Hugh Seaton is the director of client services at advertising agency StarNet where he oversees advertising accounts for Google, Tencent, Pepsi and Blizzard, among others. In the past he has worked as the director of marketing communications at AOL and Sony Electronics. He spoke to China Economic Review about the point of advertising.
Q: How did you become involved in advertising?
A: My undergraduate degree was in sociology. I’ve always been interested in how large groups of people make decisions, in comparison to how a single person makes decisions. That’s persuasion, and that’s advertising. Then in 1994 I came to Shanghai and fell in love with Asia. I worked in Taiwan for two years, then went to Hong Kong in 1996 and had two options: work in investment banking, or advertising. I chose advertising.
Q: Why did you pursue an MBA?
A: I liked the idea of knowing enough and learning enough to run a P&L statement, and as a [former] client of advertising firms, I thought it made sense to get my MBA. I encourage others to pursue Executive MBA degrees, as opposed to general MBAs. At Columbia, I had people in my class like the CMO of United Healthcare – some amazing people – and I learned so much from them.
Q: How did an MBA change the way you do business in Asia?
A: The MBA broadens the way you think, and it made me understand the real point of advertising: to sell. The education I got with my MBA grounded advertising in business, instead of the abstract creative side. People fall in love with the drama in advertising, but at the end of the day you’re trying to sell something. And the MBA focuses you on the nuts and bolts of business. It’s not common for someone in advertising to have an MBA – getting this qualification doesn’t pay for itself, and it’s difficult to justify – but it is hugely valuable.
Q: Did you ever consider getting your MBA at a Chinese university?
A: No, because I wasn’t living in Asia at the time. I was earning my paycheck in New York, which made Columbia Business School more convenient. But if I were to think about getting my MBA now? Absolutely. The options are much better than they were before, and the educational system is a huge priority for the Chinese government.
Q: What differences do you find between doing business in China and in the US?
A: China gets a lot of flak for censorship, but it’s not really that big of a deal. How many TV ads made in America are political? None of them, because political ads don’t sell soap. But China is a difficult market – if you go national, it’s very hard to make an ad with universal appeal. In America, you deal with five big networks: PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Here? CCTV is all five networks in one. And as a marketer, what you do with technology and what you do with people is very different in China. Here’s an example: Google has 10 people in their call center – Baidu has 40,000 people. The focus is on people, instead of technology. China has no need to outsource labor like the US does.
Q: What are some of the challenges of working in China?
A: There’s a skill gap. Intelligence is not the issue; the talent wars are raging in China, without question. And it’s not that people aren’t willing, and it’s not that they aren’t eager – but you can’t replace somebody with 10 years of experience with someone with only two years of experience. Every industry has this problem. There just aren’t enough people with the necessary education. It’s not a problem in Shanghai, but once you get out of the city, there aren’t enough lawyers, judges and educated policemen. After all, anybody can write a law and have it passed tomorrow. That’s the power of China. But who is going to enforce that law? And who is going to understand it? This is one reason why China is not changing overnight. At the same time, the country is not changing in a linear way. What is going to emerge from China is something new.
Q: What can we learn from China?
A: How to do things differently. For example, no one knew what a Japanese businessman was like in the 1950s. But by the 1980s, everybody in America knew. Japan taught us about better manufacturing; China will teach us to do something else – maybe business models. China’s economic and business culture is in the middle of creating itself. There’s a sense that China has arrived – and it has – but China hasn’t created its real place yet.