Hong Kong-based adman Keith Smith has been in and out of China for 20 years. Nobody - Chinese or Westerners - would have guessed in the mid-1990s that the consumer and advertising market would explode the way it has, Smith says.

He is international president for TBWA\Worldwide, one of the world's biggest agencies, which includes Whybin\TBWA in the Australian and New Zealand markets.

The arrival of Western creatives in the burgeoning Chinese market signalled a better understanding of brands, Smith said. Chinese companies saw themselves as selling brands and not products.

Part of the ad agencies' role in servicing demand was to have people on the ground in China but to also bring in creatives from elsewhere in the network.


For instance, four creatives from New Zealand had been brought in to work on ads made out of Shanghai.

"Advertising has developed in the Western world as more subtle - more about wit.

"But now we are seeing that coming through more in Chinese advertising as well," Smith said.

"I see no danger of it slowing down.

"TBWA's biggest account in China is Nissan and they sold about one million cars in China last year."

Chinese consumers wanted to be seen with great brands.

"A good-quality brand is important because it is a reflection of what they are about.

"The luxury brand industry - the big French companies - would not be in business if it were not for China."

A growing middle class liked to buy international brands.

"Initially they look at the one brand and later they look at what else is in the market. They are intelligent consumers and they do not look at brands as simply badges," Smith said.

Now Chinese brands were saying they also had to be like overseas brands if they were to survive, he said.

The scale of the Chinese ad market was apparent in the media as well, with a huge number of television channels and a massive market for outdoor advertising.

Print media faced an even bigger challenge in China than in the West, Smith said.

The rapid shift away from print to electronic news sources was even faster in China than in Western markets, where print was fighting back.

China was changing, and more swiftly than the Indian advertising market.

"There has been a middle class there for a long time but maybe it has not filtered down quite as quickly as it has in China," Smith said.

"Like India, there is a lot of red tape in China.

"But the Chinese have been very smart and found a way to free it up very quickly."