While much of the talk about China is about slowing growth, WPP China CEO Bessie Lee highlights the increasing power of mobile in a market that’s still expanding.

By Jo Bowman

Bessie Lee is quick to set observers straight if they think the wheels have fallen off the China market. Yes, she concedes, the growth rate in the national economy has slowed to half what it was a decade ago. But with 6.5% GDP growth in 2015, that still puts most large economies in the shade, and makes China a huge powerhouse that’s still expanding.

When China’s GDP was making headlines in 2005 with a growth rate of 15%, it was from a much lower starting point; that growth amounted to US $340 billion. Last year, while growth was ‘only’ 6.5%, it equated to US $706 billion.

Bessie Lee is the China CEO of WPP, the global communications company with companies specialising in advertising, public relations and market research. It owns Kantar, TNS and Millward Brown.

She says media investment by advertisers has generally tracked the overall economy. “The double-digit growth in media spending stopped before 2014 or even 2013; we’ve seen single-digit growth since 2013, similar to GDP,” she says.

“The similarity between China and other markets is that an increasing amount of money is shifting to digital and that’s pretty much the same worldwide, but what’s different here we have a lot of money that shifted to social media, however, that money is not necessarily hard-core advertising investment.”

Advertising spend online has overtaken investment in television advertising in China; in 2015, TV adspend was 40.8% of total investment, compared to 41.8% spent online.

What top-line adspend figures fail to measure, she notes, is what’s becoming one of the strongest elements of brand communications in China, and one that’s uniquely Chinese.

“In China, the social media network is WeChat, which has 600 million active users on a monthly basis,” Lee says. “But WeChat is very protective of their user experience so they’re very cautious about accepting advertising … they’re very cautious about not overwhelming their users with lots of ads. Instead, they encourage brands to come onto WeChat and open a corporate account under the brand or under the company and use WeChat as a platform to engage with your consumers.”

WeChat is a mobile-only platform, and this is important in a market where mobile is fast becoming the primary screen for many consumers. “At the moment there are 1.2 billion mobile users and the number of mobile internet users is close to the total number of internet users. So I reckon by the end of this year or next year we’ll have more mobile internet users than PC or laptop internet users,” Lee says.

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