Rahul Sachitanand
Mar 4, 2021

Agencies in APAC raced to ready themselves for ecommerce's explosive growth in 2020

As clients chased after homebound consumers, agencies rushed to retool their capabilities and reskill their employees to capitalise.

Agencies in APAC raced to ready themselves for ecommerce's explosive growth in 2020

If ecommerce was an inevitability for brands, marketers and agencies through much of 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic shifted their efforts into warp speed in 2020. As agency leaders told us in our Agency Report Cards for 2020, they raced one another to keep pace with this seismic change.

The move from bricks-and-mortar to online shopping has compelled agencies across the board—from media and tech shops to not-so-obvious candidates such as creative agencies—to retool themselves for this new reality. From building entire practices to retraining employees and finding niches to profit from ecommerce’s explosive growth, agencies were compelled to make a case that they were up to speed on ecommerce in 2020.



This report is the first in a series exploring trends we noted while preparing our latest Agency Report Cards feature, in which we rate and analyse 39 APAC agency networks. Each report card includes an overall grade plus a detailed analysis and scores for management; innovation; clients and business; creativity; and people and diversity. The report cards are available only to Campaign Asia-Pacific members. Become a member to get access to all 39 of the 2020 Agency Report Cards, plus many additional benefits. 


Take the case of WPP’s leading media agency Mindshare, which sensed this shift early and hired Cecile Courbon from Lazada in March 2020 to help the shop build out its online commerce offering. A three-month training program covering everything from ecommerce store setup to on-platform media management was completed by 70 staff, we noted. What’s more, Mindshare sewed up partnerships with the likes of Lazada, Tokopedia and Amazon, giving the shop access to training, certification and preferential rates to add meat to its ecommerce business.

Elsewhere in the WPP network, booming interest in online commerce drove AKQA’s growth in 2020. As we noted in the agency’s report card, the shop built Bridgestone’s first ecommerce experience, launched an online shop for Nestle Purina and created an online open day experience for Deakin University, which was attended by more than 4500 prospective students—nearly double the attendance of its 2019 campus event. However, the agency’s most innovative work was for Nike this year. Fusing digital and physical, it created a livestream event in China to launch the Alphafly shoe, which was broadcast from Nike’s flagship 'House of Innovation’ store in Shanghai.

Nike House of Innovation, Shanghai


As brands raced to bring their businesses online, several other agencies also upped their game. For example, Accenture Interactive, which describes itself as equal parts consultancy, creative agency and tech powerhouse, has built its business out on the four pillars of communicate, design, build and run, and it sees commerce as a key part of digital transformation it is affecting for its clients. AI has seen strong growth in its commerce capabilities through 2020, for example in China, where it leant on social commerce to drum up sales of SuperX beer through WeChat mini-programs enabling home deliveries and new virtual socialising events like ‘hot pot mingling’ and hip-hop dance offs.

Other agency networks too were also keen to keep pace with these changes. For example, in the case of Omnicom’s BBDO, China led the way with its ‘Endless Fun Fair’ work for Dove chocolate, shot by an all-female crew with crowdsourced content from challenges on Douyin and Bilibili, showed off its ability to leverage the big platforms, with its live-streaming premiere on Tmall selling limited-edition products and exclusive content.


But the agency also rapidly expanded its training in the field elsewhere across APAC, on ecommerce platforms and Google, TikTok and especially Facebook, where several hundred account service, strategists and creative executives in APAC became Facebook Blueprint certified. BBDO also introduced Flare Manila, a fast-turnaround regional production shop for clients asking for quick digital content to spur ecommerce sales.

Besides this aggressive investment in training, agencies across the board are also upgrading their tech capabilities to keep pace with the ecommerce explosion. For example, in the case of Dentsu X, its D-commerce Metrix is a proprietary data-driven optimisation software tool. In Thailand, it helped increase sales of Kao’s Merries brand of nappies by 183% on Lazada in three months.

Other Dentsu shops too leapt aboard the online commerce bandwagon and were keen to show off their chops. For instance, in the case of Isobar, it used its Total Commerce launch in 2020 to integrate its capabilities with the wider network. The offering, we noted, will use the capabilities of Carat, DEG, iProspect, Merkle and Dentsu Mcgarrybowen to provide a ‘total’ experience combining media, brand creative, ecommerce, strategy and analysis, CRM and fulfillment.


Its India team deployed fully featured, appropriately localised ecommerce sites for Adidas in many markets—including several in Southeast Asia—that either had no online stores or had sites that didn't fit in with the global brand. For Suntory Boss, Isobar delivered a system for ordering via Line, with express pickup points.

As shops began to deepen their investments in ecommerce, some of these tools and platforms began to pay off in 2020. For instance, Omnicom’s PHD rolled out a commerce practice Transact, which it integrated into its existing commerce offering in October. Together, these new service lines contributed to an additional $200 million of organic revenue for PHD APAC, and a 12% year-on-year uplift in client satisfaction scores across the region, we noted.

Other agencies, such as WPP’s MediaCom, haven’t just built out robust solutions, but have also exported them to offices worldwide. The shop, part of WPP’s GroupM media umbrella, has built capabilities across everything from ecommerce dashboards to marketplace strategy too, and Josh Gallagher, the chief product officer (who also sits on GroupM’s ecommerce board), wants the shop to add muscle to its planning and consulting capabilities to win larger contracts in this market.

Meanwhile, Mediabrands’ Reprise saw its ecommerce unit grow 45% year-on-year due to these trends. Its most “strategically significant” new client was a direct win in India, clothing company Zodiac, for which it will develop an end-to-end ecommerce solution with remuneration based purely upon the percentage of online sales it generates for the client.

Despite the growth of interest and investment in ecommerce, two networks, Publicis and Havas, have relatively less to tell us about this subject. While Publicis did lean on its Epsilon business to slingshot itself into the online ecommerce market, its capabilities and business wins were less visible than others. Similarly, Havas Media expanded its fledgling ecommerce capabilities when it partnered with Shopee on its Media Agencies Partner Program, which aims to aid media agencies with e-commerce knowledge and skills to help brands and sellers scale and succeed online.

While media and tech-centric shops led the way in exploiting the need for this demand for online commerce solutions from their clients, the depth of the shift could be judged by how creative agencies too jumped headlong into the space. For example, WPP’s mid-tier creative agency Grey announced in November, that it was pulling together all its shopper, retail, experiential and commerce practices to form the Grey Commerce Collective (CoCo) driven by Nirvik Singh, with a presence in all offices globally.


In APAC, Grey CoCo now has a Southeast Asian hub led by Richa Kapse, but the practice more broadly will now pull in talent from once-disparate Grey entities like Hong Kong-headquartered shopper-marketing agency Grey DPI alongside Seoul’s experience design shop Vinyl I, not to mention the similar CX and commerce content production studios of new agency spouse AKQA.

Meanwhile, creative agency leader, Ogilivy’s enhanced interest in ecommerce was perhaps the best demonstration of this type of agency’s bold interest in ecommerce. The shop now gets a full fifth of its revenue from martech and commerce offerings, has increased training in these areas and with the appointment of Corinna Murphy as chief martech officer, signalled its seriousness in this business.

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out worldwide and people slowly get more confident about venturing out of their homes, these agencies will have to make sure their ecommerce investments stick, as the world begins to go to something like normal. Having tasted the convenience of shopping online, agencies will need to prove that the 12-month frenzy of ecommerce is more than a flash in the pan.

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