Having worked her way from account executive 20 years ago to President of Ogilvy Beijing today, Selina Teng talks to Tom Pattinson about marketing in China
When did you start at Ogilvy and can you tell us about your progression through the ranks?
In 1999 I attended my first Ogilvy ‘weiya’ (an annual festival) as a recently hired account executive. Earlier this month I attended my 20th weiya, which this time I hosted as President of Ogilvy Beijing. I have been lucky enough to come a long way in a comparatively short period of time in this great company.
Perhaps my first big opportunity came in 2004 when I took over our IBM account and the 20 people who worked on it. I spent the next few years growing our work with them and building out a strong tech practice at Ogilvy.
The next big decision came in 2007 when we decided to invest time and energy in building an automotive practice, a year and a half later we had our first big breakthrough winning VW’s 2008 Olympic sponsorship account – I pitched that account when I was six months pregnant!
Over the next five years I concentrated on building a client-base for our technology and automotive practices and, in 2013, was appointed co-Managing Director of Ogilvy PR in Beijing, and in 2016, President for Ogilvy Beijing overall.
In that time my expertise and focus has expanded considerably from being a PR-first person to someone with a more complete understanding and toolkit across all of our communications disciplines. Ogilvy has grown as well – in 1999, we were a single floor in a pretty basic office building, while now we occupy six floors across two buildings, with over 800 employees.
In what other ways has Ogilvy changed over the years?
Ogilvy used to be quite a siloed company. When I joined advertising was the star – even the people who worked there looked different. But now, as the skill-sets required to be successful in each discipline have merged, and we have taken the active decision as a company to structure ourselves as ‘One Ogilvy’, when I get in the lift to go my office in the morning and I look around I can’t tell if the person standing next to me works in advertising, PR, customer experience, data, strategy or wherever.
The studies show that companies with strong brands do better across a wide range of business performance metrics than those that don’t
Underneath it all though, brand has always mattered. The studies show that companies with strong brands (and to have a strong brand you have to communicate that brand) do better across a wide range of business performance metrics than those that don’t. Our job is to make brands matter – to make them matter right now, to make them matter each quarter and make them matter for years.
Which sectors have you seen change most over your time with Ogilvy?
We are seeing ‘more’ in so many places. More Chinese brands looking to go out and find markets on a world stage. And more brands that, as they are doing this, understand that they also have a role in defining a new image for China around the world. We’re seeing more work come in from government organisations looking to better define themselves to international audiences as well.
Shifts in technology are creating more opportunities for us too – more work in the shared economy, more work in e-commerce, more work as new energy vehicles take over from the internal combustion engine. And more work with the new economy brands.
And many of the established multinationals here are also going for more – more market share, more penetration deeper into lower city tiers they had never before explored, more products and initiatives designed specifically for the Chinese market.
How has the type of British companies coming into the market evolved over this time?
I think if you look at some of the flagship British brands in China you see a growing understanding of the distinctiveness of the needs, tastes and expectations of Chinese consumers. And a growing willingness to respond to these. British Airways and Jaguar Land Rover – both of which have been clients of ours over the years – are doing this.
BA has taken the time to ensure that they address the concerns of first-time travellers to the UK by creating services to help ease the path of these people. Jaguar meanwhile noted a preference here for chauffeur-driven cars that was different to the other markets it sold in, so they designed and manufactured a China-only version of one of its luxury cars with more room in the back.
The underlying selling points of ‘brand Britain’ haven’t changed much and remain powerful still: understated elegance, prestige, craftsmanship and good taste.
What are the biggest PR challenges for Chinese companies going global?
I think many companies entering new markets struggle to find the right balance between adapting to new environments and realities whilst remaining true to themselves. The communications environment in China is fundamentally different to the environment in other markets around the world and Chinese companies need to come to terms with the fact that their communications strategies and practices need to adapt.
There are considerable opportunities for Chinese companies at the moment: many are forging new paths in new markets and when you have the chance to make a first impression the opportunities are significant.
However, while the task is simple that does not mean it is easy. Finding partners and advisors that can help them span the cultural gap between home and abroad is crucial.
How has China’s image changed over the last two decades?
Made in China used to mean ‘manufactured in China’ and often manufactured cheaply and not very well. Made in China now more often means, engineered in China, designed in China and to very high standards. We used to spend a lot of time – and quite recently too, perhaps as recently as in the last five years – worrying about how Chinese companies needed to deal with what we thought might be difficulties consumers would feel about a product that was made in China.
Now the challenge is in preparing a strong and valuable brand for that company that reflects its Chinese origin, but doesn’t dwell on it. It certainly doesn’t need to excuse it or apologize for it though. You have started to see the emergence of Chinese brands in global rankings of brand power – I think you would be crazy to think that you there won’t be more of this in the years to come. We’re certainly working hard with Chinese companies to make it happen!
Why do so many foreign companies still get China wrong?
When major problems happen, it is never just one problem – it is almost always a series of issues lining up one after the other to align and create something more serious. Some of the common mistakes we see with foreign companies coming in is that they refuse to take (or ask for) local and professional advice. They don’t truly immerse themselves in the market and try to understand things from their Chinese customer’s point of view. They come in a rush – China is a place where you make inroads slowly. They look for simple, binary answers when much of the time the reality is nuanced and complex.
What are your top tips on how to succeed in the China market?
Just as failure is never the result of one single factor, success likewise depends on many things going well for you at the same time. There are no guaranteed wins here nor are there overnight successes. But if you want to tilt the playing field in your favour and give yourself a better chance of doing well in China, there are some things that you can do:
- Start by doing your homework: spend time here, get to know the market, talk to as many people as you can, even – indeed, especially – the people who think maybe your business won’t work in China. The better you understand them the better the chance you have of proving them wrong.
- Look for mutually beneficial partnerships. Don’t come to China just to sell something. Come because you see a need here that you can address, a gap you can fill, an opportunity to help the market progress and grow.
- Work with professionals. Find local experts to help you – for regulatory advice, for business strategy – and yes, for communications as well. There is no substitute for local experience, local insights and local understanding,
- Finally, align with government policy. The government has a much greater role – formally and informally than it does in many other places around the world. The better you are able to find common ground between your aims and the government’s aims the more doors will open for you.