IPG Mediabrands China boss Cary Huang on the truth about media censorship, merger fever and the secret to survival

Cary HuangFive months ago, Cary Huang was promoted from CEO of UM to lead the IPG Mediabrands group in China.

In this Q&A, the former GroupM executive tells Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about where foreign media companies are failing in China, what the Omnicom Publicis merger will mean and how to survive in the toughest market in the world.

Who is the most powerful person in media in China right now?

I couldn’t single out an individual person. I’d say the government, which shapes policy and can very quickly change the media landscape.

What is the biggest story in media in China at the moment?

Mergers and acquisitions, particularly in the search engine space.

Sohu.comQihoo 360 is about to strike a deal with Sohu Inc to buy its search engine Sogou. The merger of Qihoo and Sogou will create a genuine competitor to Baidu, China’s biggest search engine. It has been rumoured for a long time, and I think the deal is almost a certainty.

We’ve also seen Baidu buy PPS.tv’s online video business for $370m. Baidu also paid $1.9 billion for mobile technology company 91 Wireless.

What was your initial reaction to the news of the Publicis Omnicom merger and what it could mean for competition for Mediabrands in China?

My initial reaction was that it was a dramatic move, and a very interesting one. There had been rumours about Publicis Groupe acquiring IPG for a while, so it was a surprise to see Omnicom involved.

The deal will have a profound impact in China, but I don’t think it will affect the market until midway through 2015. And when it does, I suspect we’ll see a lot of turbulence in terms of people and clients leaving both companies.

If you could hire one person, who would it be?

The business is growing very quickly, and I want to bring in people who are ambitious and prepared to step outside their comfort zone. It would be impolite to name one person and not another, so I can’t say who’s top of my list. We’re a lot smaller than the likes of WPP, Omnicom and Publicis Groupe as we were relatively late to enter China. But in the last two years we’ve managed to attract some really talented people who dislike the bureaucracy of the big multinationals.

What’s the biggest mistake foreign media companies make when they enter China these days?

One area where they are weak is in data. Local companies have the edge here. And the strategy of foreign companies has been to acquire local digital companies, but they haven’t invested enough in developing their own digital technology.

There is so much written about China – often by outsiders. What is the most inaccurate thing you’ve ever read about the Chinese media landscape?

The articles I’ve read are always about censorship and the lack of freedom of speech. I’m always reading about how unfair it is that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked. But as the internet proliferates, the government is becoming decreasingly strict and effective in how it controls information online. Freedom of the media is inevitable as more people use the internet. And social media is being used to hold corrupt government officials to account. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and yet the articles I’ve read paint a very bleak picture.

How worried are your clients by the slow down in the Chinese economy?

Some clients have been affected by the slowdown. They are worried by the atmosphere of uncertainty and how the economy will fare in the coming months. Some are cutting their media budgets as a result. Some are doing the opposite. It depends on sales and how confident the client is in their business.

Do you think that people in media in China work too hard?

I’ve talked to people who’ve worked for Google in the US and in China, and they say that working in China is much, much harder. Other people I’ve talked to in the industry say they are always busy and stressed, but this is not unique to the media business. In a high-growth economy, competition is going to be fierce. A tough working environment is a side effect. But I’m sure most people would rather a tough working environment than have no growth. You can’t have the rainbow without the rain.

When I talk to my people who tell me they’re frustrated, the blame usually falls on the client. They feel that they are not showed much respect and clients are too demanding. My response is always that the experience, however hard, will make us stronger and more capable as individuals and an agency.

What is your favourite Chinese ad of all time?

When I watch TV ads, I weigh up how effective they are, how well they target their audience and the message they’re trying to get across. For me, the Duracell campaign is really strong. I like the positioning of the longer lasting bunny. It’s an idea that can stand the test of time, and can be adapted well locally.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give a young person wanting to go into media in China?

You need strength of character to succeed. But more importantly you need to stay curious. If you don’t stay interested, you will get frustrated and jaded. It’s a wonderful industry, but it can be cruel on those who run out of passion for it.


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