When Poetry Meets Business

Nov 18 2016

Business guru Jason Nanchun Jiang told an NYU Shanghai crowd on November 17 that poetry writing in his student years led him to create, step by step, what is now an advertising giant worth 160 billion yuan (US$ 23.3 billion).

In a public conversation with Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman, Jiang, founder and CEO of Focus Media Holding, the largest digital screens advertising network in China, shared the ups and downs of building his business empire, while shedding light on how advertising should take advantage of industry frontiers such as mobile Internet and artificial intelligence.

Jiang amused the audience by saying that his passion for poetry writing in earlier years, which later yielded to “material temptation” following China’s opening-up economic boom in mid-1990s, has helped nurture innovation and became his “secret to success”.

“Writing poems requires you to connect and combine two seemingly irrelevant objects with a sharp imagination, which is also true in business,” Jiang said. “Imagination helps produce good poetry in literature, whereas in business, it helps innovate new models and forms.”

In Jiang’s case, innovation led him toward a “right path” when he entered China’s emerging advertising industry in 1994. At that time, television and newspaper commercials were largely influenced by the government, and favorable outdoor advertising spaces were mostly occupied.

“I decided to look at this issue from another angle, shifting my focus from location to people’s lives, as I was inspired by one of my university professors - Prof Gurong Qian, who encouraged us to be people-oriented in not only literary writing, but also in our lives,” Jiang said.

From this fresh perspective, Jiang blazed a new trail by running advertisements closer to people’s daily lives, on buses, in elevators and in movie theaters. After weathering the 2003 SARS downfall, his business began to boom.

“Eventually you will find yourself benefitting even from what you have learned about in college that did not seem, at the time, to have anything to do with business, like poetry,” Jiang said.

An alumnus of East China Normal University, Jiang was named by Fortune Magazine as one of China's 25 most influential business leaders in 2008, and a year earlier by Ernst and Young as Entrepreneur of the Year for the Chinese mainland. Focus Media is today one of China’s largest media companies, with over 10 billion RMB in annual income.

Jiang was the second distinguished guest of the Conversations with the Vice Chancellor series, following US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito who participated in September.