Despite being situated in the Côte d’Azur, each year that goes by at Cannes Lions feels a little bit less French. This year has seen a foreign horde descending on the picturesque seaside town. They stomp around the narrow streets, pulling their suitcases, happily plowing through plates of cheeses they can barely pronounce and drain the surrounding region of a year’s worth of rosé.
Over the history of the festival, the demographic make-up of these invaders has subtly changed. The first wave was a gang of perpetually hungover advertising workers of London, who arrived cocky and hopeful, looking to bag a Lion, and only to end up stumbling from the Irish bar to the Gutter Bar looking for a free drink. Slowly, this has given way to a larger US crowd, brashly projecting their sporting achievements onto the side of the arena and loudly proclaiming to anyone who will listen that tech is changing the world.
This year, however a new group has started to emerge. Quieter and more polite than the other groups, they sit captivated in every panel discussion and seem ever-eager to Hoover up any culture they come across.
China has arrived.
It’s pointless to say that China is no longer an up-and-coming market. In terms of internet users, it’s already the largest in the world and internet use is still motoring ahead.
Its leading search-engine-turned-omni-corporation Alibaba is as big as—and even outperforms—Amazon in some areas. What’s more, the country leads the world in e-commerce, with the number of daily transactions beating the United States and EU combined and is speedily growing.
China is also at the forefront of the mobile revolution, with WeChat becoming the ubiquitous one-stop portal for the mobile web in a way that other apps can only dream of.
“In terms of sheer scalability, no one even comes close to China,” proclaimed Stephen Chang, corporate vice president of Tencent, in opening Cannes Lions’ China Day, a whole nine hours dedicated to showing off the People’s Republic’s growing technological chops.
“We’re a huge digital society with a market that is unafraid of new innovations. From QR codes to augmented reality and artificial intelligence, Chinese consumers are either actively using or are among the first adopters. China is knocking, are you ready to answer the opportunity?”
Sweeping statements and hyperbole aside, there is now clear evidence that Chinese companies are able to go toe-to-toe and, in some cases, have even begun to surpass their western counterparts.
“Today the younger generation is keeping very close contact with the world through innovation,” said Alibaba’s CMO Chris Tung as he spoke about his company’s rapid rise. “We have to be brave to build innovation. We have to encourage our workforce.”
Even in areas where they have traditionally been weak, like creative marketing and branding, China’s companies are making great strides.
“The idea that the Chinese aren’t creative is clearly ludicrous,” said Joy Tan, Huawei’s president of global media and communications to a packed forum yesterday.
“We invented gunpowder, the printing press and compass. In the modern world it is true that most innovations are American, but we lead the world when it comes to taking these inventions and applying them.”
“China is as tough as any other market these days,” explained Matt Che, VP of marketing for international beverage brand AB InBev. Speaking about his company’s strategy for cracking the country’s increasingly sophisticated consumer behavior. “We found that the beer industry had declined by 4 percent after our customers ditched karaoke bars for home parties. We found that the only way to reach them was a cross-channel campaign that combined influencer marketing and large activations to make sure that we followed the consumer across many screens.”
“Across all waves, disruption always seems to be most visible in China,” agreed Asmita Dubey, chief digital officer at L’Oréal. Offering an insight on how her company is attempting to corner the lucrative Asian market, the trick for western organizations seems to be move fast and be prepared for anything. “Broadly speaking, the strategy remains the same,” she continued. “It’s just that the scale and the speed and is much faster.”
It’s not only in technology and digital that Chinese companies are showing the world new ways of working. From corporate governance to office culture and ownership, companies like Tencent and BYD are pioneering what the corporate structure of a company could look like to drive massive success.
Mobile giant Huawei, for example, is leading the way in collaborative working, thanks to a unique corporate structure: 99 percent of the company is owned by its own workforce, with its founder laying claim to just 1 percent. Additionally, the company rotates chairmen on a six-month cycle, with the company claiming that this encourages adaptation and innovation.
In contrast to the cooperative nature of Huawei, BYD is similarly innovative. The vehicle and travel provider’s fearless spirit of adventure comes from the top and is actively encouraged by their maverick owner Wang Chuanfu, a self-made billionaire with a background in chemical engineering.
“Chairman Wang pushes us to the point that we make little failures,” says vice president Michael Austin, also an engineer by trade. “The trick is to not bet the farm on a mistake.”
As Cannes Lions shows, if you could say one thing about China, it’s that in almost every field, the preconceptions around the country’s business climate are changing.
The idea that the words “Made in China” means a product is a low quality knockoff couldn’t be further than the truth.
“When people find out the nationality of the brand, they are usually surprised,” Huawei’s European CMO told an audience during a lunchtime presentation. “There’s a perception that Chinese brands can’t be innovators, but it’s changing. We’re finally moving away from the idea that Chinese brands are mere copycats.”
All of this isn’t to say that China doesn’t still have a long way to go. After all, the country is new to the marketing and branding game, and as Cannes showed, while the Chinese can definitely walk the walk when it comes to innovation and technology, its marketing and advertising industry has yet to match the polished, groundbreaking campaigns of their western contemporaries.
However, one thing is for certain: China is now on the path to meeting and potentially surpassing the campaigns currently being lauded with Lions. With a veritable army of tech-savvy and culturally astute Chinese delegates in attendance, it won’t be long.