A magazine newsstand in China.

SHANGHAI — In May last year, Chanel had readied the unveiling of its Mademoiselle Privé exhibition in Shanghai, a large display that took up the West Bund Art Center and for which the brand had spared few expenses. Dua Lipa performed a mini-concert at the opening-night party to an audience that included famous faces like Julianne Moore, Liu Wen and Keira Knightley.

But the costs of having a pop star put on a show and of these celebrities attending would’ve paled in comparison to how much it cost the house to arrange simultaneous Chanel covers on all the biggest fashion glossies in the market. Chinese editions of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Le Figaro, Marie Claire, Nylon, Grazia and Cosmopolitan that month all had Chanel prominently featured on their front.

The cover faces were different for each magazine, of course, and so were the looks, but they were all unmistakably Chanel, illustrating a kind of coordination that would’ve been unthinkable in the West, where editors are intensely territorial about positioning their title distinctly to the competition.

However, this kind of cover buyout is commonplace in China. It wasn’t surprising that Chanel had paid for the covers so much that it was that they paid for an entire sweep of the women’s magazine field. Most brands, due to budgetary restraints, choose just a few titles to work with.

Fashion media around the world is not reputed for its editorial independence. Compared to hard news outlets, which typically take the role as the fourth estate seriously, most Western fashion titles have a much more fluid idea of the separation between “church” and “state”. Fashion shoots are generally seen as a way to repay consistent advertisers and while in the past magazines were known to champion little-known brands, that is becoming rarer as titles face revenue squeezes, competition from social media, and brands become more demanding.

But in China, that line between editorial and advertising nearly disappears, with just about every part of the fashion media machine paid for, altering the handbook most international p.r.s have been trained on and potentially throwing brands for a loop.

“There is a significant degree of overlap here in the paid and earned space. Ultimately, China is a pay-to-play market,” explained Jenny Lo, the China manager for the p.r. firm CatchOn Co. “Editors and advertising sales often wear each other’s hats to create value for advertisers and brand partners.”

Partly, this is because there isn’t much of a tradition of hard-hitting journalism in any sector in the country. A Communist Party state monitors and censors the press closely, and cash payments are accepted at hard news organizations, too, save for a few rare outlets.

But this is also because the adoption of digital was so much quicker and more widespread in the country than other markets, forcing media houses to find a solution fast to make up for cratered advertising revenue.

Recently, Condé Nast China became a topic of national conversation due to accusations of illegal side-dealing among its top staff — something it denied — but payments are ubiquitous in the industry and start from even the most mundane of media work.

For example, most brands hand out cash red packets in order to get editors and reporters to attend their events — ranging from 300 renminbi to a few thousand renminbi per assignment, or $42 to a few hundred dollars. Many in the industry see this as a courtesy to cover transportation costs of the journalists to a collection preview or fashion show — not so different to a goodie bag or the value of a brand gift that is given at events in the West. But the rates quickly go up for larger features, and magazine covers, in particular, figure as some of the biggest income generators for publishing houses.

“A Vogue China cover is going to be around 1.8 million renminbi, [or $254,000]. Then even a WeChat article on GQ Lab would be something like 800,000 to 1 million renminbi, [or $113,000 to $141,000],” said Bohan Qiu, the founder of the communications agency, Boh Project, offering a ballpark range although each paid media partnership varies. Factors include who the client is, which month’s issue, whether it is part of a larger paid content package, and considerations from the team representing the cover celebrity or face.

A Conde Nast spokesperson denied such magazine cover paid arrangements. “At Vogue China, we never sell our covers. All our covers are purely editorial, serving our readers, and do not have a price,” the statement said. However, it’s at odds with the what many acknowledge as industry-wide practice.

“That is something that has been going on in China for many years,” said Arne Eggers, senior vice president at Karla Otto who overseas Asia for the firm. “In the past, I would say it sometimes wasn’t done particularly well because the brand was dictating things too much and the magazine would simply slap a brand campaign on the cover but now it doesn’t happen anymore because media is very sophisticated. For our clients, it has become part of every strategy. It’s a significant part of budgets going into so-called ‘sponsored editorial’.”

Noting that this paid-for coverage does not replace advertising but is a supplement to it, Eggers estimated that editorial shoots are about 50 percent independent content, whereas close to 100 percent of covers are paid for by the brands.

Tracy On now heads up the Shanghai office of Lee Wolter, a luxury-specialized public relations agency, but originally came from the magazine world holding senior positions at Hong Kong Marie Claire, W and Harper’s Bazaar. Other than one or two issues a year, On said the covers were always bought.

How much paid content winds up inside the pages of the magazine depends on the title but Jerri Ng, the former chief editor of InStyle China, said during her tenure, she tried to keep an overall ratio of 60 percent pure editorial to 40 percent paid collaborative content.

“When I was at InStyle, we had a very strict guideline,” she explained. “First and foremost — and whether it’s the cover or the inside pages — we always give consideration to the advertisers and then you need to have a good mix of advertisers and content that has real value.”

While this practice raises uneasy questions surrounding editorial ethics, there is some evidence that the China consumer may not mind as much as a Western reader. In this year’s China luxury forecast study from Ruder Finn, the firm asked people their thoughts on certain kinds of paid sponsorship.

“The acceptance was even higher than we expected,” said Ming Gao, Ruder Finn’s managing director of luxury for greater China. “This year we asked the question: does knowing there is sponsorship of the brands to dress celebrities decrease their intent to purchase? For the most part, it didn’t.”

Respondents in Hong Kong, a more Western-influenced city, rated paid arrangements more negatively than those in Mainland China, although both regions overall did not show a strong aversion.

When it came to celebrities, 4 percent of Hong Kong respondents said they would be less likely to purchase if they knew it was paid for, while only 1 percent said the same in Mainland China. For key opinion leaders, the figure was 9 percent for Hong Kong and 4 percent for Mainland China.

As Eggers sees it, the reader in China is capable of understanding the trade-offs.

“I do hear [the criticism], but I also feel that consumers aren’t stupid. Consumers understand what is happening and it isn’t that they are necessarily being fooled,” Eggers said. “It tends to be quite an open game. It may not be 100 percent independent, but people understand where it’s coming from.”

Conversely, Melvin Chua, the 30-year China p.r. veteran behind Ink Pak Communication, said he has no doubt the practice, while commercially very successful, has been very damaging to the entire industry.

“We’ve lost it. It’s not we’re going to lose it,” he said, referring to editorial authenticity. “A lot of traditional media have substantially lost their credibility. This is not a question just for China, it’s almost a global phenomenon. I’m a firm believer and I feel strongly about the role of media and journalists.”

“It’s one of the major restrictions for someone like me for operating in this environment,” he added. “Every single engagement you have with media ends up being like a sales meeting and I think that’s detrimental overall. Whoever says, ‘It’s OK we have a balance [of genuine editorial versus paid for]’, definitely not. You definitely see the global trend of fewer and fewer people looking at their information from traditional media or of opinion leaders becoming less credible. It’s too much focus on commercialization of what they’re doing.”

Influencers and bloggers, compared to traditional media companies, are typically even in less of a position to say anything that could be critical of brands and risk jeopardizing major partnerships, although there are some notable exceptions to this rule. Super-influencer Austin Li last month made waves for his blunt critique of the new Hermès lipstick line, dismissing it as “cheap” and unflattering on Asian skin tones.

But Ng, now the Asia Pacific communications director for Delvaux, sees the trend for paid editorial content as an “inevitable evolution” as media search for a commercially viable way to operate, and observed that other regions have begun following suit.

“You have to adapt and evolve or you get left behind,” she said. “Maybe it started in China, but China has always been one step in front of everyone else in terms of market trends. Initially, I thought it was a bit strange, but when you talk to your counterparts, you hear that other countries are adopting the same kind of strategy then it becomes global. It becomes the new normal.”

Wherever one stands on this issue, the reality for the moment is that brands without big budgets are disadvantaged in China.

“That’s intergalactic money that most brands will not be able to pay,” said Qiu of Boh Project. “Smaller, newer brands struggle a lot. How are we ever going to pay for a WeChat article that’s going to use our entire year’s budget?”

Qiu suggested that emerging brands can appeal to an editor’s goodwill toward young talent and, if it’s a Chinese brand, a sense of national pride. Ng confirmed this was something she often factored in at InStyle: “You want a mix of people — I believe in promoting Chinese designers and new talent which we incorporate to make my InStyle more interesting.”

But other than aiming to be featured as part of the “young designers” issues that titles typically put out once a year, what are the other options for small labels? And what should brands in the middle stage of their growth journey — the ones that are neither the emerging talent that editors feel strongly compelled to support, but which are still far off from being the well-funded power players — do?

Gao advises that smaller brands have the best likelihood of getting featured as part of a trend round-up story, or of getting specific products featured, whereas a solo profile is extremely difficult to secure without money exchanging hands.

“We represent Valextra and we never expect covers, we don’t have the budget,” he said, “but we can still leverage celebrity power or the Internet. A lot of the ongoing work is celebrity seedings as well as TV drama and film and other product placement. For fashion, it’s relatively easy. If you represent a watch brand or car brand, when you want to do product placement in a TV series you have to pay, but for fashion, they need wardrobes for the production.”

There are limitations to the approach, though. While a hit product placement might result in increased sales of that item for a brand, it’s not the kind of storytelling that builds long-term brand equity in the eyes of the consumer.

“The reason Chanel became Chanel is that they put a lot of effort to talk about the story of Coco Chanel,” Gao said. “If you want the brand story — a two-page or three-page brand story — sometimes you have to pay. They still have to allocate some budget.”

“Paid collaborations can be expensive in China,” Qiu said, still he believes there is “room for good brands and stories to get featured,” and advises brands to build long-term relationships with publications. “The calculus is ultimately very individual and they don’t expect everybody to be in the position to be big commercial partners.”

One consequence of the greater oversight p.r.s now have on editorial content is that it has substantively expanded their scope of work. This has occurred at the same time that new platforms have created a greater appetite for content, and particularly in China, integrated with e-commerce.

P.r.s are expected to manage things downstream, doing things that would traditionally be taken care of by journalists and required to co-create the content with them. Simultaneously, key performance indicators are beginning to touch sales conversions, whilst being increasingly needed to manage upstream into the creative process, too.

“People say p.r. is dead and I’m like well, we wouldn’t be as busy as we are and expanding as much as we are if that was the case,” said Eggers. “But I think the label ‘p.r.’ is not really correct, it’s really communications which can encompass a lot of different things.”

In a best-case scenario, the communications team has a seat at the table at the outset for the creation of any brand asset, all the experts WWD spoke to agreed, especially given the cultural gaps that often exist between the Western headquarters of fashion’s biggest brands and a market as influential as China.

“There have been so many public relations crises in China, brands have to be more aware of different issues,” said communications consultant England Summers. “Starting about five to six years ago because of social media, people have become more sensitive on all sorts of topics and nobody wants to be wrong in any area. Every message has to be right.”

And given how connected the online ecosystem here is, Summers added, sales are beginning to merge into the mix, too.

“If you look at an item, you can buy it right away with your phone so when the brand does communications and they tell the story, it could be connected to e-commerce as well. That will be part of the communication, I can’t really avoid it,” she said.

Many pointed out that the Dolce & Gabbana Shanghai show cancellation and fallout in 2018 could’ve been avoided if the brand’s China p.r. team had been consulted properly, and the incident has helped push brands to heed more of their local teams’ input.

“I think for sure, after that global brands they pay more attention and listen more and invite their Asian counterparts to participate in the initial conversation,” said Qiu, “but it’s hard for a lot of brands for the West to wrap their heads around this idea let the China counterpart take charge.”

To be truly effective, this should go beyond lip service, which Chua noted is what many companies still do instead of generating authentic local content.

“They hire local talent and that’s the first wave [of your p.r. strategy],” Chua said. “They hire a celebrity face to do a campaign but in terms of the actual content and nature of the campaign and the actual messaging, it’s still driven globally. It’s the exact same photographer, team, and messaging but they add an Asian face. Unfortunately, what I found is that it’s a formula, it’s a checklist of what we need to do.”

Adding to Chua’s concern is the impact of COVID-19, which will put pressure on brands to scale back whatever progress they have made in empowering the China teams over the last two years.

“You will see a lot of brands, even big ones, who need to streamline their costs, but I think it would be a major mistake if they start streamlining communications even more centrally,” he said. “They should do the reverse in a market like China. They need to invest more and engage more with the local team.”

“Recognize the intricacies and differences,” advised Chua, “but also the power and the wealth of creativity and cultural diversity that our market as a whole has to offer, not just as a market to sell products.…The earlier international brands recognize this, the earlier they invest and engage, they will see a substantial benefit.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a response from Condé Nast