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Kung fu double finds her niche
John Cremer
update on Saturday, December 12, 2009
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The first time Li Yifei saw Michael Jackson's Thriller video in the early 1980s, it gave her a clear direction in life. "I said I've got to go to a country with something as exciting as that," said the Beijing-born advertising supremo who, a decade later, was to influence the next generation of Chinese youth through the medium of music videos.

"At that time, the world was such a mystery to us; we just learned from books and didn't even have TV until 1979. But I was determined from a young age that I wanted to see the world for myself and decided then that I had to leave China." 

Li's ambition was not some misty-eyed dream about breaking into show business. That was something she had already done. As a teenage national champion in martial arts, she had been the stunt double for the leading actress in three movies, including Mysterious Buddha, which is regarded as the mainland's first modern kung fu film and could have been a springboard to stardom.

"They paid me more than the actress because we were that important to the movie," she said. "But I didn't enjoy it much and there was pressure from my parents to study." 

So, dutiful to the wishes of her astrophysicist father and teacher mother, Li instead took a bachelor of law degree at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing, perfected her English and wrote off tirelessly to overseas universities in the hope of landing a scholarship. Her persistence was rewarded with an offer to do an MA in international relations at Baylor University in Texas starting in 1985. Li grabbed the chance, but with certain misgivings in view of the restrictive policies then in force.

"After getting a visa, I thought I would never be able to return to China," she said. "It was tough. I was the first student ever to leave my college for overseas and I was crying all the way on the plane." 

Finding, though, that she could sail through the courses, self-confidence grew and she began to set her sights ever higher. On graduation, she headed to New York and, with the mainland's steady emergence on the world stage meaning her qualifications and background were increasingly valued, more or less walked into a job with the United Nations.

A spell in the public information department soon led to the role of producer and host of a programme called UN Calls for Asia. It might not have been a ratings winner, but it did teach Li the fundamentals of clear communication, understanding an audience and delivering an effective message - skills vital for her role now as Greater China chairwoman of the Publicis Groupe's fast-growing Vivaki unit. 

Initially, though, her switch into the advertising and media industry was a question of circumstances more than planning. She had met her future husband and, in 1992, when Morgan Stanley decided to transfer him to the mainland, found herself at a major crossroads.

"That was a big debate," said Li, who by then was consulting for a New York law firm and lobbying on trade issues for mainland clients. "I didn't want to come back, but at the time China was booming, so we decided to return." 

As things turned out, the timing could hardly have been better. Ambitious Western firms were falling over themselves to hire people with "east meets west" experience and, after a stint with public relations agency Burson-Marsteller, Li was snapped up by Viacom to run MTV (China). For nine years, she oversaw programming, discovered new artists, staged unplugged concert series and built advertising revenue. Along the way, she was widely credited with having a profound influence on both the media business on the mainland and youth culture generally.

"I loved it," she said. "It was very cool and kept me young. In the beginning, there were a lot of foreign videos, but through research we realised the audience preferred local music, so we promoted Chinese talent and concerts where we combined popular acts with underground rock and roll." 

The timing of her next move was slightly less fortuitous. It was to asset management firm GLG China as managing director, just before the financial crisis hit. Accentuating the positive, Li talks bravely of setting strategic goals and looking for joint venture opportunities, but admits to having felt a bit like someone in "the war zone" and to missing the people and the action of the media sector.

"My heart is there," she said. "To use a Chinese expression, for me it is like driving your own car. I can just pick up the phone and talk to someone I have known for 10 years."

Her immediate challenge as recently appointed head of Vivaki is to integrate established operations and new digital acquisitions under one umbrella and then to push for exponential growth. She senses that the mainland is on the brink of a major comeback in advertising outlay and that clients are now ready to embrace the new age of online digital options.

"It is going to double, and then again, in the next two to three years," Li said. "Digital is one key direction and another is to drive some innovative deals for our clients." The fun and personal satisfaction come in many ways: being creative, helping mainland companies compete against multinationals, working with smart colleagues and, still, pulling off a successful pitch to a big client.

"The task for the next three to five years is already quite daunting," said Li, who with her husband co-founded China's yachting team for the America's Cup. "My ambition is just to make myself a better person, more interesting, happy, fun to be with and to influence people in positive ways." 

This is the sixth in our seven-part series on overseas influential women

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