"You only have to look at the work that's being awarded by the juries at Cannes to see the development of creativity in the region. From Japan to Korea to Thailand and beyond, these countries are starting to win more and more Lions, and I'm sure we will see others - Vietnam, China, Indonesia - follow suit." So says Philip Thomas, CEO of the prestigious Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. Last year's Lions saw awards for entries from Brazil, Thailand, and Singapore, among others. Twenty-six Asian countries won Lions in 2002. In 2007, that number had risen to 87. London and New York may not be quaking in their boots yet, but in parallel with booming regional economies, the quality of creative work from outside of more familiar ad territories has become the creative story of the decade.
Agencies have rapidly developed a supporting culture of regional awards, such as the Effies for Asia, and also moved quickly into areas like consumer insight. While some of the names are familiar - JWT, McCann Erickson, Saatchi & Saatchi - the similarities are superficial. Regional offices are run differently, managed differently, and can have a very remote connection to home. Often they're buy outs rather than imports - a local agency partners with a multinational, but aside from the name change the culture remains relatively unaltered, and talent is recruited locally.
Eight years ago Sorab Mistry, then CEO of McCann Erickson in Mumbai, was quoted as saying that the home-grown ad industry in India had "low efficiency, high overheads, minimal planning, and miserly pay-masters - the perfect recipe for disaster". The situation today is much healthier, to the extent that McCann Erickson has developed a number of superstar creatives like Prasoon Joshi, regional creative director for South East Asia. Joshi has had a hand in some of India's most successful campaigns, including General Motors. As a side career, he also writes lyrics for Bollywood films. But he's best known for his Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola campaign, which became legendary in India. He puts his success down to a moment at Hapur railway station, where a fleeting glimpse of a porter and a mountain of luggage gave him the idea for using a pile of crates as shelter from India's blistering heat. It's this ability to take global needs and translate them into regional colour that gives emerging ad markets much of their flavour. In Joshi's case it has helped turn around an agency that was getting stagnant and upgraded it into a significant creative and cultural powerhouse.
Other cultural mash-ups have created similarly unique results. TBWA's successful Adidas campaign in Shanghai took a global brand and blended it with influences from Shanghai's burgeoning fine art scene - as well as namechecking the Olympics and hinting at China's communist past. Design Farm's Eyevision campaign in India plays off familiar film posters to create ads that look like local advertising, but are seasoned with an understated global twist.
Not all cultural differences are as accessible to Westerners. Dentsu is one of the largest agencies in Japan, offering a spread of services that Western agencies would envy, including hospitality, broadcasting, and online advertising. Net sales in 2007 were ¥123 billion - around £600 million. But even though Dentsu is one of the few non-Western agencies in the world's top ten, with regional offices in Europe and across the world, the company is notoriously uncommunicative. The agency takes no part in industry award schemes, prospective employees are expected to make an initial contact in Japanese, and it's almost impossible to find out anything about Dentsu's campaigns and client list.
Luckily Dentsu's reclusiveness is an exception in the industry. Elsewhere there's evidence that Asian studios are happy to aim for global impact, nurturing a flow of talent into the Western mainstream. Thailand's Matching Studio is an exceptional example of this. In 2002 managing director Somchai Cheewasutthanon set up links with Hollywood, hoping to draw in business from the US film industry, which in turn led to Hollywood talent-spotting and eventually poaching director Suthon Petchsuwan. When Petchsuwan signed to talent agency TWC in Santa Monica, which represents some of the most successful talent in the business, executive producer Mark Thomas said, "One of the things that impressed me was how well his work translates. His spots would play just as well for American viewers as they do for Asian audiences. Good work is good work, and great talent is great talent. Suthon is a tremendous talent doing significant work." Matching Studio continues to incubate a new generation of directorial talent, which is collecting more than its fair share of local awards, as well as offering post-production and filming opportunities to the local and international film industry.
South America has also been making an impression. AlmapBBDO Brazil's ten-year relationship with Havaianas sandals and flip flops might not seem like the most promising of creative associations, but the agency has created an award-winning series of designs that have relied on consistent use of exuberant colours and flower motifs to build up brand recognition in print, and online with some outstandingly exotic Flash work. The approach was so successful it was reworked by BBDO's New York office, which created local variations for the US market. The campaign worked, but industry commentators still prefer the undiluted passion of the original work.
Talent can always flow in a more familiar direction, with creative ex-pats from the British and US ad markets importing a familiar creative aesthetic to regional campaigns. Often this creates a mix that can be more interesting than work that has never travelled. Andy Greenaway is a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi in Singapore. He's been involved in many of the agency's recent award-winning campaigns, including Olay skin care, the Thai government's anti-smoking initiative, and a distinctive campaign for the Thai SPCA. Although he appreciates the challenges, he's enthusiastic about the cultural differences: "I don't think marketing is particularly different in the East compared to the West. The same things appeal to everybody around the world. Everybody wants love, wealth, health, and status. That said, there are local nuances and circumstances that mean you have to adapt your message to become relevant. For instance, in the West, washing powder is aimed at people with washing machines. In large parts of Asia the majority of people don't have a washing machine. They still handwash. So the message and execution of an ad will be very different. However, the broad appeal of brands is largely the same - KFC runs the same kind of advertising as they run in the US."
But there is a bigger picture, as he continues: "The real difference between East and West is the nature of the advertising business itself. We work at breakneck speed out here. Where an agency in London might get three to six months to complete a campaign, we'll get three weeks. There's also less research in Asia especially amongst local brands - although it's true to say, many of the multinationals find it hard to break the filthy habit of focus groups. All in all, Asia is much more entrepreneurial than the West. And campaigns get to market quicker and with far less bureaucracy."
A different approach comes from Jari Danielsson, managing director of Kuudes Kerros, a branding and design agency in Finland. "A recent success was where we created a retail concept for our local clients. It doubled their sales and they're now opening a store in St Petersburg. But there are no local design competitions, and budgets are lower, so we don't have an awards culture."
The local flavour carries through into the agencies approach to projects, and isn't limited to visual impact. "The purity of Scandinavian design - modern, clean, simple - still has a lot of impact on the creative work we do," continues Danielsson. "Nokia first started to succeed when it made its designs unique. Then a few years ago the company stopped making thin phones, and that had a big impact on Nokia's sales. So we encourage clients to start with a clear design process, and to finalise the content and concept of a product before they start marketing and advertising. Our approach is that the strongest brands are built before they're advertised. For example, TallinkSilja, the leading European ferry operator, had a problem - teens on board were getting restless and bored, and they wanted us to do something about it. Instead of creating marketing hype, we designed a unique lounge concept that combines shopping, playing and chilling in a totally new way. It's been very successful."
The tensions between local and global influences are obvious. But Andy Greenaway thinks that eventually a global/local synthesis is possible. "Ten years ago, the networks were pushing global campaigns in order to create efficiencies. But as local brands, especially from India and China, start to emerge as major forces, I believe the international brands will have to localise even more. The consumer is only one half of the marketing equation. What your competitor does is equally as important. If a local competitor runs a discount campaign, you are going to have to react against that at a local level. Global, or even regional, campaigns become redundant."
In other words, the industry is going to become more interesting as old and new, local, regional and international influences start to play off each other. The ferment is just getting started, and you'll be seeing more international work than the Western ad industry has been accustomed to. Perhaps the question for Western designers isn't which non-Western talents have been successful - it's who in the West is ready to benefit from working with them, and competing with them creatively.