Is there a Chinese sense of creativity?

what chinese want book cover

Don’t expect an extensive literature review about the Chinese people 😉 This is just a post based on a book review of What Chinese Want, Tom Doctoroff’s last book about – guess what – Chinese culture. Tom Doctoroff is CEO of the Chinese branch of adverising giant JWT, lives in Shanghai and has dealt with a lot of Chinese companies. In his book, he shares his view of the modern Chinese consumer, underlining the cultural challenges that arise when companies want to target the Chinese market. This blog post especially focuses on the passages about creativity and advertising, which are topics that particularly interest me!

There have been many books about the Chinese economy but few about motivations of its people

Something that comes up regularly throughout the book is the conflict between standing out and fitting in, that seems to be particulalry present among the Chinese. Doctoroff calls it the “Confucian conflict between ambition and regimentation“. There are torn appart between showing their achievement while still maintaining a sense of harmony with their social environment. In China, the basic unit of society is not the individual, as in many Western societies, but the clan (company, family, friends…).

There are lots of other insightful ideas in the book, but let me highlight what Tom Doctoroff says about China’s state of creativity – and underexplored topic. Doctoroff leads and manages an ad agency. Hence, part of his job is to find creative talent and to foster creative thinking within the four walls of his agency. And according to him, you don’t manage Chinese creatives like in Europe or in the United States:

The greatest managerial challenge creative agency leaders face in China is forgeing an environment of self-expression and innovative thinking

Even though Western brands and the modern lifestyle that comes with it spread rapidly, China is still a very conservative country. China is still handicapped by a sense of conformity which, according to Doctoroff, discourages bottom-up innovation. “China loathes the concept of breakthrough, he says, but the country is brilliant at implementing gradual change“. And when change happens, then it is dictated by a powerful and respected leader. The Chinese seem to have an immense respect for leaders. They provide a direction to work towards, and they are the only ligitimate people to decide. “To unleash creativity, managers must forge an environment in which conceptual exploration is encouraged and rewarded“, he says.

samsonite billboard heaven/hell

“Chinese are capable of stunning creativity. However, it must be carefully cultivated”, Doctoroff says to illustrate this Samsonite billboard. It was mainland China’s first ever Grand Prix at the Cannes advertsing festival (click to enlarge)

So on an individual level, Doctoroff’s experience indicates that creativity is not overflowing in China. On a macro level, I’ve found similar conclusions. Richard Florida, the inventor of the influential yet contriversial term “Creative Class”, says that it will be decades before China can compete as a truly innovative and creative economy. He says that “China has faced considerable difficulty converting its knowledge-based assets (…) into economic value-added” like the creative industries. A Fast Company article claims that “China just needs time” to become a creative superpower. Today, China is still obsessed with scale and efficiency, not with breakthrough innovation.

China is not – and may never be – a fertile ground for conceptual exploration

Does this mean that there is neither creative talent nor creative driving force in China? This would probably be a little far-fetched. This year, one of the biggest prizes of the Cannes Lions went to a young creative from China, who designed an outdoor ad called Coke Hands. Jonathan Mak Long is twenty years old, studies graphic design in Shanghai ad got noticed by Ogilvy & Mather after designing a Steve Jobs tribute that went viral on the web. His Coca-Cola ad is similarly sleek and simple.

steve jobs apple and coke hands

On the left, the Apple design that went viral. On the right, the Coke ad that just won a Cannes Lions (image via

In this interview by the New Yorker, he gets asked whether there is a specific Chinese creativity. He wisely answers “I am afraid the twenty-year-old mind of the design student cannot give a good answer that accounts for all the complexities of the Chinese design scene“. True. But let’s admit that it’s impressive that a 20-years old student has designed an (unofficial) ad for Apple and an (official, endorsed and award-winning) ad for Coca-Cola – these are two of the world’s most valuable brands in the world.

This is probably not because he has a particular Chinese sense of creativity, but because Long’s designs are genius! Ogilvy & Mather’s Chief Creative Officer said about the Coke Hands campaign that “beyond its obvious beauty, what made everyone so excited is that the design is inherently universal, before adding that, (the agency expects) it to bring smiles to people everywhere from Shanghai to Istanbul to Buenos Aires – without any modification at all“. The success of this campaign has nothing to do with China, but just with the creative talent of an individual, and a little bit of luck too.

But anyway, the topic of creativity across cultures is an interesting one! Doctoroff says that the Chinese don’t have an innate sense for creativity; I recently read a study that showed how a Western education can make Chinese design students more creative; I blogged about consumer creativity across culturesdon’t you thin that the subject is worth being explored further? Do you have any readings to recomend? I’d be happy to receive your comments…

Interesting reads about the topic

The Eastern Way: How Chinese Philosophy Can Power Innovation in Business Today: Economist Gary Davis thinks that the Chinese culture is not antithetical to innovation. One of his arguments is that the Chinese philosophical principles emphasize collaboration, constructive criticism and a strong work ethic, which are important for succesfull innovation.

Building Effective Business Relationships in China: Harvard associate professor Roy Chua argues that the Chinese way of doing business is getting more Westernized. He also explains that Western managers tend to misconceive the concept of guanxi, and highlights the complex role of trust in relationship building.

Un écosystème d’innovation singulier : les Shan Zhai (French): This article gives the example of Shen Zhen, a city in the Pearll River Delta, which has built an ecosystem of companies based on counterfeiting. The “second stage of innovation” is to build me-too services or mash-ups, but nothing is created ex nihilo.

Why Asians Are Less Creative Than Westeners: This book is on my reading list… stay tuned!

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