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The Melbourne Age



Interview: Helena Iveson

The Melbourne Magazine

Edward Bell, 35, lives in Beijing, China, where he works as a strategist for the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.  


"We spend a lot of time observing what customers do, rather than what they say. The whole concept of brands is evolving here. We spend a lot of time talking to kids in karaoke bars, asking them what movies they've been watching and getting them to take us to the stores they think are cool.   "The big difference between the market here and in Australia is that you have this country which is westernising, and they're trying to work out how to be international and Chinese at the same time. It is part of every discussion­­­­ when we launch a product: how do we make people feel that it's modern yet still Chinese?


I do a lot of work for Motorola, and we've just launched a new phone, which has become China's biggest seller. It's about 3000 RMB (AUS$500), which is pretty expensive for a country where most people don't earn that much money in a month. But technology means more to Asians than westerners. For people who don't necessarily have a lot of material wealth - you don't have a car and you don't own a house - it's a way of showing you are modern.   "The work that I do now is notoriously difficult to get into. It is relatively unknown to people outside the industry, but it is about trying to solve business problems in a creative way. You don't necessarily come up with all the answers yourself, but you bring people together to find the path that everyone is excited about. I'm a hopeless manager but I'm a reasonable thinker.  


"I didn't have the average Melbourne upbringing. My parents are fine artists, and my brother Richard and I weren't allowed to watch TV. Instead, my mum would bring home clay and we'd be making statues all day, and my dad and I would play a lot of music together. With this kind of upbringing, it was inevitable that my brother, who does marketing for fashion labels, and I would do something creative.   "I went to Ivanhoe Grammar School then studied psychology, but music was my major love. I auditioned to study jazz guitar and missed out.   "That was definitely a turning point, forcing me to get serious. I was working at a tiny advertising agency and eventually fell into full-time. Then I got an offer from the agency Singleton Ogilvy & Mather to go to Hong Kong for six months, and I thought that could be a stepping stone to London.


In my first week in the office I met a Hong Kong girl called Teresa. I ended up spending the next six months chasing her, and two-and-a-half years later I married her. We lived in Causeway Bay, which is the most densely populated place on earth. If we went shopping to Ikea and had things to carry back, it was almost like salmon swimming upstream to try and get home.   "I moved up to the Beijing office on Valentine's Day, 2004. I put myself into this ridiculously intense regime learning Mandarin before work six times a week because I want to understand what this country is all about. The westerners I know in China generally put themselves through a wringer to be successful. It's definitely easier to go back to Australia. But we all want to be here to witness the changes that China is going through.


For all the excitement of China, it's still a tough place to live. In Melbourne, having fun was expressed by meeting up with friends and going to the local pub on Saturday afternoon, but people don't have the same ideas about leisure time in Beijing. People here think you're massively self-indulgent if you don't want to make meetings at 8pm.   "But I can't help missing the way that Melburnians spend time; in cafes and reading books, times in the park, watching Richmond lose another football game.   "Melbourne does seem small, though. We recently landed at the airport with my wife and her family. It was the middle of the day and it was empty! There's a constant hum in Asia and once you get used to it, it's difficult to give up. My friends say, you've got your career and you've got quality of life and you have to make a decision on what matters more to you."   

© 2006 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited.     Not available for re-distribution.  

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