49 | Sean Upton-McLaughlin, Building a Career in China

My guest today is Sean Upton-McLaughlin (@SeanUM_China). Sean has spent over a decade working with Chinese companies throughout China, often in Chinese-only working environments, helping to improve their global marketing and communications. Now, based in Shenzhen, he continues to help Chinese technology companies bridge the business and cultural divides between China and the rest of the world. 

In this conversation, we cover building a career in China and dealing with Chinese companies.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Sean Upton-McLaughlin.

Show Notes:

[00:00:31] – [First question] – How did Sean first get involved with China?
[00:06:08] – Sean’s first experience working in China and how he got that job
[00:07:46] – How would Sean prepare differently if starting over?
[00:14:21] – What is China Speed?
[00:18:42] – Why work for a Chinese Company?
[00:19:58] – How can Chinese companies not shoot themselves in the foot?
[00:25:37] – Thoughts on China armchair experts?
[00:33:37] – What was working at vivo doing influencer relations like?
[00:38:12] – Aspects of Sean’s career in China that was everything he dreamed of, and any harsh realities?
[00:40:23] – Interesting anecdotes of life in China

Connect with Sean:

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Kalani Scarrott (00:31): Okay, my guest today is Sean Upton-McLaughlin. Sean has spent over a decade working with Chinese companies throughout China, often in Chinese only working environments, helping to improve their global marketing and communications. Now based in Shenzhen, he continues to help Chinese technology companies bridge the business and cultural divides between China and the rest of the world. So in today’s conversation, we cover building a career in China and dealing with Chinese companies. So I hope you enjoy my conversation with Sean Upton-McLaughlin. Awesome. Sean, thank you so much for coming on today. But having lived and worked in the greater China region for over 12 years now and across multiple cities, how did you initially develop this interest in China and Asia early in life? Could you talk about how this all started and give us a snapshot into who you are?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (01:20): Well, thanks for having me, Kalani. It’s actually,a very long story. I’ve been asked about this multiple times, but China first started for me, I would say when I was, in high school, I was very much a reader of histories, and a reader of cultures. but it never really quite focused on China until later, but I would say that’s how I got my start. I was very much wanting to understand the histories, the cultures of other Countries. And then what happened, the first step I would say to get me towards China was I was in my high school’s band, the marching band, the symphonic band. And we were invited through local partnerships to travel to China.for about two weeks we performed, in various cities. We met with high school students. And so that was kind of the,

(02:06): I remember my first night waking up and it was 6:00 AM in the morning. We were maybe high up in the hotel room. You see this mist kind of sweeping over, you know, this park with these little pagodas, which of course is very stereotypical.And again, that time back in 2001, more than 20 years ago, it was much less developed than it is now. And so through that time, it kind of planted that seed of China in my mind. And later on when I was in, University, I was at that time under the delusion that I wanted to be an engineer. though I later found out I didn’t wanna do that, I was not very fond of math classes, which were requirements. So I started thinking about what else do I like? I kind of went back to, my more of a humanities background and interest.

(02:53): And so I started looking at, oh, well maybe I could start looking into other cultures or other languages. And on a whim, very much on a whim, I was like, Hmm, I could do Chinese. And it was actually very hit or miss. I almost didn’t get on this path because at the beginning of the second year at university, I looked into the Chinese classes and without looking into the background, I didn’t realize you could only start the first Chinese class in the fall semester. And at uc, Santa Cruz where I was, there are three semesters as opposed to two. And so I would’ve had to wait another year completely if I missed it. And so I had started getting some books, I started looking into it, and on the whim I went and saw the Chinese teacher about two weeks after the semester has started.

(03:37): And I told him, oh, next semester I’m gonna start the class. And he said, no, you can’t. And so very much on the whim, I just decided three weeks into the class, I jumped in. And without having known any of the basics that everybody already knew, I then kind of continued on that pass. I started learning. And then I combined that with a number of courses on, you know, Chinese cinematography, not cinematography, but you know, movies, economics, business. And I kind of started gaining on that path in terms of this could be something I could do with the rest of my life, or at least with part of my career. After that, I studied abroad for year, and that further cemented, my interest. I didn’t even want to leave, but I was forced to come back. My parents who are paying for my college, thankfully, were willing to pay for more than a year abroad.

(04:23): And then I kind of, I graduated with a global economics degree focusing on China and an East Asian studies minor, focusing on China and Chinese. And after that I was looking for a job in China, but I ended up going into university, doing a masters of business administration, focusing on international management, with, again, Chinese language as part of that. So I think really after I studied abroad, that was in 2004, 2005, that really made me realize that this is something I wanted to do with the rest of my life. At the time, I was probably thinking five or 10 years, but at this point, having been over here for at least 12 years, my determination has not really wavered. And while I can certainly see myself working with China based out of the USA or another country, I don’t really see anything that would change my mind in terms of wanting to be standing in the gap, so to speak, in terms of between China overseas markets and whether it be helping companies or for all I know, helping governments in the future because there’s so many people on either side that are just speaking their own language and not paying attention to what the other, side is thinking.

(05:35): That’s one way I act as a bridge inside Chinese companies is that I, I’m one of the ones who tell them these are the type of stories, that you can tell to overseas audiences or this is how you communicate to these partners. And so you have to be working with both sides. You can’t simply listen only to what your side is saying, which is of course, it’s a problem for Chinese companies when they, they go overseas, but it’s also Chinese for, it’s a problem for, American or foreign companies when they come to China. People, like speaking in their own e echo chambers, we we’ve seen from social media.

Kalani Scarrott (06:08): Yeah. Where do I even start from there? Maybe just your initial, professional work experience in China. What did that look like? How did that initially happen and what do you remember most from that time? I guess

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (06:18): It was a kind of spur of the moment, I think. cause after doing my university, my master’s degree, I had this very interesting final project for my MBA. And whereas many, master’s studies, degrees, they have a thesis you would do at the end. We have more of a business project that we did for the MBA. And so what the dean of our business school, did was he was able to find a local Chinese government that was in, joshing, the city of joshing, the Ang province, who wanted to do a research study on technology incubators. And so we, that’s what we did, and we ended up in traveling over to judge afterwards to present it to the local government, enter any questions they had. And so I kind of, I had made the decision that, you know, I would just stay there.

(07:05): I’d graduate already and we would, I would stay in there, I would go to Shanghai and I would start, looking for jobs. And that’s how it started. I worked with lot small companies. I did some, work on my own, but that was kind of the, the first step that I took. It was, you know, there’s plenty of hardships. there wasn’t nearly as much preparation that I, as I now know I should have done. But that is what got me started and that’s what kind of got me into China to start working, in a, say non-educational capacity being that many people can easily come over or could at the time to teach English. But that wasn’t really what I wanted to pursue.

Kalani Scarrott (07:46): Yeah. So you just mentioned, you didn’t do the preparation that you now know that you should have done. what was that preparation then? Well,

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (07:52): It’s important to understand that in the, you know, the nineties and the early two thousands, it was much easier for foreigners. and to be honest, white people, westerners to come over to, China to get a job as long as you could speak English, as long as you could have western background, many, either western companies or even Chinese companies would want to have you on there. But it had gotten a little bit harder, as the Chinese market developed. And at the time they were more focused, they wanted people to have experience too. And you know, I had done a lot of interviews, a lot of talks with various companies, and it was like, oh great, we love your determination. We love you to speak Chinese, but you, it would be really great if you actually had some experience. And so what I would say is, um, that was kind of the first thing that I realize now is that, it’s better to have more experience because really what it comes down to is, is what value are you offering and the value that you might offer to employers in the US or in your own country is not necessarily going to be the value that you are offering to a foreign company operate in China or a Chinese company that’s then wanting to expand overseas.

(09:04): So that’s one of the key things is having experience, but also understanding what your value. As many people don’t, don’t think about that, too much. the second thing is really needing to do a lot of hustling. And so I remember when I was in Shanghai for the first few years, I went to, a lot of networking events. I would print my own name cards out, I would, introduce myself, buy my job, but also as kind of a cross-cultural consultant. And so I would be doing lots of meetings. and the reason I knew how to do this is partly that I had met some people to help me out. there is a really great career consultant I’ve met named Peter Hill who got me started on these five o’clock club books that are a series of books that really tell you all the steps you need to take.

(09:51): But part of it is just, is just reaching out to people and his help. Through reading through my own experience, I would be networking with people I did, was able to get a lot of, you know, interviews with, you know, bigger companies, western companies. Though what really kind of sunk me at first was that I didn’t really have that experience as well. But one exp one experience I’ve had that’s interesting is that I’ve had, in the years past, I’ve had a number of people reach out to me on LinkedIn, people that are maybe in university or maybe have recently graduated, they’re interested in starting their own career in China. And what really has stood out to me with multiple people is that they, they seem to expect me to just be the magic wand that solves the problem for them. And I think a lot of the things I’ve done is I’ve kind of given them some basic information.

(10:42): I’ve said, you know, here’s my experience, but I’ve emphasized if you really wanna work in China, you have to be really doing all this work. You have to be networking, you have to be finding all the companies you might have a chance of working for that you would be interested in. And, and then you need to hear back from them because my interpretation is that’s simply not what they want to hear. They want someone to give them the solution. They don’t want to be told that they have to then go and do all this extra work. And whether or not that is,the case that is, the reality these days.another thing that’s important, which I didn’t have the problem with because I had studied Chinese, and attained a more or less fluent level before coming to China, but most people don’t realize, especially people who are mid-level or more senior levels, they don’t understand the importance of Chinese these days.

(11:30): I remember back in, even in 2000, 20, I went to one of the big recruiting firms, and I’d been introducing myself. I’d been looking to make a career change and the first thing he said was, your CV looks great, can you speak Chinese? And I said, yes. He said that that thankfully, because we couldn’t really consider you if you couldn’t. The reason that this is the case, and I have another anecdote I can share, later, but the, the key point is that especially if you’re looking to work with Chinese companies, but even if you’re, if you’re looking at working with, say, western companies in China, so much of senior management or middle, middle level management is not gonna be, or not necessarily going to speak English or maybe partners are not gonna speak English. And to the point where much of the local communication in the local offices takes place in, I would say 80, 90% in Chinese, the internal messaging systems are in Chinese, the emails are often in Chinese.

(12:32): I mean, sure people can make an exception for you, but if you really want to be able to move at the speed, you need to move at, and we can talk about the concept of China Speed later if you’d like. it really, you really have to be able to, to, to speak in Chinese. I mean every like conversation or interview I’ve really had with a a Chinese executive, most of them are mostly in Chinese. so back to the anecdote I was talking to about, I recently talked to a friend who had been a very, very senior level person, inside Huawei in the last few years. And he had also shared his, you know, his difficulty, of, of finding a new position, not simply from a salary perspective, cause salary does pay a lot more than other companies can offer, but it was more that he got to a lot of final interviews, a lot of final interview rounds, but when it came to the fact that he couldn’t really speak in Chinese, that kind of is what kept thinking him.

(13:32): Because what it comes down to is if you can’t communicate with your team or you can’t communicate with your, the management team, or even your bosses, the CEO of the company, perhaps you just, you just can’t do business things simply can’t work. the example would be is that, what American company would take seriously some super senior famous Chinese engineer that comes over or a Chinese executive, but he can’t speak any English. And then he says, oh, well I think you should all learn Chinese so that I don’t have to learn English. And that is kind of what the expat mentality has been, the western expat mentality has been previously. But especially if you’re gonna work with Chinese companies, Chinese, some degree of Chinese is a must. Otherwise you just, you can’t stay in the loop and you’re gonna be left out of all the important decisions.

Kalani Scarrott (14:21): Yeah. So you touched on China speed there, and I watched your video earlier today. do you wanna touch on what that is and your experiences with

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (14:27): It? Yeah, and this is, it’s both an advantage for Chinese companies, but it can also be a hindrance. But China speed simply is how many Chinese companies, and in my experience I’ve worked mainly with Chinese technology companies. So many Chinese technology companies are moving at a very quick speed, whether it be r and d product development, getting products into overseas markets, they move very, very quickly. you might think of the thing that Mark Zuckerberg used to say at Facebook was to, to move fast and break things. Though the Chinese company is more about moving fast, not so much breaking things. but it’s, it’s very, very fast and it’s not so much that it’s just about overtime, but it’s about you’re just moving at a very hectic pace, because you have to get everything done. And it literally is letting Chinese companies move faster and out compete, and get more things done than their Western, competitors.

(15:25): Obviously there are potential downside you could, you know, get things wrong. it, there’s sometimes can be more pressure to ignore mistakes. You need to have a structure in place to make sure that people aren’t going down the wrong path or they aren’t gonna create problems for the company. But it is so far, at least in the technology space, is allowing lots of, companies, both small companies, medium sized companies, large companies to really get more done. And when it comes down to it make better products, as I personally have seen, hu is making I think better products, better photography though. Now of course you can’t really buy a hallway phone, or at least if you wanna have Google services, but, but that’s really how Chinese companies have been developing. And so I think that the next main challenge for them will be how do they have governance systems in place to make sure that they can move at China speed without either not complying with local laws and regulations or putting, say, internal KPIs above actually having sustainable positive growth for the company.

Kalani Scarrott (16:39): Yeah. So with China speed and then relating that to management style, is there anything you notice in how they approach each other as management more willing to send an objective and let the team, approach it in any way they see fit as quick as possible? Or how do you see China’s speed and management style integrating and how does that work?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (16:58): It really depends because there, there’s, there’s different types of management style. There’s people who care about the result, there’s people who, who are more focused on an overtime. And even in really successful companies, we see an overtime culture sometimes ha happening where you’re expected to be in the office and you’re judged based on how long you’re in the office and not what your actual deliverables are. But luckily, I’ve never really had that be an issue for, the teams that I’ve worked on. I think really what it comes down to is, management has to understand what their teams are working on. They have to understand, the goal they’re going for. so that, because when you’re moving at China speed, it’s much harder to take a breather to say, okay, are we moving in the right direction? So management has to have a very clear vision and very clear understanding of the direction that should be should be being moved in, and then understand what their teams are working on and how what those that work will do to contribute to the overall goal.

(18:01): The problem we sometimes have, or that I’ve seen is that if management is disconnected, if they don’t really understand the work their teams are doing, it’s much harder, which can happen, especially if you have some companies where they like to take people and just shuffle them around between different positions. At Huawei previously, one of the things they did was to have maybe engineers then go to management and leadership positions for various departments, which I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but if you have someone who has no marketing experience or no sales experience, and then they’re in charge of that department, can they really understand what should be done to add value that’s not necessarily, going to happen and it’s also a risk. So, I hope that answers your question.

Kalani Scarrott (18:42): No, that’s perfect. And we’ll keep talking about Chinese companies. You touched on before we started recording this call about yeah, just Chinese companies in general. So I’ve written this down, so forgive me if it’s a bit direct, but why would someone want to work for a Chinese company? What can they offer? and yeah, what are your insights there? I guess maybe? Well,

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (19:00): It’s certainly not for everyone though. I think that the same way that people who are working in technology or people who have a high endurance, they’re happy with, working hard, they’re okay with higher stressed environments that would also apply Chinese companies. But I would also say that China is currently the place where the, they have lot companies developing lot of new technology they’re doing working ai, despite the US bands, they’re doing work on chips, obviously they’ve been a big leader in smartphones. And so wanting to be in a place where the magic happens or being in a place that is deciding what the future of technology might look for, look like in many countries throughout the world, that’s one reason someone might wanna work for a Chinese company or someone simply who’s interested in China or interested in, this type, this part of the world might find it to be interesting as well.

Kalani Scarrott (19:58): And you might have to help me out here in case I butch the question, but you spoke about obviously with all the US China government, we don’t have to get too damn politics, but how should Chinese companies approach, how should they navigate it from now on? I think before the call you mentioned sort of in terms of not selling themselves out to US companies or being totally reliant on shooting themselves on the foot. yeah, do you wanna elaborate and expand and clarify my question for me there?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (20:24): Not shooting themselves on the foot is one of the, the key pieces of advice I give to Chinese executives when I talk to them. Because when people look at it without understanding the industry, without having worked in China, they may think that, oh, the biggest danger is maybe the US putting bands in place or the different countries putting bands in place or having certain regulations. But from my experience, there’s not that big of a danger from the government’s taking action or, and then also Western consumers might think that, oh, Chinese companies are bad. They’re doing these bad things, we can’t trust them. No, there’s a much smaller number of actual malicious Chinese companies. The problem comes down to when we come to differences in culture, differences in markets, consumer expectations, market regulations. And I’ve seen so many cases of maybe an engineer or a salesperson or or someone making a choice and they think, oh, this is fine.

(21:23): This is for the good of the company, or, oh, this is fine, but it’s actually viewed in overseas markets or by overseas consumers as something bad. I mean, a company might not bother to understand what the regulations are for a specific type of product for a specific market and then find out that maybe it’s, it’s not allowed to be sold there, but they’ve been selling it. And so maybe if a cons, the consumer, takes a look at that, they might say, oh, there’s this big conspiracy, but maybe the company just didn’t bother to do their due diligence. So that’s really the key thing, is that there’s going to be a much higher level of suspicion on Chinese companies. It it’s unavoidable, and that’s when recent Chinese companies have to do a lot more due diligence. And that’s one reason you have a PR department.

(22:14): It’s not simply about communicating, but it’s also about understanding how to align with all the internal stakeholders, understand how all of the different perceptions such as consumers, media, government, other stakeholders, will view certain issues and be able to align that, be able to communicate that effectively internally, and to make sure that the, you know, approaches, taken, are not going to harm the company. It’s very important to move quick, to get new products out. By the same time you have to make sure you aren’t taking actions that will hurt your long-term development. a metaphor I’ve recently come up with is that, let’s say you’re, you’re growing a tree, it doesn’t matter how big the tree is, how strong the tree is, if the roots are rotten, if the foundation is unstable, you, you, you, you can’t succeed. And that’s, and that’s one reason why lately, despite the fact that most of my experience has been more on the product communications, product launches, I’ve been focusing a little bit more, at least internally, on brand reputation, company reputation, because that’s really something that many Chinese companies don’t think about.

(23:22): I’ve even talked to CEOs who think that brand is kind of a myth or brand is is just something that’s, that’s virtual, it doesn’t matter. But if, and the interesting thing is here, that many Chinese companies will rely on paid, you know, paid marketing, paid, whether it be paid media, paid influencers, simply because there’s less they have to worry about in terms of the cultural gaps. Whereas if you want to build relationships, earned relationships with the media, with influencers, with local partners, you actually have to be building actual relationships. It takes more work, and it can be very intimidating. So how that relates back to company reputation, is that many companies don’t bother to think about what their brand is, what their reputation is, who they are, and then they could go in a lot of different directions. Whereas if Chinese companies want to ensure they have a strong foundation that will support them in the years to come, they have to put that work in early.

(24:20): They have to be prepared to say who they are, defend who they are to their consumers, to the media, to the governments, because all of these different groups will be judging them. And as we’ve saw with Huawei back in 2012, I believe if you don’t tell your own story, others are going to tell your story for you and you won’t have that control. And the background there is that, back, I think it was started in 2012, but I could be getting the date wrong. the, they, one of the first stories broke I think about how Huawe founder and ceo, well found at least, Ren Young Fey had previously worked as an engineer for the People’s Liberation Army. And from then until now, whenever renting phase mentioned in the news article, it’s almost, it’s very often that you, they, they have to mention that. And so, they didn’t take control of their story early on enough though, to be honest, it probably would’ve come out eventually. But if you, especially in the current climate, it’s very important to define who you are as a Chinese company because you know there’s gonna be suspicions. So you need to ensure you try and get as much of the story set down first so that others aren’t telling it for you.

Kalani Scarrott (25:37): And is that a problem you have maybe with, outsiders covering China as well, is that once something’s reported, it really is just everyone else runs with it because there’s not that much, original reporting? Is that a problem you find and a grievance maybe?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (25:52): Uh, I wouldn’t say grievance, it’s simply, it’s simply how, how the media works. If, a media story goes live and they report something happening, it doesn’t matter if you then come on and say, okay, here’s our story, and they give an update, barely anyone’s actually gonna see the update. Everybody’s gonna see their first story. and so that’s one reason why I don’t really agree with, it’s very common for many Chinese companies, if there’s a crisis or a potential crisis, they respond with no comment. And the problem is, is that one, no comments sounds like you’re guilty and you just don’t wanna say anything. When in many cases you’re Chinese companies, they’re just scared, they’re very scared about saying the wrong thing. And so they just say no comment and then let people make up their minds. And so what I tell companies is that they have to take ownership.

(26:42): I mean mean people are going to make assumptions if you just say no comment, you might as well say, this is our position and very clearly have, have it out there. And that’s also one reason why we try and have companies develop more proactive relationships with the media so that there can be more proactive communications as opposed to, oh, by the way this happened and then you report on it. cause there’s plenty of media and plenty of consumers that can be positive about Chinese companies, Chinese products, but because of that culture gap, Chinese companies are much less willing or much less practic in directly talking to these stakeholders. For example, one of the things we see is that the, what the preferred, person to talk to from any journalist is the CEO or an executive of a company or even expert on a certain subject matter in that company.

(27:33): But these senior people are often very unwilling to stick their heads out. you know, the nail that stands up gets hammered down. and so it’s fudge, it’s really funny because a lot of these smaller, medium tight companies that want to really get noticed overseas, the key way is to have their executives give an interview or speak or do something. But they often aren’t willing to do that. And so we actually have, that kind of inverse relationship or that reverse relationship. Whereas, when they wanna go and talk and say something big, it’s often the time to be quiet overseas. But overseas when you’re, when you should be talking on the Chinese side, they often wanna stay quiet and, and kind of keep a low profile. But it’s not really something you can correct overnight. It’s it takes work, it takes uh, time to build those internal relationships to build that trust. I often see lots of Western professionals or overseas professionals, they come in and they say, whether it be marketing, whether it be pr, they say, this is my way, my way is the best, do do things my way. Which logically to them maybe makes sense, but looking at how people actually operate, whether you’re an overseas person or a Chinese person, that’s obviously not gonna work out in the end

Kalani Scarrott (28:48): From maybe outsiders looking in. And that tangent, you’ve made a great video on a few reasons why China armchair experts can be a bit misguided with their opinions. Do you just wanna elaborate on that and explain that?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (28:58): Yeah, so the concept of a Chinese armchair expert is to go over it again, is someone who is commenting on China. It could be someone from a think tank, it could be someone who is, an expert on China. It could be someone in the media, it could be someone on social media, someone who’s commenting on China, but maybe they, they haven’t been there before or they haven’t, they can’t speak Chinese. And there’s actually two, two example, a few examples I can give. I was actually just shooting a video on this that I’ll have up maybe next week, but there’s recently a 60 minutes piece by Tristan Harris from the Center for Humane Technology. And he had said that Chi TikTok, which is known in China as Doen, and Doen, he said they make all these safe content, educational content, patriotic content, they’re making spinach for their domestic audience, but they send all these addictive content, they, they’re shipping opium, what’s his direct phrase?

(29:58): Uh, which was, well basically it’s wrong. and, and he may be an expert on social media. I think some of the points he made about Western social media outlets was good. I agree with them, but it clearly shows that he decided to make this comment on TikTok and Doyen without actually understanding the issue. Anyone who even is remotely familiar with that knows that Doen makes some of its content choices and even user watch time choices based on regulation from the Chinese government, which is funny because his whole case was that in the western markets they need to regulate social media more. But he decided to just randomly make this comment about how TikTok is this evil company, they’re making these decisions to try and hurt American teens. That’s what it sounded like at least. And it, it was just completely out of it ass, pardon my French.

(30:48): Another example I can give is there was, I forget which outlet this was by, but there was a report by another outlet. It might have been, I, I won’t say which outlet was cause I can’t remember, I’ll send it to you later. there, there were some internal government report that was looked at about the, the Wuhan lab leak, related to COVID 19. And they, they had been this, without going too much detail, they, there was some white guy who kind of looked at the translation, made this whole thing about how, oh, this is so hard to understand, I’m the expert. And he missed a bunch of big things in the report. And the, the news article didn’t actually point out a few things. And it was very kind of like you didn’t even, you either didn’t understand any of this at all or you didn’t bother to really do, do, do your research or to explain the entire thing properly.

(31:39): And the reason these types of things are a problem is that China is such a sensitive topic, whether it be, the, you know, Chinese government, Chinese companies, economics. We need people who actually understand China, who are not simply trying to get more clout on social media to help, whether it be politicians, governments, businesses make the right decisions. And we see on social media that oftentimes it’s the scary news or the person spreading all the interesting rumors that gets mentioned the most as opposed to people who actually have spent the, the time to understand about China. And so I say armchair experts cause these are people who sit comfortable in their armchairs and they either sit, they say they are, they pretend to be experts without, and those of us who actually have worked long term in China who speak Chinese, we look at these guys, these people and we say, what are you talking about?

(32:38): But the problem is, is that they’re still much more interesting. So I simply talk about chi arm chair experts in terms of if you’re going to listen to someone tell you what China’s doing or what you should think about China, they should at least speak the language. They should have spent time there. They shouldn’t have some ulterior motive. Like if they work for a US government backed think tank or even if they work for a Chinese government backed think tank, they’re probably gonna have a certain motivation. My motivation, I work with Chinese companies, so of course I certainly have my motives are to help Chinese companies that tell the stories of Chinese companies. But I’m at least gonna be honest, honest and open about that. So I think it’s okay to have your own viewpoint, but as long as you understand what is actually happening, if you’re, if you just don’t understand what’s happening in China, but you’re still gonna pretend like you do, you’re spreading all this misinformation and it just, it’s, it leads to the wrong decisions.

Kalani Scarrott (33:37): To move on to maybe you and your work, this is a question I really wanted to ask cause I’m curious cause I’ve never heard of this type of role and I have no idea, but at vivo you led global media and influencer relations. So for influencer relations specifically, what does that job involve? What does it look like? and yeah, just any influencer insights from China. I’m so curious about that aspect. So yeah,

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (33:58): So I can, there’s a few parts to that. On one hand, my, my role at Viva was actually much more complicated. I was in charge of media, you know, influencers, I was in charge of two product lines. I was in charge of brand communications such as the, the, the Europe World Cup, brand communications, all the regional, alignment and support for pr, that kind of thing. But looking at influencers, let’s say you, because you have some companies that maybe have media influencers together under PR and you have some people who just influencers by themselves. But if you’re gonna have someone working on influencers, you would need to have someone, to understand one, who are the influencers you should be working with. you need to have someone who can then build relationships with influencers. You need to have someone who will be working with influencers as part of say, product launches or everyday communications.

(34:55): And that might include you know, contacting them, shipping products, answering questions, pro producing materials. and then of course there might be other activities you take care later. cause really what it comes down to for a product company, there’s on corporate pr on corporate reputation, there’s other ways you can use influencers and that is actually something that one of my friends worked on at Huawei and I helped them with a little bit. But say for product launches of Evo, you would need to make sure you selected the right influencers and that would include, you wanna make sure that you look at where their audience is, is this the right audience for what our goals are? do they have, the right style for the tire product we’re showing off. And also this is something we, we looked at a lot of vivo was, is this someone who is not negative towards Chinese companies?

(35:48): And that’s something that you always have to take to be aware of is that there are some people, whether the media, whether it be the influencers, whether it be social media who are just anti-China, I won’t talk this time here about whether you should or shouldn’t be anti-China, but when we’re looking at it from a company point of view, we obviously don’t want to have have content that looks fake, that looks bought and paid for. cause a lot of the, what we did is we did earned, non-paid collaborations. We of course would do some paid, whether it be media or influencers, that’s simply part of PR work. But a lot of what we focused on was we wanted to locate and build relationships with and cooperate with people who were interested in our products, who were interested in the brand, who were willing to then review those products, do videos on those products, not because we’re paying them, but because they actually wanted to.

(36:41): And that’s kind of what we talk about relationship building. And so, and actually getting products, to influencers, the media is also very complicated because you have to align with internal departments to make sure you have the, the products coming in, that there’s not gonna be any problems with the products. You’re shipping to the influencers that it’s the right product that all the software’s been updated. You need to make sure that you, whether working with the content team or the PR team to make sure you have all the content you need prepared. Whether it be review guides, whether it be fact sheets, whether it be other contents, whether it be more special content, say if you wanna have some nice little special gifts as part of a product launch, then of course you need to make sure you’re contacting them. There’s often, sometimes it’s simple, sometimes there’s lots of different questions and follow up.

(37:28): You need to make sure you’re working with your team or the agency in terms of making sure the shipping processes are all online, making sure that whatever date you set for embargo is you adhered to. and so, and then of course you have to go through it, you have to follow up, you have to do the internal reports. and so there’s very, very long process that starts maybe a month or two or more before a product launch and continues through all the way through a month or two after the product launch. and it’s all about, making sure that you find, select, build relationships with and then cooperate with these influencers who match your brand, match your product, and also can help you communicate with consumers and also the media in, in the markets where you’re looking to grow.

Kalani Scarrott (38:12): Ooh, what an answer. I love it. I’m very sorry, I’m very conscious of your time today as well, so I won’t ask too many more, but has there been any aspect of your career in China overall where it’s everything you dreamed of beforehand? And is there any harsh realities like yeah, what’s been the best and maybe worst aspects of your life and times in China?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (38:31): Well, it’s tough because, I don’t think I ever came to China with like, like this dream of how it was going to work out. I was simply drawn, drawn to China. I was very interested in China. one of the harsh realities, obviously one of my harsh, realities I faced was that, you know, I didn’t necessarily in the beginning have the work experience I needed to, to get opportunities with some of these bigger companies. I looked out with Huawei in 2014. I was able to join their PR team and then I was able to shift on later to a consumer position for marketing and pr. but I think a lot of harsh realities that maybe other expats face is that, because one of the things that we’ve seen has been this kind of digital nomad lifestyle or where people can just travel to foreign countries, whether it be for teaching English, whether it be for something else, and they think, oh yeah, I’m gonna be, I’m gonna be this expat.

(39:29): There’s this idea, this expat lifestyle, whereas you’re special, everybody’s gonna treat you like you’re a god or, or like you’re a dicho at least. And, and this is reflected in the behaviors of some, expats in some countries, whether it be China or perhaps other others. And I think with, with China currently now with its level of development, they certainly need foreign talent. They need overseas talent, but they’re, they’re not gonna take any, any, any, any bs They need people they can work with, people that are willing to work with them. And so I would say if people want an expat lifestyle, I mean, China’s not necessarily the place to be though. It depends. If you could get a really high level paying job, if you had lots of experience, you could certainly get, you know, more money. But, I really think it’s, it’s more and more a country that you have to be willing to, to adapt into. You can’t expect to get everything that you want.

Kalani Scarrott (40:23): Yeah. And overall, looking back on your time in China, is there any specific stories or anecdotes that you like to look back on fondly maybe?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (40:30): Yeah, there’s one story that I always kind of think back on, and this is when I was studying abroad in Chengdu. This was, I was living in the university housing and you know, they had the university then they had, it was actually the faculty housing area. And so there was a gate, you, you know, some guard, just regular guards, nothing special. And I would walk in and out and I would sometimes say hi to them. And it was funny cause they were kind of obviously really young guys. They were obviously from the countryside. They never really wore the uniforms super professionally, which was fine. And I just remember one time we got talking, they said, Hey, hey, we’re just about to cook some dinner and, and you wanna come in? And so they had this little small little hut and it was very, very, I wouldn’t say run down, but it was certainly not advanced.

(41:20): And, and they, they kind of had a little rice cooker and they gave me both some rice and there was no chopsticks. So they actually got some little twigs they had and they gave me two twigs as as chopsticks. And it really kind of made me look and say, well, wow, there’s such a gap. Even even with me just being here as a student, there are these guys who come from the countryside to try and get better work here. And, and even me just being here, here as a student, I’m just, there’s, in terms of the opportunities I have it still so much, so much higher. But then, but these guys are still very kind. They’re polite, they’re willing to talk to me, they’ve invited me into their, their little guard shack to have some rice with them. And so there was that friendliness and that that, that really kind of, I think inspired a lot of humility on myself in terms of, and that’s something you see a lot with not all Chinese people.

(42:14): There’s, there’s good people everywhere, there’s assholes everywhere. But I’ve always found that there’s many just local people, whether it be taxi drivers, whether it be local businessmen, they’re just often very happy to talk. They’re often, happy to share their stories. And, and that’s one of the things that I’ve always found very valuable. And one reason I’ve been very happy that I learned Chinese is that if you, if you can’t communicate with the, the local people, you just lose a lot of the perspective and you simply only can rely on maybe talking to people through translators, which really limits who you can talk to and what you can find out. And so, and that’s one of the things that I try and share with people when I when I talk about China, is that there’s this, China is not simply this big boogeyman that some people try and portray it as. It’s, it’s regular people. It’s, I mean, China has the phrase laing the old hundred names, which is the term they use for the common people. I mean, there’s, there’s just regular people here. I mean, there’s, there’s students who want study overseas. There’s people who are just living their lives and these decisions that are made overseas because of a, a fear of China. I feel oftentimes you’re misguided and oftentimes they, they just don’t understand the full picture.

Kalani Scarrott (43:29): Yeah, right. Perfect answer. And just wrapping up, is there anything we haven’t talked about today that’s important to know when either building a career in China or dealing with Chinese companies? Is there anything we’ve missed or any points you want to touch on?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (43:42): I would say the key things are don’t go in with too many expectations because things are always gonna be different. And the key thing is, is you need to be able to adapt. You need to be able to kind of read the room on when, when you’re on the ground, whether it be for a company, whether it be for traveling, whether it be for building a career, and you have to be able to see how things are on the ground house, see how things are viewed from the other side, and then adapt yourself to that.

Kalani Scarrott (44:12): Yeah. So Sean, thank you so much for coming on today. Lastly, where can people find you? Anything else you wanna plug?

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (44:18): Well, I’m glad to be here, so thanks again for the invitation. if people wanna find me, I can be reached on Twitter for now at least, if it doesn’t implode at Sean China. I have a blog that I sometimes write on the China culture corner.com, but I also have a personal profilePage@seanoptummclaughlin.com and I’ll send those through to you.

Kalani Scarrott (44:43): Perfect. Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on

Sean Upton-McLaughlin (44:45): Thanks for having me.