A Confucius induced confession

I am seven years into a career in research and analysis having worked on some of the world’s largest brands and as I began work on a new Chinese giant this year I thought I was sufficiently educated to guide my client team through the complex and nuanced world of data and insight.

I wasn’t.

Whilst I had lengthy knowledge of the client’s industry, a genuine interest in the client’s brand and a diverse history of relevant techniques for the client, I found I lacked insight on one key part; the client.

My confession is that I did what most people do once they have a few years’ experience in a particular discipline, I leaned on it and applied lessons learnt to this new project, something which has served me well in the past.

As an analyst in the communications and advertising industry, the key aspect of your findings is how you present them, specifically here I am referring to brevity; western analysts are coached in the art of communicating oceans of information in tremendously concise formats. The focus is on simplicity and speed.

This is something I learnt six years ago whilst giving my first boss the results from a report in a very literal elevator pitch; after describing what had been found and what we should do with it, she hit the elevator button again to return to our floor and said, “Now tell me again but using no numbers and language that your grandmother would understand”. We did four journeys in the elevator before I got to a version that was in a state to present to the client.

In the west we are militant about time. This is not exclusive to the field of analysis or even agencies, in general we just “haven’t got the bloody time!” and the by product is that communications are measured on their value per second.

It was this mindset that I applied when I began work with my new Chinese client here at Hill + Knowlton…

  • China is one of the hardest working nations on earth” I thought, “my client’s time will be so precious I’ll have to move and communicate more concisely than usual
  • My specific client is rather senior, he won’t need a tour of the methodology and techniques we use, he just needs the useful pearls that we’ve found
  • Our client team has selected us specifically from the other side of the world, we should work hard to show we’re experts and lead the way on the projects

I was wrong on each count.

As an agency we are becoming hugely invested in China and around this time last month H+K launched the Shanghai Addition at Cannes, a new initiative which looks to bridge this eastern powerhouse of China with markets, audiences and cultures around the world. Watching the agency leadership talk through the Shanghai Addition was my first realisation that my approach may not be as applicable as I’d first thought.

Shortly after the launch in Cannes, H+K welcomed Dr Hong Lu (OBE) and Tim Nash from London School of Economics (LSE) Confucius Institute to dissect the Chinese culture and way of thinking, and the contrasts with my assumptions became more pronounced.

The most profound point that the LSE team raised was to avoid the urge to cut directly to a specific point…

“Chinese culture is about layering, taking the time to build something, together” Mr. Nash told the group, “not being ultra-lean and direct to save time, there’s much weight placed on the time invested in communication”.

As the team spoke, the screens cycled through countless Chinese proverbs which seemed to be in stark contrast to the hard-nosed western commercial mindset.

买卖不成仁义在

(Even if no agreement is reached or deal made, friendship remains).

The LSE team finished by describing that China stakeholders or clients do not tend to want an expert who leads on a specific discipline or field, they’ll almost always want a partner and to be taken on the journey, every step together.

As presentations go it was probably one of the most useful I’ve seen and has armed me and agency colleagues with a deeper understanding of our Chinese partners.

I used to coach junior analysts using the ‘Iceberg’ analogy which describes how the vast majority of an analyst’s work exists below the surface and is never seen, it’s only the most distilled useful part that is presented.

For my China projects I still use the same analogy but I practice standing alongside my client and lifting the whole thing above the surface together.

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