From 25 stories up, Tom Doctoroff can see the length of the Street of Eternal Happiness from his office window. But he’s not looking outside. He’s reviewing a car commercial on his laptop.
Doctoroff is an ad man. He’s spent 15 years figuring out how to sell to the Chinese. Before he figured that out, though, he had to know how not to sell to the Chinese.
“One time when we were doing an advertisement for Pizza Hut,” Doctoroff remembers. “I remember the product was the Edge Pizza, so it was cheese that went right to the edge.”
This was in back in 1999, but Doctoroff says he’ll always remember this ad. “We had a little kid who got up on a desk and started proclaiming the delicious taste to his student friends and a group of kids gathered around him.”
It was a cute ad. But the Chinese government didn’t think so. It considered the Edge Pizza commercial too dangerous — officials pulled it off the air.
“This violated every censorship rule that you could have,” Doctoroff says, “because the child had morphed into an alternative center of power. So it really was an early warning not to have advertising that in any shape or form be considered rabble rousing.”
It was his first lesson in advertising in China.
Here, high above the Street of Eternal Happiness, Doctoroff manages a staff of 200 young Chinese hipsters in an office decorated to look like a nightclub. They work for J. Walter Thompson, one of the oldest ad agencies in the world.
When he smokes his occasional cigarette in his corner office, Tom Doctoroff could pass for Don Draper, the leading man of the hit TV series “Mad Men.” The comparison is hard to avoid. The golden era of advertising in China is now — the industry’s only 20 years old. In that time, China’s consumer class has risen to historic proportions: Chinese consumers now outnumber the entire population of the U.S., and companies now spend $35 billion a year advertising to them. Ad agencies from all over the world have descended on Shanghai, helping create China’s first generation of office culture.
Zhu Yongwei, who works in the creative department, says her parents, like the parents of most of the people here, were factory workers. “I think in China, the two generations, especially the older generation, they don’t really pay much attention to what you are doing.”
And she doesn’t bother telling them — they wouldn’t understand, she says. These generational differences add another layer of challenges to their work, says Doctoroff. Ads that may work with a younger audience will fall flat with their parents.
Ads like an old Nike commercial Doctoroff shows me in his office of tennis stars Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi playing a pick-up game in a Manhattan street. A crowd gathers, police arrive, chaos ensues — rock ‘n’ roll tennis.
Doctoroff sometimes screens this commercial to Chinese test audiences. “Even young Chinese today, when they see this they feel a little bit uncomfortable and they don’t smile. They’re not into the commercial,” says Doctoroff.
It’s not that rebellion doesn’t have a place in China. It does, Doctoroff says, as long as it’s pragmatic — you have to get something out of it.
The same goes for love.
One of Doctoroff’s clients is the diamond retailer de Beers. He shows me a de Beers ad in the West shows a husband screaming his love for his wife in a crowded plaza in Venice. When she stops him, he gives her a diamond ring. “In China, that line elicits titters. In China, when someone says ‘I love you,’ the woman’s instinct is to say ‘don’t talk. Prove it to me,'” says Doctoroff.
So when his crew came up with an equivalent de Beers ad for China, big changes had to be made — the Chinese version has a young couple standing in front of a pool, at night. Doctoroff narrates the rest: “The woman looks up at the sky and she says, ‘Ahh that moon is so beautiful.’ Chinese women like round things. And then the guy doesn’t say, ‘Yes, it’s beautiful.’ He says ‘I will go grab it for you.’ So he dives into the pool and he slowly emerges with something more valuable than the moon: five months of his salary in the form of a diamond ring,” says Doctoroff, watching the ad on his laptop.
Chinese test audiences loved the commercial and suddenly, ‘a diamond is forever’ was no longer lost in translation.
The rhythm of China’s economic advancement is steady and fast. There’s little space for mistakes. That’s why everything the Chinese do, says Doctoroff, have to be a means to an end — from falling in love to buying friends the right Christmas gifts. And high above the Street of Eternal Happiness, China’s ‘mad men’ are eager to sell it all to them.