Design sector eyes Asian boom

There are rich pickings for the creative industries in China and India – provided you understand their way of business, says Gaynor Aaltonen

Creative industries are growing at twice the rate of the UK economy as a whole – figures for 2004 suggest they are averaging five per cent a year. Their exports are even faster, generally growing 11 per cent a year. Perhaps those businesses would do well to get in to those economies where growth is fastest, in China and India.

But businesses of all sizes face major challenges with globalisation, not least with those issues of mutual trust, says Mike Matfin, director of enterprise for the University of the Arts, London.

Now a new initiative from an unexpected direction is providing the route for those creative businesses. The University of the Arts, London, the umbrella for top creative colleges such as Central St Martins College of Art and Design, the London College of Fashion and Camberwell College of Arts, has won substantial Government funding to set up a major programme giving business support to creative groups itching to do business in India or China.

‘We knew there was a market for UK creativity out there,’ says Matfin. ‘It’s UK Government policy to support British trade with India and China, so we threaded these things together.’

Currently known as ‘Creative Capital, World Cities’, the project is an ambitious one. Five new Creative Business Centres are being formed in Beijing, Hong Kong, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Shanghai, to give firms vital local business expertise and support. More importantly, perhaps, the idea is also to generate new opportunities and business leads, by forging crucial partnerships with local businesses, identifying key opportunities for British companies.

The centres will give advice on social, cultural and economic factors. Consultancies may need specialised help in navigating legal issues as well as technical and troubleshooting backup.

There are also plans for a London-based centre, the Creative Industries Observatory, to provide detailed intelligence on these markets. It will be based and staffed from the enterprise department of University of the Arts in central London. Creative enterprises – which could mean new media or music, as well as design groups – needing first-stage advice would make this their first stop when researching India and China.

Funded by the UK Government and the University of the Arts, London, the consortium behind the initiative includes the London Business School, the School of Oriental and African Studies, King’s College London and the Centre for Creative Business.

The centres are currently recruiting teams of people who have the right mix of business and creative industry know-how.

Laura Hoke, the initiative’s new director, says, ‘There’s nothing you can learn in a textbook that’s going to prepare you for these markets. For us the key is finding the right people: we’re only hiring people from the private sector with commercial backgrounds. They also need to have creative industry experience. But we’re looking at the composition of the team. In Hong Kong, for example, we have a director who comes from the design industry. So what we will do is surround her with business development managers who complement her strengths.’

It is early days, and research is still underway on exactly what forms the programme will take. The Team is currently involved in both that research and the creation of a new brand identity. Hoke adds, ‘We are examining the needs of a cross-section of the UK design economy in depth, talking to about 20 groups across a range of disciplines.’

And what will be different from the service offered British companies by groups such as UK Trade & Investment, with its sector specialist trade advisors?

‘Having staff on the ground in these five cities,’ says Matfin. ‘Plus the fact that we are going out there, and finding companies that want to link up with UK talent. So instead of just helping people to operate in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Mumbai, we are actually out there, developing a relationship with the right firms.’

Matfin, has spent a lot of time this last year in meetings in both India and China. He describes one with a large group of businessmen in Shanghai, at which it was announced that the president of the conglomerate didn’t speak English. The whole meeting would need to be chaired and translated by an interpreter, while the businessmen all watched.

‘I was under close scrutiny, as if they were trying to get under my skin,’ says Matfin.

At the end of this long and intense meeting, the president rose, shook Matfin’s hand, and thanked him. In perfect English.

Exporting to the emerging Far East

• According to The Team’s early assessment of the design industry, the product design sector is pretty mature when it comes to exporting to Asia. It is well versed in dealing with issues such as trust and understanding local customs

• The retail design sector follows a bit behind the product sector in terms of its development

• Whereas the branding and communications sectors are embryonic in terms of dealing with markets outside of Europe


• Literally translated, guanxi means connections and relationships. To work in China, you’ve simply got to have it, but the term means much more than just having the same old school tie

• It describes a basic dynamic of the business process in China: establishing personal networks of influence

• It can also describe a state of general understanding between two people – ‘he/she is aware of my wants/needs and will take them into account when deciding her/his course of future actions, which concern or could concern me’

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