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The ‘Paradigm Shift’ Remaking China’s Fashion Ad Industry

It was a global ad campaign for Calvin Klein unlike any other. The PVH Corp.-owned brand had representatives from its teams in various parts of North America and Hong Kong on Zoom, checking in on a shoot taking place in Seoul with girl group Blackpink’s Jennie.

The campaign was a stand-out for several reasons, in part because it was a global campaign being creative directed by Boh Project, a start-up agency in Shanghai, something that would have once been unimaginable.

Until a decade or so ago, global brands would typically run campaigns in China that were conceived and directed with Western tastes, regularly featuring Hollywood celebrities. And though brands increasingly understood the need for local faces to star in China-focused ads, global creatives often flew into the country to shoot and film Chinese celebrities for ad campaigns, or used one of a handful of local photographers or stylists known to Western brands.

As Bohan Qiu, founder of Boh Project, put it, even as more Chinese faces were appearing in ads directed at Chinese consumers, there was still a “cultural disconnection,” highlighting the different interpretations of beauty and aesthetics. “The [way the] Western lens portrays Asian sexiness is slightly different to how we perceive sexiness [for example].”

Improvements had been made but more was needed, something that became clearer to both Western and Chinese creatives relatively recently.

Chinese Aperture

“The paradigm shift was the Dolce & Gabbana China incident [which began with a bungled video campaign in 2018]; that was a wake-up call for all the brands to realise they really had to listen to the China team and find out whether they thought what they were doing was the right thing,” Qiu said.

Against this backdrop, creatives and agencies proliferated around China, each aiming to provide brands with a more nuanced, engaging sense of the local fashion industry, its sub-sectors, sub-cultures, and cultural and historical context.

This was happening as global creatives remain shut out of the country by pandemic-induced travel restriction, causing brands to lean even more heavily on local teams.

“They have to trust us now and they’ve given us huge opportunities ever since [the pandemic started],” Qiu said.

The timing is opportune as the local fashion industry continues to enjoy explosive growth. According to The State of Fashion 2022, a new report co-published by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, China’s domestic luxury market, for example, is expected to record sales 70 percent to 90 percent higher than 2019 levels by the end of this year, with a further 20 percent year-on-year increase tipped for 2022, roughly doubling total sales in just three years.

“The days are done of one agency covering everything. Brands are typically working with upwards of five agencies to do different things.”

It’s meant swift on-the-ground adaptation for agencies like MediaMonks, the content arm of UK-based digital advertising and marketing services company S4 Capital, which increased its China footprint following a merger with local creative agency Tomorrow earlier this year.

“We get a lot of requests now [for APAC campaigns] to be based in China and run from China,” said Kelly Belchere, executive producer of MediaMonks, whose luxury clients include Burberry, Moncler and Hermès. “China is the core creative powerhouse and then the ideas are adapted. It’s no longer global [creative] being adapted for China; sometimes it’s now China being adapted to the rest of the world.”

This has led to the rise of specialist and boutique agencies that provide services for specific needs, from print and film to short video, livestreaming, KOL and celebrity campaigns to the metaverse and related digital fields.

“The days are done of one agency covering everything. Brands are typically working with upwards of five agencies to do different things,” Belchere added.

Global Influence

It might seem incongruous, but at the same time that global brands are taking significant steps to ensure their advertising and marketing efforts in China capture an authentic Chinese point of view, local brands are increasingly looking to internationalise their image.

Domestic fashion brands are looking to work with niche agencies with an international focus such as Stark Visionaire, a new Chinese venture from US-based experiential agency and media platform Visionaire.

“Our field of expertise is merging artists and brands, working with artists, which is a very delicate balance,” Visionaire co-founder Cecilia Dean said. “I feel like brands want to work with artists all over the world, including China.”

For that reason, Stark Visionaire approached local brand Peacebird with an idea for a new collaboration, explains Dean and her partner in the Chinese business, Edmund Chu.

Knowing that Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan had a solo exhibition in Beijing, it struck them that the hyperreal imagery from Toiletpaper magazine, helmed by Cattelan and fellow Italian Pierpaolo Ferrari, would translate well in collaboration with a local fashion brand.

An image from the Peacebird x Toiletpaper campaign.

“We pitched it to Peacebird and they really loved it. We didn’t know how they would take it, but they took a gamble on us and so far it’s been really great,” Dean said.

The collaboration will include four capsule collections, campaign imagery shot by Toiletpaper in Milan, as well as a pop-up experience in Shanghai that Visionaire creative directed from New York.

“[Peacebird] sees the value of working with the artists in a really authentic way, that they are getting a level of creativity that they could not get if they did it themselves,” Dean added.

No Looking Back

What does this mean for advertising in China going forward? Qiu predicts that there will be less reliance on big celebrities and “soulless KOLs with massive followings,” and more variation in casting, ideas and content.

This will be driven in part, he said, by the rise of social media platforms such as Douyin (known as TikTok outside of China), Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book) and Bilibili, which use algorithms rather than relying purely on accounts with large followings to push quality content.

“Clients always tell me they want to speak to the new generation of customers; they want to know who are the new photographer talents and [how they can bring] a fresh social angle,” he said. He predicted that up-and-coming Chinese creative talent, like photographers Leslie Zhang, Theo Liu Xiangyu, Huang Jiaqi and Zeng Wu, will increasingly be in demand from global fashion brands.

An APAC campaign for Calvin Klein featuring Voguing Shanghai.

Sometimes taking a fresh angle means taking a risk. Qiu said the campaign he is most proud of was one for Calvin Klein in APAC last year — a Boh Project creative-directed campaign featuring LGBTQI talents from Voguing Shanghai, part of the country’s once largely underground ballroom scene.

“It was quite a big deal, the first time putting [openly] LGBTQI people in a major APAC campaign,” when many countries in the region remain hostile to those communities, he said.

For Qiu, no matter what the next step is in the evolution of China’s fashion advertising, the most important thing is that there is no looking back.

“I think we’re in a really good era of being heard and being respected and being treated equally, not just as consumers but as creatives, as minds,” he said. “If you want to make money from us, you have to understand us.”



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