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"In China, There Wasn’t a Second Where We Had Less to Do"

Opinion and Insight 377 Add to collection
As Wuhan opens back up and Covid-19 passes the 100-day mark, Ogilvy China CEO Chris Reitermann reflects on an unexpected journey, writes Laura Swinton
"In China, There Wasn’t a Second Where We Had Less to Do"
In early February, Chris Reitermann was busy. Very busy. Coronavirus had taken hold in China, cities were under lockdown, and he and the team at Ogilvy China were helping their clients navigate lockdown and quickly adjust to a new reality – all the while leading his own agency which was scattered across the country in their homes, and in the homes of their parents. And as he did so, he realised that global marketers and colleagues in other countries could learn a lot from what was going on in the Middle Kingdom.

The only thing was, no one was particularly interested. There were only 2,000 infections outside of China and to the rest of the world, Covid-19 seemed like a very remote, very local issue.

A couple of months later and things look very different indeed. Today (April 8th) marks the 100th day since the World Health Authority was alerted to an unknown new pathogen taking hold in Wuhan. Now, there have been over 1.45m confirmed cases of the disease worldwide, with over 83,000 deaths. Europe and the US are desperately trying to flatten the curve of the illness and businesses are racing to pivot – while in China, offices are opening up again and Wuhan has, finally, emerged from lockdown.

Now that the rest of the world has caught up to where China was six weeks ago, Chris also notices a curious disconnect between the realities on the ground and the messaging coming from global headquarters.

“We have this group… it’s kind of like an alcoholics anonymous group for China CEOs, not just in advertising but across all industries. We get together once a week on a call and everybody in China has the same problem – if you’re part of a global company your headquarters are preparing for Armageddon, basically, but at the same time you’re telling your people in China to get back to work and business as usual,” says Chris.

In any case, he says, while there was certainly a tightening of belts in China at the peak of the crisis, the client need for help – and consumer appetite for content – was higher than ever. “During this crisis, from a China perspective, there wasn’t a second where we had less to do – we had different things to do but we were busy like crazy every day,” he says. “Now I have a challenge in getting my global people to understand, first of all, yes the money might have gone down temporarily but the work hasn’t and we still need the people to do the work clients are asking for.”


For Chris, he’s now at a place where he can take stock about the progress that has been made, share insights and hope from home with the rest of the world – and consider why the impact of the disease might end up being a little different in China and APAC, compared with the Western Hemisphere.

“One of the interesting observations about how things happened in China and how they now happen in the rest of the world, is that I think China companies were much faster to adapt to this crisis,” he says. “Partly because they have gone through this before but it’s also, generally, a much faster-paced environment. In China, you deal with a crisis every day – not on this scale but something goes wrong every day.”

It’s also fair to say that one of the reasons the public and business worlds’ reactions to the spread of the disease has been different in APAC compared to the Western world is that the experience of the SARS outbreak in 2003 had left the region’s governments with an idea of how to tackle the disease.

“I really think in this part of the world, having gone through SARS and generally more misery, people are more aware of these sorts of things and more prepared. Not prepared in that there is a playbook to handle these things, but I think mentally prepared. So first people in China, and other places like Korea, are more used to dealing with hardship and when these things happen, there’s more of a collective understanding that something needs to be done fairly quickly.”

One lesson that definitely applies to the rest of the world is the need to act and act fast. What Chris is most proud of is the way that the Ogilvy teams in the country helped their clients to pivot rapidly and at scale. He humbly suggests that the challenge that advertising agencies faced were relatively straightforward when compared with those of his clients, which had enormous logistical and supply chain issues to figure out.

Take fast food chain YUM!, for example. They have 8,000 outlets across China and half a million employees – almost overnight they had to move from a restaurant business to an online food delivery business. That involved practical logistics, navigating food safety issues – Chris says that he’s pleased that the agency was able to play its own small part in this massive undertaking. KFC, another Ogilvy China client, had to juggle looking after its 450,000 employees while pivoting and creating a frozen food delivery service, so that people could cook their fried chicken at home.

“We’ve done campaigns, we’ve done ads during this time of crisis but that’s not the heroic thing,” reflects Chris. “The heroic thing is how you get 200,000 people to suddenly deliver food to people’s houses. It’s something I’m more proud of than doing a campaign to educate people to wash their hands. That’s also important, obviously, but I do feel that in the kind of biggest two weeks when things were really bad I found it amazing how everyone  rallied together to work together and figure out how to work together and do things that we had never done before. We wound up with new innovations and ways of working on the fly.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Chris can also identify a couple of areas where China and the Chinese advertising industry has been surprisingly lucky.  When it came to timing, Wuhan was locked down on January 23rd, two days before Chinese New Year, January 25th. By this time all of the major festive campaigns were out the door and usually February is a quieter time for the local ad scene. The agency ended up with over a hundred members of staff stuck in Wuhan as they had gone to visit family over CNY, but most of the major projects had been completed in January.

And secondly, being the earliest hit, Chinese agencies have had a bit more breathing room when it comes to production. “While China was bad, everywhere else was not, so while China was on lockdown they could still shoot campaigns in Thailand or Taiwan. And now it’s the other way around, actually!” reveals Chris. “We’re now shooting campaigns for markets outside of China in China. All the production companies are back to work and production is possible again.”

Meanwhile, he predicts that Europe and the US might emerge from the crisis with a more dramatic evolution.

“I think, on the positive side, the leap that the Western world will make as a result of this will be a greater one,” says Chris, pointing to e-commerce as an example. “I think the big shift isn’t so much in the lack of companies offering e-commerce but consumers wanting to do it. Now they have no choice. One of the key learnings we had during SARS is you think human beings forget fast and once the crisis is over they go back to the old ways of doing things, but that didn’t happen in China. SARS was a moment in time where we saw a huge acceleration in digital services. I think in Europe and the US the same will happen now and at a bigger scale because the consumer demand will be there.”

In China, though, right now, people are desperate to return to some sort of normality – though in the back of everyone’s mind looms the shadow of the possibility that Covid-19 could come back. The government, says Chris, is keen to re-start the economy and, after two months of lockdown, people are keen to see their friends.

“I think people are keen to get back to normal as fast as possible,” says Chris. “I think everyone has, in the back of their head, the idea that’s not all done and over ,but the urge to go out and have a drink and have a dinner is probably greater than the fear of something happening again. 

“Today is a big day in China because today is that day they have stopped the lockdown in Wuhan – they’re free to go wherever they want to again so we’ll see what happens in the next two weeks. You can clearly see that the Chinese government prioritises now the stimulation of the economy and things getting back to normal over everything else. They’re still very, very cautious over a second outbreak but they don’t want more campaigns about exhausted health workers; they want happy people, people going back shopping, spending money and having a good time.”

Photo by Sean Lim on Unsplash
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Ogilvy Asia Pacific, Wed, 08 Apr 2020 16:54:35 GMT