14 Sep Manaf Zaraket: “Asia and China Are Leading, Not Waiting on Western Countries to Teach Them How To Do Business”
MCA’s director of business operations for China, Manaf Zaraket, tells LBB what Western businesses need to know if they want to succeed in China and Asia, and why a creative approach to production is key
Manaf credits his success today to a case of both “good timing” and following a feeling that the industry would be a good fit for his personality. He was born in France, where he also studied, and spent some time in the US, before moving to China for his first post-grad job at a digital agency, close to a decade ago. “China then looked like the much better option than staying in Europe or going to the US for a young graduate searching for a bigger pool of opportunities to dive into”, says Manaf. That first job proved to be the right move, giving him plenty of responsibilities from day one and a lot of trust to learn and develop his skills.
Today, his role at MCA sees him managing the business and its consultants locally whilst also nurturing client relationships. While the operational side definitely keeps him busy, Manaf’s creative interests are what drive and inspire the way he works.
Growing up in the South of France, Manaf enjoyed creating graffiti art, which, while not something he pursues today, was the nexus of his passion for the creative industries. Art remains a part of his life today. He shares with us that visiting exhibitions in his free time is one way he unwinds, noting that one of his favourite artists is JR, a French photographer and street artist exploring themes of identity, freedom, and the media’s preconceptions through street art and action.
Motivated by his desire to offer creative solutions at every opportunity, Manaf uses his role at MCA to provide “added value” to clients, especially when they least expect it. LBB spoke to Manaf about why a creative side is always a plus in business and what misconceptions the West still holds about working in China and Asia.
LBB> Do you think it’s important for consultants in production to have a creative side or creative passion, even if it was something that they experienced in their past? If so, why?
Manaf> I think it certainly helps! Creativity is part of the process and if you can relate to that, then you can have much more efficient discussions with both the client and the creative agency, because the idea is not just to look at numbers. An understanding of creativity allows you to have a meaningful discussion with them about the concept they’re trying to develop and ask the right questions about expectations and requirements. You don’t have to be a creative yourself, but having that mindset helps. We don’t specifically look for creativity when we hire; it is, however, an added bonus.
I always try to get across to our clients and agencies the mindset that MCA has, so they understand that we’re always considering the creative work they’re doing and that it really matters to us. A lot of clients still expect creative agencies to lead on creative projects; at MCA, we work to shift that kind of thinking. We have a deep understanding of the creative process and we provide insightful feedback, while working with, but looking beyond, the numbers. It is one of the reasons that we have a presence at the Cannes Advertising Festival every year.
LBB> What are the main differences between how things work in Asia, China specifically, compared to Europe and the West? Do you have any tips for Western businesses and brands who would like to work more in this market?
Manaf> The West has a lot of misconceptions about how things really are in China and in Asia. I think that many people still don’t realise the level of development that those territories have already reached and the standard and quality of work they are able to deliver. Sometimes I think that Europeans or Westerners really have that feeling that they still have to lead on how business is done and that they dictate the rules of the business. But when you are in Asia, you actually realise that that’s not really the case, that in a lot of different areas of business and production, Asian countries lead. China, for example, is way ahead of Europe and the US in terms of digital usage. The way digital is being used in Chinese society is really interesting; a lot of innovation hails from China and Asia when it comes to digital channels and I think technologically, China probably leads too.
The most powerful example that comes to mind is WeChat. It’s a local app with over a billion users in China alone that lets people do just about everything from messaging to phone calls, video calls, payments, taxi reservations, hotels, train tickets, plane tickets, movie tickets, online shopping (it’s endless). It also serves as a social media platform comparable to Twitter and Facebook where users can post moments which can be text or pictures and expect likes and comments from their WeChat friends.
Overall, I find that there aren’t that many differences between the West and China/Asia, more misconceptions; they’re not waiting for Western countries to teach them how to conduct business, they take the lead in different areas and innovate too.
LBB> Do you have any tips for Western businesses and brands who would like to work more in this market?
Manaf> When international brands start working in China, they need to hire people with the right profile, which more and more means looking for local talent who will help them understand how the market works. Local people will always know their market more than outsiders.. For about a decade, foreigners outnumbered locals in offices here, which made it harder for international brands to really comprehend the reality and the demands of the local markets.
LBB> What are the most common demands you are receiving from brands in East Asia currently? How has Covid affected what they are asking for from MCA?
Manaf> A lot of digital! Digital is a huge part of the requests we’re receiving and it’s a very natural evolution of the trend that digital usage in Asia is far more advanced than what we think of in the West. In Asia, the digital transition happened a good few years ago. For about six years now, digital has taken the lead. Covid accelerated the process, but that’s true for the world as a whole, not just Asia. What I’m seeing a lot from our clients is demand to develop local digital strategies alongside demands for projection.
LBB> How are you evolving MCA’s offering in Asia?
Manaf> We try to hire people who fit the new evolution of marketing production. We try to hire with a digital profile in mind and we also keep our current consultants on top of every new digital trend, because things are moving exponentially fast when it comes to digital. If you look at TV twenty years ago and look at it now, it’s pretty much the same. The rules of the game may have changed, but the game stays pretty much the same. When it comes to digital, it’s not a linear development. It has evolved rapidly and not in any expected shape or direction. To stay on top of that you need to follow the trends and know what’s happening next. And that’s a challenge for businesses.
LBB> MCA is often seen as a production consultancy but it’s working on a lot of different projects behind the scenes. Can you share any examples of projects you were involved with that have excited you?
Manaf> We’ve been working on numerous ecosystem projects, and a number of production decoupling projects. That’s something that more and more clients are trying to implement, at least in Asia. Every client is asking about it, and we have the production intelligence, experience, and track record of getting them done.
What I really like is when MCA is able to go beyond the simple cost review and help our clients achieve their greater goals because we have found the right way, the creative way, to make that happen. We look outside the box, which people often think is all about cost, to find an alternative solution. It happens quite often that a client will be stuck in a situation with an agency and we can come in and have discussions based on our knowledge and experience of the creative process. We try to do this every chance we get. We are production investment partners, production strategists, and production solutions experts. We don’t limit ourselves to cost reviews, we go the extra mile. We like to propose ingenious solutions and make recommendations, and even if the client doesn’t go for it that time, we’re proud to show that there are often alternative options. That’s the added MCA value.
LBB> What new technology excites you in production at the moment? Is there anything you’d love the East Asian market to be using more of? Anything East Asia is using that the rest of the world should be taking note of?
Manaf> In terms of production, the evolution is very much global and especially because of Covid. Everyone needs to evolve when it comes to production. As our client base is international, what we see is if they have something happening in one region of the world, they will start applying the best practices in other regions too.
So you have some trends that are happening like tech developed for gaming, remote shooting and various platforms and automated production offerings, and many of these are moving incredibly quickly. We envisage the developments of VR, AR, XR and 5G all making a massive impact in the next few years. It’s key to note that the way the internet functions in China is different to the way it functions in the West and the rest of Asia, because China uses their own websites and applications. So some of the innovations they have cannot compare to the West, it’s like comparing apples to oranges – the internet in China and the West is just too different.
LBB>You’re proficient in Chinese. How difficult was it for you to get to this level? Do you think Chinese proficiency is essential for people working in that market? What other languages are key in Asia?
Manaf> I’ve been living in China for a decade now so learning the language was a necessity in order to survive. And not just for work. It’s important to speak the language. But that’s not specific to China. If you want to conduct business in Brazil, it’s better if you speak Portuguese and so forth. It’s better that you can speak the local language, because it helps you to better immerse yourself into the culture, and to better understand how things work. It takes some time to learn the language. But I think it’s like every language; when you are facing the wall of the language barrier, and you have to jump that wall in order to survive, you actually learn pretty fast. You can get to a pretty decent level of proficiency after a year; two to three years to be comfortable, but you have to be dedicated and practise on a daily basis.
LBB> Your LinkedIn profile says you’re passionate about digital evolution and your experience reflects that. What is it about the world of digital that excites you overall? What are your feelings on brand metaverses? Is it an exciting new area of production brands should be preparing for or all a buzzword?
Manaf> The innovation cycle is exciting, there is always something happening. I like keeping on top of it, being very vigilant and aware of what’s happening around me. Otherwise it can really pass you by fast. For example, the phrase metaverse is popping up a lot right now and I’m very aware of it while also believing that it’s too early to say what it will mean for the industry. It has potential. There’s certainly a buzz around it. Sometimes, that can dissipate after a few months and then the new big thing will come along to replace it. It’s interesting to wait and see. One of the great things about being part of the MCA team is the knowledge sharing we do constantly. Our job is to see what’s coming round the corner, not just in the next six months but the next three, four and five years. We must be able to gear up for that change and support our clients whatever channels they might be using, and that’s why innovation is at the heart of the MCA business. It’s in the DNA and it’s incredibly exciting.