Raymond So on the Early Days in China and the Upcoming AdAsia Conference in Bali

Photo courtesy of Raymond So

Over the course of an advertising career that began in 1981 at DDB Needham Hong Kong, Raymond So has watched the ad industry in Asia evolve from its infancy.

After working at DDB, So went on to set up J. Walter Thompson in China in 1986 and would later found JWT in Taiwan before going on to lead operations across all of Northeast Asia in 1997. He additionally holds the distinction of being the first Chinese director on the JWT Worldwide Board.

In 2001 So moved on to BBDO as Asia Pacific Chairman where he stayed until 2006 when he left to work as an independent consultant.


His plate has been quite full since that time. He heads a content marketing group in Beijing, serves as an advisor at the Baidu Marketing Research Institute, and he founded China’s ECI Awards which recognizes digital marketing innovation.

So also chairs the Asian Federation of Advertising Associations (AFAA), an organization that brings together industry professionals from around the region. They will hold their 30th gathering next month in Bali with Kofi Annan as one of the featured guests.

Branding in Asia recently spoke with Raymond So about the early days of ad work in China, the current state of the industry there and his work with the AFAA.

You were there in China when J. Walter Thompson launched in 1986. What were some of the greatest challenges at that time?

There are two main challenges. First, the Chinese market had just opened its doors to the western world. Everything we took for granted as normal was new and strange to the market. There was a long and hard education process. People didn’t know what Advertising was. There were no professional advertising agencies or advertising practitioners there.


The advertising agencies that did exist were all state-owned and their understanding of the practice was to paint a billboard or print a poster or leaflet for the brand.

The primary objective of the Federation is to create a platform for Asian Advertising Associations to make meaningful contributions through its joint activities to both regional and national socio-economic development.

The media were also state-owned so ads were not important as a revenue source. They rejected advertising and restricted both the size and position of it in print or the insertion of a few minutes of a commercial only between programs.

Strict censorship was put on advertising and everything was under strict control. It was like a university graduate working with kindergarten students. The transition from planned economy to market economy created a huge challenge. We were operating in a primitive market.

The second challenge was the market was like the wild, wild west. There were no disciplines in the market and personal relationships prevailed over contracts. The lack of professionalism and understanding of the western way of thinking and working created a lot of conflicts.

During that time, many good advertising people did not want to work in the Chinese market. There was a lot of hardship and frustration. Therefore, the lack of experienced talent and understanding of the Chinese market made it difficult for international agencies to operate in China. It was not easy to meet the service standard set by international clients.

Having watched China over all these years, what is your biggest praise for the ad industry there?

The industry is hungry for knowledge and self-improvement. This is especially true for the local advertising people. They were hard working and took every opportunity to learn from the world.

The lack of trust and long-term partnership between client and agency is the biggest problem in China.

The entrepreneurship spirit is so strong which supported a strong local agency market that provides services to local Chinese brands. The rapid economic growth, consumer consumption power, and media diversification fueled the fast development of the advertising market.

Your biggest criticism?

There is a problem of over-supply of advertising services which has resulted in cut-throat price wars and unfair competition in the market. This is especially true after the popularity of technology which lowered the entry barrier in the business.

There are so many “agencies” or “studios” or individuals who offer advertising services to clients at a fraction of the price of a professional agency. This results in a trust crisis between the client and agencies as the client thinks the agency is making an unreasonable profit.

It is a common practice for clients to sign annual contracts with agencies and put the account up for a new pitch every year. During a pitch, they invite at least five agencies to present their proposal, forming a priority list. Then the procurement office comes in and negotiates the service fee as minimal as possible. Sometimes, the account goes to the agency with the lowest cost instead of the winning agency with the best creative.

The lack of trust and long-term partnership between client and agency is the biggest problem in China.

You’re the chair of the Asian Federation of Advertising Associations. Talk about the mission and the vision of the organization.

The primary objective of the Federation is to create a platform for Asian Advertising Associations to make meaningful contributions through its joint activities to both regional and national socio-economic development.

In order to achieve the goals of AFAA, the founders created various committees to construct and deliver tangible programs for the development of human talent, foster self-regulation and encourage the practice of culturally rooted advertising which was increasingly becoming western-oriented.

AdAsia is coming up this November in Bali. What’s on tap?

From 8-10 November, Indonesia will host AdAsia 2017, the largest advertising and marketing conference in the Asia-Pacific region. The forum aims to empower learning, encourage networking, and spotlight case studies and future goals of advertising and marketing professionals, all set against the backdrop of Bali’s white beaches and lush landscape.

By hosting, ad agencies, brands, and media alike, the AdAsia Bali event acts as a unique touch point for industry players, and has the talent to make for an enlightening three days, with a line-up of high caliber speakers including Charles Adler, co-founder of Kickstarter; Azran Osman-Rani, CEO of iFlix Malaysia; Martin Lindstrom, author of the best-selling book Buyology; David Coulthard, F1 Grand Prix winner; Piotr Jakubowski, CMO of GO-JEK Indonesia; and Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Ogilvy Noor.

To close the conference, Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize recipient will give an address on how businesses can help to lead positive change.

Experts will delve into pressing subjects like technological breakthroughs, the importance of creative enterprising, digital implementation and effective marketing—all with a distinct emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region under the event’s overarching theme, “Globalizasian – Advancing New Possibilities”. Beyond industry-focused content, AdAsia 2017 will also celebrate Indonesia’s cultural diversity, and examine its immense contributions to the global economy.

What’s next for your career? Any plans on slowing down?

I have no plans to slow down as I am doing something I love and find meaningful. My AFAA Chairmanship will go for two more years. I want to keep the momentum of growth and new activities at AFAA. It is a critical moment in the development of the association and it is my responsibility to contribute and make AFAA strong.

Furthermore, I’ll always work as a volunteer for the advertising industry and The Chinese University of Hong Kong. It keeps me young and active. I am glad to have this opportunity to serve and will continue for at least another decade.

For more info on AdAsia visit www.adasia2017bali.com.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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