Fast Chat: Tom Doctoroff

JWT's China chief on culture, communism and China's modern consumer

Tom Doctoroff is one of the most influential Western ad men in the world’s fastest-growing major economy. The JWT Greater China CEO is a Mandarin speaker who has lived on the Chinese mainland for 14 years and previously spent four years in Hong Kong. He combined that local knowingness with an outsider’s perspective about the Chinese consumer psyche in his first book, Billions, published in 2005. Now, in his new tome, What Chinese Want, he builds upon those observations about the country’s evolving economy and what the implications are for marketers.

Adweek: How does China’s culture of conformity inform consumer behavior?

The golden rule of marketing in China is you have to maximize public consumption in order to charge a price premium because brands are used as tools of advancement in a societally mandated definition of success. Any brand that helps you advance and project status is going to be purchased. Anything consumed outside the home is going to command much more of a premium than anything inside the home where people are extremely price conscious. Nobody is going to invest in an expensive bed spread. This also means you have to position things in a subtle way. Spas need to help you recharge, not just relax. Benefits need to be externalized; brands need to help you connect better, project better with society. Even with something like detergent, if it is positioned within the context of having your child look good on stage because you’re able to get stains out or make their clothes look white then that is more than just a sheer economic savings kind of proposition.

How does that awareness of status relate to the Chinese notion of "face"?

Face is the fuel of forward advancement, and there are specific points at which you gain face or you lose face. If, for example, you are at a table talking about a possible deal and wearing the wrong watch, and if somebody says that is not a good brand, you lose face. Face is more than just what other people think of you; it’s how many social credits you have accumulated. 

Why haven’t we seen the next Google coming out of a Shanghai garage?

You do have millions of entrepreneurs in China. They usually have very small businesses and trade in something that is usually commoditized so they use low price and resourcefulness as the ultimate competitive weapons. These people are a huge force in the Chinese economy. What you don’t have is a lot of innovative, mold-breaking entrepreneurs, people who say, "I’ve got a better idea. I’m going to do it this way and buck conventional wisdom." That goes back to China’s culture of anti-individualism because creativity, by definition in a Western sense, is dangerous. Most people are not raised to persuade people to accept a different paradigm. It also comes down to the fact [that] institutions don’t exist to encourage entrepreneurs— things like the venture capital markets and the wide availability of credit. This goes back to the Chinese belief that the individual is not considered the basic productive unit of society.

Will we ever see a Chinese commercial understanding of innovation and creativity?

They understand what innovation is and they admire it tremendously. Steve Jobs is a hero because of the fact [that] he had a different vision and he pursued it and won big. The problem is that the economic and social structures don’t encourage it. So will we ever see a Chinese entrepreneur that is truly innovative or a Chinese company known for innovation? I don’t want to say never, but I don’t see how this can happen on a broad basis unless you have significant political reform. You need a government that is impartial and has the mechanisms to protect individuals’ interests involving everything from judiciary to corporate governance to how banking loans are determined to transparency in bookkeeping to a more rational tax regime.