Doing Deals With The Dragon – My Experience Working As An Adman In China

Nunn Media staff Portraits

In this guest post, Chris Walton (lead image), the Sydney MD of Nunn Media, talks of his experience in working in China in the wake of the recent arrest and imprisonment of a GroupM executive in the country…

China is a mind-boggling place to live.  Enthralling, stimulating, rewarding, exhausting and frustrating.  And that is just the commute to work.

It continually puts a smile on your dial (my driver was called ‘Rong Wei’ – try saying that out loud and keeping a straight face), whilst simultaneously driving you to distraction.

Great friendships are made, often with people from competitive agencies.  We used to chuckle at anyone describing themselves as a ‘China expert’.  Why?  Because it was impossible to understand everything that went on in such a complex society.  If you told yourself and others you did, then clearly you didn’t (still following?!).

I was also of the view that Aussies punched above their weight in China.  I could make a long list of individuals who have enjoyed amazing success in China after moving there from Australia – Wilds, Heaps and Drummonds amongst them.

However, certain nefarious business practices have always existed.  These have been in the spotlight recently thanks to high profile police raids and arrests of WPP employees.

I appreciate ‘nefarious business practices’ is a fairly broad umbrella statement.  This includes the common practice amongst some agency groups of making a very significant portion of their income (and even more of their profit) not from client fees but from their suppliers, be they TV networks, brokers, or other media-related businesses.

At the same time (sometimes intertwined with the above and sometimes not), cases have arisen of certain agency employees personally enriching themselves by leveraging the position of power they find themselves in.  Recent reports indicate that this is what the police are currently looking into, although details remain scarce.

When we read words like ‘graft’, ‘corruption’ and ‘extortion’ it makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand up.  However, for many who work in China these dodgy practices are not dodgy at all.  By making money on the side they are simply realising the earning potential that their position – and effort in getting there – makes them justified to realise.  It isn’t bad.  It is almost expected.

Of course, this makes it a bloody nightmare to manage.  Whilst the media market was smaller when I was there, there were still multiple offices, hundreds of employees and thousands of suppliers to oversee, all whilst deploying budgets which were massive by Australian standards. It was impossible to monitor everything and everyone at all times.  All one can do is put in place systems and processes that as much as possible allow for counter-checking, whilst doing as much as possible to promote an internal culture of openness, trust and transparency.  But you’d be kidding yourself to think this eradicates the issue.

This once lead to a squeaky-bum moment one day on the golf course (thank you very much).  The Chairman of my biggest client asked me directly if I could guarantee that ‘my’ operation was clean.  How do you answer that?  I responded by saying no I couldn’t, but I could guarantee that if I ever found evidence of it not being so, I would involve the police.

How did this response go down?  Initially I wasn’t sure, but when he farted right in front of me a few minutes later I took it as a sign that we had bonded and that trust had been established (although at that point I was simply glad that we were outside).  Ultimately though, he didn’t fire me.

I have been longing to get back to China in order to experience for myself just how much it has changed since I worked there.  However, in terms of certain business practices, it would appear from recent news reports that some things haven’t changed very much at all.

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