After an epiphany that banking was not for him, Bryant Chou, CEO of VICE China, returned to his roots in Beijing and took on the task of establishing a voice for the country’s 300 million youth. He chatted to Mahlab about what it takes to create relevant content in a unique publishing environment.
Mahlab What are the biggest misconceptions people make when entering the Chinese market?
Bryant Chou In China everything happens at a super-slow pace and that happens because they want to make sure it’s what’s right and proper for the country. From a Western perspective, a lot of brands see China as this massive market and think how can you not just come in and make a lot of money?
Even if the biggest brand in the world came in with the attitude of, “I’m going to do this my way”, it wouldn’t work. The Chinese would see immediately that all you want to do is force your culture or your ways of doing things on them, and that’s the exact opposite of what you want to do.
You want to show them that you’re coming with open arms, that you’re willing to accept and acclimatise yourself to their culture and marry those two together.
M How do you come to understand what appeals to such a sizeable and broad audience?
BC We’re not some foreigner, or laowai as we call them in China, who is coming here and writing about China. We are people who were born and raised in China. Around 95 per cent of our staff are local Chinese, so we’re not trying to come in as a Western company. We want to create a culture that is Chinese, otherwise the Chinese won’t celebrate it and they won’t understand it.
For a Western content creator, when it comes to Chinese publishing the key is knowing your audience and knowing that just because something is funny or cool in the West, doesn’t mean it’s going to be cool and funny in China.
M Despite the fact that there is a mind-blowing 300 million youth in China, there’s an overwhelming lack of content for that audience. How does it feel to have such a tremendous influence on so many people?
BC It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also exciting to know that there is the potential for VICE to have that level of influence. Everything they have right now is curated from a federal level by the government and, as everyone knows, media censorship in China is very strict and the vast majority of the population is still getting their information from TV. There are some local sites, like chinaSMACK, that are targeting youth; they’re doing a good job, but it’s all aggregation. We want young Chinese kids to come to us to understand what’s going on outside of their backyard. People in Wuhan and people in Guangzhou are different, people in Dalian and people in Lijiang are very different, and they don’t have the ability to understand what’s going on because nobody’s talking about it.
M How do you stay connected with an audience of this magnitude?
BC Digitally, China is growing extremely quickly. There are 600 million users of the Internet right now in China; 80 per cent of that is on mobile and 55 per cent of the 600 million is actually under the age of 30.
We have 30 million unique visits on our websites around the world, so for us, we’re far less worried about having to attract an audience. As long as we’re digital and we continue to put content up, they will come. The real question is how do we continue to keep the right content up there. Content that is representative of the whole country, not just one particular area. That comes from understanding the Chinese culture.
M Publishing in China presents some unique challenges and there is a lot that remains out of your control. How do things like censorship affect how you operate?
BC What the firewall does is it affects foreign content coming in. We get all the big news articles about China from the US perspective, but it’s all filtered and has been heavily edited. This can make it difficult because if something massive happens in the US, or something has worked really well for VICE US, it won’t necessarily make sense for the Chinese audience because they haven’t been exposed to everything else that the story is about.
All the content we shoot, we do within the country. Right now we’re producing around 60 per cent foreign content and 40 per cent local content, but we want to flip that on its head and push our foreign content down to just 20 per cent. That is the only way that we’re really going to have an impact.
M Native advertising is such a contentious practice in Western publishing – is it prevalent in China?
BC We do sponsored content and that’s across the board for VICE. Right now native advertising is not even on my radar. I want to create good content, I want to build the audience, I want to make sure that the Chinese understand what VICE is; what we do and how we are trying to help and promote their own culture.
M Where do you see Chinese publishing landscape heading in the future?
BC I think we all hope it’s going to open up and make it easier for us to talk about everything. TV is still the major medium in China, but mobile is growing. The beauty of digital is that it’s harder to control because you can have instant access to it. Our hope is that the Chinese will continue to embrace digital platforms and that the back-end censorship that happens will become less and less intrusive or restrictive.
People deserve the truth and that’s what we want to do. We’re a no-bullshit company. We tell things how it is and that’s why people enjoy the stuff that we write or show, because they know that what they’re going to get is honesty.
M How does this ‘no-bullshit’ attitude translate to the images you use? You manage to maintain a balance of playfulness and edginess, which is difficult to do. What do you find makes a really great image when you’re creating content?
BC For us, there are certain shots that we do purely for shock factor. There are other shots that we do for the emotional connection. Our photographers and videographers look for images that have depth, so that when somebody looks at it they can draw their own conclusions. When we shoot content, we shoot a lot. To get a three to five minute piece, depending on the story, we could shoot four or five days’ worth of footage. People don’t realise that, I think. It’s pretty amazing.
M What has been your most memorable moment during your career with VICE?
BC I think everyone in the world knows what we did with Dennis Rodman in North Korea, so picking him up in the airport was a pretty memorable moment in my life.