This week Warc is attending the annual Global Advertising Week organised by the World Federation of Advertisers in Beijing. On Tuesday I had the pleasure of moderating part of a MediaCom-sponsored session that provided an overview of the Chinese marketing scene.

As with any conference about China, you can't move for mind-boggling statistics. Here's a few that caught our eye today:

  • China's car market, already one of the world's biggest, still has only a 4% penetration.
  • Media spend by car brands has risen 23-fold in the past 10 years.
  • There are 185 bloggers on Sina with over 1 million followers.

The highlight was a series of presentations by senior marketers working in China. The three speakers, from a mix of local brands and multinational brands, had plenty of good advice for the audience.

Chatham House rules prevent me from revealing the detail of the discussion, but it's fair to say the biggest debate was about what works in China. One speaker argued: "The biggest threat to business in China is the so-called global model."

He was arguing that the approach of multinational businesses – in particular the desire to build global positioning for brands – was not suitable to China's fast-paced market. Better, he claimed, to find an idea that works and just run with it. China was different from other markets, and companies that did not understand the market risked being outmanoeuvred by local companies that do.

That view was disputed by some of the other marketers in attendance. Of course, China has some unique features, they admitted. But some things are universal. MediaCom boss Stephen Allan pointed to the successful transfer of the Britain's Got Talent TV format to China (indeed, the armless pianist who won China's Got Talent even made an appearance at the session and performed for the delegates).

What's clear, however, is that even the biggest brands recognise that their Chinese products – especially in categories such as FMCG - need to be carefully adapted for the local market if they are to compete with the local brands that now account for 60% of total media spend. One speaker from a multinational company admitted that the biggest threat to his brand was local players. The crude stereotype of Chinese brands as unsophisticated and sales-driven no longer applies. And local teams should be given the flexibility to act quickly if they are not to be outmanoeuvred.

Some other conclusions:

  • Before any marketing strategy, getting your distribution network right is the best guarantor of long-term success in China.
  • Lower-tier markets are the clear opportunity in China, but reaching them is difficult. Due to the cultural and economic diversity of China, media strategies and creative executions may need to be altered to succeed in these markets. One campaign used as an example in the session adapted the positioning used in top-tier markets by adding a celebrity endorsement; that gave it the extra push needed to succeed in lower-tier markets.
  • Data in China is unreliable. Marketers must sometimes rely on gut feel.

There'll be more to come in the full session on Wednesday – watch out for more reports on Warc.