attention to ecology. This campaign was a message that we need to look after nature.
A version of this was originally published over at Epica Awards.