Open doors in the great wall

If you’re going to do business in China, firsthand
experience of the country is essential, but be prepared for lots of planning and a bit of jet lag, says Alan Bell

My ambition for my first business visit to Beijing was modest. I wanted to see the lie of the land and gather facts first-hand. I had heard all about the dramatic ‘gold rush’ growth in the economy, but I wanted to know how this could benefit my design consultancy. Could we pick up work there when we would be competing with consultancies with such low overheads, and did we need a partner to work in China?

Our quest began three months ago with an e-mail from UK Trade & Investment advising us of a trip to Beijing to a Sino-British design forum. China is the fastest-growing design market, and the country is keen to emulate the successful UK design consultancy business model. Added to this, the UK Government is keen to expand Britain’s trade links with China and what is, after all, a quarter of the world’s population.

I am always interested in expanding my company’s business horizons – but why China?

I went with my gut reaction and agreed to the trip. I left all the intense preparation to our business development director. UKTI provided a great deal of help and recommended we set up an OMIS (Overseas Market Introduction Service) account, which formed the basis of our meetings in China.

The obvious challenge was the language barrier, and, with our passion for effective communication, we needed to think carefully about how we would get our message across.

That, coupled with the eight-hour time difference, made initial communication difficult, and, for a few weeks, 6am phone calls became the norm.

The Chinese we met in the UK had been given English names and had learned some English at school, but every meeting was conducted in Mandarin and required the services of a professional translator provided by the China-Britain Business Council. This was invaluable, and there is no way we could have had such a successful trip without our translator, Gong.

Our representative in Beijing set up all the meetings and, where possible, gave us as much English guidance as she could.

Having arranged to meet two of China’s top branding groups, two leading PR agencies and several product design groups, finally our visas were in place and we were ready to go.

Nothing really prepared me for the vast scale of the country. The Chinese think and plan big, and what they have achieved on a commercial level over the past few years is extraordinary. I also had to remind myself of the country’s history, and learned that old habits die hard – some censorship of news and communications is taken for granted.

What we achieved from our meetings with the local design and PR groups was a better understanding of the way business is done in China.

Who you know is important, and there has also clearly been a problem with corruption, which the country is trying hard to eradicate.

Another practical problem is powerful clients who impose their creative wishes and try to direct operations. That said, I saw some excellent examples of creativity. There is a growing creative services industry in China, becoming more confident by the day.

I am told that, each year, there are 12 million graduates unable to find a job. This means that leading Chinese companies and design consultancies have the pick of some exceptional talent.

It is too early to know whether our trip will be a commercial success.

We have a collection of business cards from the top people in design and PR in Beijing, and we are beginning to understand what it takes to succeed in China. We received excellent support from UKTI and gained much local knowledge from the British Embassy in Beijing.

The finale to our trip was the Red Star Design Awards, given to some of the most innovative designs China has created. These awards are set to be a global event and the quality on display was plainly evident.

Just four days after arriving, as our body clocks began to adjust, it was time to fly home. I am now planning a return visit in January, when I hope to build further rapport with some of the groups we met, and also have initial discussions on a designer-exchange scheme which can only help East-West relations.

Alan Bell is managing director of Bell Design & Communications

Information Resources

• UK Trade & Investment can organise participation at trade fairs and provide market intelligence (www.uktradeinvest.gov.uk)

• The China-Britain Business Council is the UK’s leading body helping British companies do business in China (www.cbbc.org)

• For general information about business in China, visit www.chinalink.org.uk

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