Jeremy Webb grew up on a British farm in Sussex. He had no interest in China or advertising. Curious then that not only has the up-and-coming strategist carved out a career in the Chinese advertising industry, he has recently also written a book for the local population on English words. A numbers-savvy, bilingual, social media whizz word-man, it appears that Jeremy Webb is one of those multi-talented chaps that makes others green with envy. LBB’s Addison Capper spoke to him to find out how this rural British farm kid wound up in China’s capital.
LBB> here did you originally grow up and what kind of child were you?
JW> I lived on a farm in Sussex and, like a lot of people that grew up on farms, I was largely left to my own devices. When I wanted to earn money, for example, I bought cows, reared them, and sold them at profit. This ambiguous environment was in some ways similar to China’s Internet landscape. There are huge opportunities, but more so than other markets there is a rapidly changing playing field. No rules exist and there is no set way of doing things. You need to constantly look for new avenues to reach and engage audiences, which means constant experimentation. This suits me.
LBB> You studied Chinese at university and now live and work there. What is it about the country that attracts you?
JW> I had no interest in China before studying the language at university – I don't think I'd ever met a Chinese person or watched a Chinese film. Enrolling on a Chinese program – and turning down my last minute offer to study mathematics at London School of Economics – was more of an arbitrary decision... it was the most interesting thing I thought I could do with the next four years of my life.
It's the best decision I ever made though. I love that things change so quickly here; it's that constant need to innovate that I enjoy.
LBB> How did you get into advertising? Is it something you always wanted to do or did it happen more by chance?
JW> Something I always wanted to do? Absolutely not. I was ideologically opposed to marketing and in some ways still am. I started here as a journalist, joined Ogilvy Public Relations editing English, then successfully lobbied my boss to set up a social media team.
LBB> Part of your job is to take Ogilvy's best global practices and localise them for the Chinese market. Could you tell us a bit more about that role? Which projects you've worked on recently and that you are proud of?
JW> The global Social@Ogilvy team does a lot of great work figuring out new methodologies and approaches to social business. These are often designed with Facebook in mind, and so some work is needed at my end to repurpose them for the Chinese platforms.
As well as reworking global methodologies, I’m useful as a ‘bridge’ between the Western and Chinese ways of approaching digital. Sometimes I’m more of a crumple zone, mitigating damage when people with no experience of China, and who are hell bent on approaching social their way, clash with China practitioners and their ‘but China is different’ attitude. This happens a lot, on both client and agency side.
I’m glad to see that, through training and support, we’ve got to the stage where most teams in Ogilvy Public Relations can design and execute a decent social media marketing and communications program. So rather than focusing on social marcom, my team has been piloting new approaches and applications for social media. These have included social care, social shopping, social CRM, and integrated social business consultancy that takes a step back and looks at how social can add value across a client’s business.
A lot of my time recently has been spent working on a social consumer care program for one of the biggest food and beverage companies in China. They found that, rather than calling their hotlines with complaints, consumers could go straight to Weibo. We’ve trained their consumer services team to listen to every mention of their products, to evaluate the risk, and to engage these consumers publicly. In doing so they are turning negative word of mouth into positive and nipping potential crises in the bud.
LBB> Your Chinese-language blog, AngryEditor.com, has recently been published into a book. Can you tell us a bit about the contents of the blog? What has the reaction to the book been like?
JW> I was Ogilvy's editor for a while, during which time I was responsible for polishing, translating, and rewriting the English-language documents created by my colleagues. These guys have great English, but I found the same mistakes coming up again and again. I thought that, rather than driving myself mad (hence the name Angry Editor) correcting them each time, I would write about the mistakes and provide solutions that everybody can learn from. That was the blog. For the book, I collated 2 years’ worth of blog posts and added the same amount again.
The book’s selling pretty well. It could be doing better though. I hear that my publishers are pissed at me for not doing enough promotion – signings, media interviews etc. I really haven't had the time.
Many of my Chinese friends and colleagues spent a lot of their time at school memorizing new English words, but not so much time practicing how to use them. The underlying principle to the Angry Editor is that ‘we'd all be a lot better at English if we stopped learning new words and got to know better the ones we already know’. It's for this reason that my book does not introduce new words. This, unfortunately, is also the reason why people aren't buying it... it's not seen as valuable for that very reason.
LBB> What are your 2013 predictions for China online presence and social media?
JW> Integration will be key and I am working on a methodology whereby social media leads all work done in other communication and marketing areas. The best social media campaigns in China are not social media; they are TV ads or out-of-home campaigns that inspire people to share online. At the same time, the millions spent on TV ads that don’t inspire anybody to share online is a travesty. Social media-derived and validated insight should inspire and inform all production. Both influencers and online communities should also be activated in ways that mean trusted people deliver content. We’ve seen the beginnings of this around the Super Bowl, but it’s something I hope we’ll see more of this year.
In China we’ve never had the luxury of having just one or two clear platform leaders. In the place of Facebook and Twitter, which are blocked here, we have had multiple "platforms of choice" that have come and gone. Weibo, which I pegged as the Facebook of China, is now having its dominance threatened by Weixin (also known as WeChat). This disruption will continue into 2013. Weibo will probably remain as the top platform, though Weixin will be another option – especially as it adds more functionality for brand engagement. We will also see comings and goings of niche platforms such as Changba, which could be described as a social, mobile karaoke platform.
LBB> Where do you see yourself in 10 years' time?
JW> In five years, we'll be the most important team in Ogilvy & Mather China. In ten? We'll be the most important team O&M has worldwide. It sounds silly… but why not? We're doing digital and we are doing it in the world's fastest growing economy. Anything less than world domination would be a failure.