Jia Zheng, a 25-year-old advertising grad from China, was an intern at DDB, New York, in December when she was surprised to be invited to a client meeting. The client executives, it turned out, were Chinese, and the New York staffers wanted her to help them avoid any cultural faux pas.
“I was glad they cared about being polite,” she says now. “But I couldn’t believe that in a company that size, the only one they could find to advise them was me – this Chinese girl who was an intern.”
That situation is changing, as marketing agencies strapped for digital-minded talent look to mainland China and Hong Kong for the skills and global perspective they need. In mid-June, for instance, AKQA San Francisco hired Zheng as an associate strategist after she completed graduate work at the University of Texas. At the senior level, this summer McCann Erickson New York tapped digital star Natalie Lam (pictured) to be its new ECD. A native of Hong Kong, Lam most recently had been OgilvyOne’s regional CD of Asia and ECD of its Shanghai office. Her duties will include boosting McCann’s digital capabilities in the U.S.
How do Chinese employees differ? “We are very familiar with transformational change,” says Lam. “Until the mid-90s my family in mainland China shared one phone with all their neighbors. Now 300 million Chinese are online. It makes us flexible, nonjudgmental and convinced that nothing is impossible. It also teaches us how artificial it is to divide traditional and digital,” she says.
At the forefront of the wave of Chinese talent coming to U.S. agencies is the advertising graduate program at the University of Texas in Austin. Professor Neal Burns, director of the ad department’s account planning program, estimates there are 30-40 percent more Chinese students in his classes than five years ago. “Their training is superior. They are digitally oriented, can do calculus and they are serious students, ” he says. Most are going after U.S. jobs at R/GA, DDB, AKQA and BBH. “Those are considered the hot places to work right now,” he says.
Besides Zheng, AKQA execs say they’ve hired a number of Chinese students from U.S. ad schools and recently transferred staff from their Shanghai office to San Francisco and New York. “China is a very important market for our clients,” says CEO Tom Bedecarre. “We hope to bring an understanding of the Chinese consumer to our global campaigns and we’re lucky to have staff who can help educate us and lend their perspective to our work.”
McCann’s Lam also points out that the new Chinese generation is particularly adept at social media, which can help American agencies. “For them it is second nature, an essential part of their lives. They love to express their opinions by chat, texting, blogging non-stop.”
For her part, Zheng cares more about what she doesn’t know. Marketing in China is “chaos” right now and “we want to learn from the U.S.” at agencies where digital and non-digital communications are merged, she says. Sure, cultural differences and the feeling of being an outsider can be tough. But on the plus side, she notes that she and her peers are products of China’s one-child policy. “That means each one of us has the powerful support of two parents and four grandparents, which makes us “super-confident.” And proud.
“Brands can’t ignore the Chinese marketplace. Any brand that wants to be global will have to understand China,” she says. “That’s what [Chinese talent] brings to the table.”