Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
May 16, 2018

Former Flamingo Shanghai heads start a new 'Chapter'

New venture Inner Chapter wants to "upend the workings of China's marketing-insights industry".

The Inner Chapter team, with Julien Lapka (front row, left) and Alex Wilson (back row, second from left).
The Inner Chapter team, with Julien Lapka (front row, left) and Alex Wilson (back row, second from left).

The former co-CEOs of Flamingo Shanghai, which Omnicom shut down in 2017, have launched a new cultural insight and brand-strategy consultancy.

Inner Chapter, led by Julien Lapka and Alex Wilson, has been in a self-described soft-launch phase for several months. The founders describe the company as "an ideas-forward studio".

Early commissioned projects include brand creation, incubation and design for a startup, scenario planning for a mobility company, audience and retail strategy for a fashion label, user research and documentary filming for a global tech firm and KOL strategy for a beauty client.

"Clients want partners who can operate at the speed of business and rhythm of culture," Lapka said. Independent status, he added, provides degrees of freedom that weren't available within a large holding company. Omnicom abruptly closed Flamingo's "underperforming" offices in Shanghai, New York, Sao Paolo, Singapore, Tokyo, Mumbai and Jakarta in April 2017, releasing all of the Asia staff while providing little explanation. The London office remains in operation.

In Inner Chapter's structure, clients are invited to the agency space for ongoing forums with interest groups, culture makers, entrepreneurs and local communities, according to the founders. Another initiative is paid time off for employees' passion projects that "align personal, professional and organisational growth".

Lapka spoke to Campaign China for this Q&A (edited for brevity and clarity):

You mentioned Inner Chapter wants to upend some of the workings of the marketing-insights industry in China. How so? What do you want to achieve at Inner Chapter that you couldn’t at Flamingo?

In holding-company structures, working on the basis of experimentation is very difficult from both a financial-risk perspective and planned-growth mentality. Quarterly targets and linear structures push larger agencies towards stability.

We recently conceptualised a new frozen-yoghurt brand slated to launch later this May. Inner Chapter will be taking equity in exchange for ongoing brand stewardship. This is one of several ways we’re engaging with progressive clients, old and new.

China has a go-to-market business culture driven by first-mover advantage. Growth strategies are about trust via scale, and awareness via size. 

If we identified one constant in the market, it would be the demand for ongoing brand stewardship. Once we work with a client, we often outlive the tenure of our projects. It’s important to have hindsight and foresight to ensure our clients seize commercial opportunities and don’t succumb to corporate entropy. 

Going forward, the consultant-practitioner role feels particularly apt for China, and distinctive within current agency evolution.

What does to ‘operate at the speed of business and rhythm of culture’ mean in the China context?

China has a go-to-market business culture driven by first-mover advantage. Growth strategies are about trust via scale, and awareness via size. As such, the focus is often on product distribution, media awareness and iterative development. 

Equally, culture moves fast in China. There are various streams of influence, dynamics of trends and pop-culture fads. Opportunity lays in correctly interpreting and choosing what currents and flows to be part of, and what are best to avoid.

Many brands are either too late, out of context, or led by the moment and not the strategy. It’s a fine balance.

What is the state of the ‘ideas, insight and strategy’ industry in China right now, and how has that influenced the business model of Inner Chapter compared to Flamingo?

Apart from the constraints on time, resources and budgets that sit across the industry, there are some macro themes at client-side: the in-housing of roles, the obsession with acquiring data, the focus on faster execution, and a desire to be more innovative in a culture where marketing alone doesn’t cut it.

All these themes influence how we work. We’re collaborating with cross-discipline client teams for strategic thinking and then execute it through technology, media, design and retail.

At one end of the spectrum, we’re being contacted for fast on-demand implementation. At the other, we’re brought in for retained advisory roles to identify emergent opportunities.

See also: A new consultancy rises from Flamingo Tokyo’s ashes

Our most interesting project so far? A deep anthropological exploration about elderly health in lower-tier cities. It’s refreshing—and smart from a commercial perspective—that some clients are thinking outside of the youth and KOL spaces to solve meaningful societal challenges. 

Transposition of global brands into the Chinese market is an ongoing challenge even for the world’s most successful companies. We have also been working increasingly with Chinese clients looking to establish a foothold in global markets, especially the US.

We will continue to bridge the world’s two largest markets by developing culturally relevant innovation and IP strategies.

Campaign China

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