How Communications’ China marketing director, Doris Li, believes ad-land professionals must be courageous enough “to be abnormal”, and listen to their hearts, to be fearless in times of change.
During this year’s B&T Women in Media Awards, presented by Are Media, we’ll be recognising exceptional people who have achieved success in their professional arenas, celebrating their invaluable contribution to their industry through leadership, innovation and courage.
Doris Li is the chief marketing officer and director of China marketing at How Communications, and Women in Media’s 2018 ‘People’s Choice’ award winner. Recently, B&T spoke with Li about the future of ad-land, and whether ‘fearlessness’ will be a quality for the industry’s future.
Doris, what does ‘fearlessness’ mean to you?
I think on the individual level, it means that you have the courage to be abnormal—you don’t just follow the rules, or what the society thinks is right or wrong. You should listen to your heart and just go for it, and then settle for extraordinary.
I think I’m actually a pretty good example of this.
I grew up in Shanghai and I was always in the top of my classes. So, according to the perception of Chinese parents and the Chinese society, I should be getting a good job; I should marry a rich Chinese person, maybe a doctor, and have a kid or maybe two and send them to the top school, as well.
But I decided, actually, to give up all the good job offers in China and come to Australia by myself. Because what I believed is that if I stayed in China, I could see where my whole life was going, but I really want to explore the area that I don’t know.
Another thing I want to say about fearlessness is that I think it’s also about daring to accept the difference.
There are lots of people that are very familiar with areas that they know and find it scary when they go out and encounter stuff that they do not. A lot of people choose to sit within their comfort zone, instead of talking through their differences and accepting those differences.
This was also something that I learnt from my studies in Australia, because everything was different. So, I pushed myself out, and pushed myself to accept the difference, and I pushed myself to open to other people in another culture.
What does fearlessness in advertising, marketing, or the media look like?
I don’t think that exists in advertising and marketing [specifically], because there’s always approvals, and there’s always industry restrictions. So, the best we can do is be highly creative.
So, think outside the box, as we always say, and also embrace the new technology and the constantly changing media landscape. Make sure you keep up with these.
It is important on one hand to be fearless as an individual.
But I think to be a very professional consultant to your clients, while thinking creatively, you still need to be aware of the risks, and you need to not really take your client into those risks just to be fearless, but help your clients to avoid these risks.
Who do you know who has shown these qualities since the COVID-19 pandemic struck?
One case study I really liked was Nike’s ‘Play inside, play for the world’ campaign. I think Nike did really, really well during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In their previous campaigns, what they usually do is use a sports star in their advertising, but in the COVID period they have changed the whole thing from outside to inside and the film stars are changed to everyday consumers.
So, instead of using lots of professionally done content, they’re actually buying the user-generated content from normal consumers and putting them into advertising.
I think that’s great, because it could be a bit risky and dangerous to play around at a time like this, because people could think if you’re not doing this well that you’re actually taking advantage of other people’s pain.
So, what I think Nike did really well is they kept their messaging authentic. And, also, the most important thing is it aligned with their fundamental brand values.
What is an issue in the industry that keeps you up at night?
At the moment, I think one of the biggest issues is the new way of working. While I think we always talk about flexibility, we still tend to work better in ‘the room’.
We used to fly to Shanghai for our clients’ pitch because we believed that if we were not in the room, you probably lost the chance. But now with this whole situation, we won’t be able to sit in the room anymore—and this might be the new normal in the future.
How we build our teams in the ‘cloud’ [online] is something that we need to think about.
Do you believe the advertising, marketing, and media industries need to be fearless off the back of the coronavirus pandemic, and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests?
I personally don’t think this is a time to be fearless. It’s a time for taking actions, leading your team creatively, and managing your clients and your accounts in creative ways.
So, take control of your clients and yourself while some other people may lose their head.
Of course, the industry has changed its way of working, and I’ve seen lots of brands and companies that are adjusting their messages to fit with the environment. In this challenge, I think that we need to be brave to support our clients.
However, I don’t think we should fairly say work through the risk. What we need to do is strategically guide our clients through these challenging times.
How can advertisers, marketers and members of the media ‘keep their heads’ in times of change?
I always believe that every coin has two sides—in every challenge, there will be opportunities.
It is important that you understand both sides. However, you should focus on the side that works towards your favour. So, in the challenging times, always identify the opportunities and work toward those opportunities.
For example, during the COVID-19 period, some brands may experience a drop in sales; however, there are also opportunities for some industries—you can see that industries such as government, houseware, furniture, and pet stores, are seeing an increase in their sales during that period.
So, it is a lesson on how to elaborate on those challenges and make them an opportunity.
What do you think are ad-land’s three biggest strengths?
I think the whole industry is built on understanding human behaviour.
So, I think this is our main strength. We can then predict reactions to situations, and then work out what we need to do to satisfy human needs.
What are ad-land’s three biggest challenges?
I’ve put more than three here.
Bringing clients along for the journey when we are in a difficult time can be challenging, because in a difficult and different time, you need to do things differently—and some of your clients may not have that mindset yet.
They probably still want to stick to the traditional and conservative way. So, learning how to actually persuade them and guide them through this difficult time will be a challenge for us.
And also, there’s constant change in the digital space, so you need to be always learning, and make sure you understand what is in this space.
I did my master’s degree in global media communications in 2005, and back then we had a class about new media, which, at the time, was film and television—and now its all about social media.
For practitioners like us, we won’t be able to go back to school do my master’s degree again [because we will already be behind], which means that it’s a challenge for us to actually find ways to keep up and find ways to always learn, and to maintain the relationship with teams.
Customers in our industry deal with lots of people and different personalities, so it could be a good challenge for us.
Another challenge is also around educating consumers about new technologies, as well.
So, for example, now with social media, and also digital advertising, it’s all about personalisation.
We send personalised ads to consumers; however, consumers haven’t been accepting this well yet, as there are huge issues around privacy at the moment. This will be a challenge for us, as well.
How would you solve these challenges?
I think it takes time. But you need to communicate with consumers—they need to have the option to opt out of ads, and you want the consumer to feel that this is not one-way promotion from the brands to them.
You want to make sure that they feel that they have power in this communication— it’s two-way communication.
And then the consumer feels that they can take control of this whole communication. Instead of getting them to feel that they are being stalked, they should feel that you are actually serving them something that they actually want.
I also think that it’s pretty important that we start to create global connections.
In Australia, we can be a little bit isolated from the rest of the world. One thing that we need to understand in this era is that it’s no longer about the home market. It’s about the global market.
I think it’s really important that we have this mindset and we start to build that connection.
But how much of an issue is the fact that Australia’s borders are shut?
It’s not so much of an issue, as we are digital, right? We focus on digital advertising and digital communication, but now we need to be digital ourselves.
We can reach out to connections through LinkedIn and other social media channels, but I think the whole way of communication will change, and people will switch to digital anyway.
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