The Chinese Media Magician

People call Zhichen Zhou “The Magician of Traditional Media” or “The Steve Jobs of Chinese Media” or “The Newspaper Mad Man” for a reason. Zhou just turned 36, but he had been a deputy editor-in-chief for eight years and served at three different newspapers in China.

“I want to make our newspaper a flagship Internet product, which is young and fun, innovative and fashionable.”

Eight years ago everyone was watching him, waiting for him to mess-up because he was “young and reckless.” Now, everyone is watching because of the stunning media innovations he continues to make as deputy editor-in-chief in Shenzhen Evening News.

September 15, 2016, is the traditional Chinese Moon Festival. Shenzhen Evening Newspaper, a leading journal in China, published a remarkable front-page ad in black and white which was deemed as self-deprecating. However, the ad went viral among Chinese netizens and even triggered a debate on the media’s social responsibility.

The front-page advertisement on the day of Chinese Moon Festival.

This was not the first time that the newspaper published an unexpected ad on the front page. The initiator of the trend is Zhichen Zhou, the deputy editor-in-chief in Shenzhen Evening Newspaper.

Zhou had come up with many unconventional ideas for his clients, quite a few of which were new medium or Internet companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Uber, etc.

Zhou believed, the first thing to design a front-page ad is not to focus on how good it looks, but how to trigger an information fission on the Internet, which set a high standard to creative ideas.

He would spend all day communicating with the clients and then spend all night brainstorming with the designers. All the designers hate working with him because he is a monomania who always pursue better solutions, while all the designers love him working with him because it is eye-opening and mind-blowing.

Actually, most of the ads Zhou supervised are not pretty and look similar to each other: witty slangs, large bold fonts plus quick response code... Then boom, a so-called “interactive advertisement” was born. The ads were so controversy that they triggered a heated debate on the Internet.

Guan Media, a well-known “we media” in China, published a story about this phenomenon. From their perspective, people who crusade against this idea, call it “bold and rough”, “a pathetic behavior for the newspaper to catch eyeballs” and “a defame of the dignity of the front page”, while those who favored his creativity call it “a smart move to attract the young generation”, “a new play method of traditional media” and “an internalized act of newspaper”.

The ads looked similar to each other: witty slangs, large bold fonts plus quick response code.

Zhou replied to the debate in the course of an interview, “We were not trying to amuse people with gimmicks. The essential intention is to translate the meaningful value in an unexpected way. In the era of Internet, the traditional medium should be extremely value-driven to brand themselves and build a concrete existence, instead of recalling the historical glory and mourning the disappeared.”

After weeks of negotiation, Zhou nailed down the biggest front-page advertising case in China’s newspaper history. Starting from July 11, 2016, Eastnews, a popular news app based in Shanghai, targeted the front-page of Shenzhen Evening News to publish commercial ads for six consecutive days. Extremely satisfied with the response, they asked for a supplement ad.

An Internet media targeted the front-page of Shenzhen Evening News to publish commercial ads for six consecutive days.

The seven series of ads also triggered publicity stunts. Two of these adds, which looks like marriage-seeking ads, even intrigued people’s interests of self-parody. Many advertisers copied Zhou’s idea and made their own ads. Companies created similar ads to generate media exposure, and netizens created similar ads to entertain themselves. It was becoming a kind of tidal subculture.

Many advertisers copied this idea and made their own ads.

Zhou said, “ I believe that this phenomenal success could partly influence and adjust the ads delivery environment, expand the border of advertisement design and bring prominent changes to the allocation of commercial resources. Advertisers should reevaluate the worth of paper platform. I mean it.”

It is clear that survival is an emergency for a newspaper company in the era of Internet. Only the ones who survive can talk about evoking stories, social influence and ambitious plans.

Dubbed a “free-fall demotion” by the internet media, the advertising revenue of newspaper in China had decreased by 35.4% last year, according to the report of Chinese newspaper advertising market analysis in 2015. Based on an unpublished annual report, the advertising revenue of Shenzhen Evening News increased more than 10% in 2015. According to the data released, the overall turnover of Shenzhen Evening News increased 23.08% for the first half of the year, partly due to the substantial growth of the advertising revenue.

“To some extent, we are the miracle in Chinese paper medium. We set up a milestone. Our creativity and boldness have paid back.” Shizhao Ding, the editor-in-chief in Shenzhen Evening News, declared in a speech.

Zhou deemed this era as a slaughter house of paper media where we witnessed the disappearance of hundreds of excellent paper medium. People tussle and haggle all the time on almost every issue, while few want to do some real exploration about media innovation. “As far as I am concerned, it is an era of revolution which brings millions of opportunities. Only to become a focused and innovative wave rider, can you adapt to the media ecology and survive.”Zhou said.

The war between the new medium and the traditional medium is heating up, while paper media have lost half of the market share. Is this “media magician” going to remedy the situation? Is his method of “internetize the newspaper” going to work?