Staff Writer
Nov 30, 2020

LEO Digital Network: How do agencies work collaboratively with brands to navigate the new normal?

LEO Digital Network’s consumer-centric, data-enabled and content-targeted strategy is allowing it to thrive amid the economic fallout from Covid. The agency posted nearly 900% year-on-year growth in the first three quarters of 2020. We chat with their CEO, Dalton Zheng.

LEO Digital Network: How do agencies work collaboratively with brands to navigate the new normal?

It’s no exaggeration to say the pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to agencies. Ad budgets have slumped, and there have been reports of massive layoffs and furloughs. One agency head predicts the decline will be worse than the Great Recession of 2009.

Aside from economic impact, Covid has also fundamentally changed the marketing landscape, both from a micro (live-streaming, esports and online education are seeing a spike in demand, live activations have taken a pause) and macro (agencies and clients are working more collaboratively to navigate the new normal) perspective.

The current crisis has perhaps allowed one type of agency to thrive: digital agencies who are first, capitalising on the explosion of consumer data; second, finding new ways to engage with consumers, and third, innovating business channels.

Despite the global business downturn, LEO Digital Network (LDN) posted nearly 900% year-on-year growth in the first three quarters of 2020. Why is the agency, who recently won gold in the 'Greater China Digital Agency' category at Campaign's latest Agency of the Year awards, thriving when others are struggling to save their bottom lines?

LEO Digital Network: proofing for the future 

Set up in 2014, LDN is dedicated to becoming a sustainable pioneer in the industry. It positions itself as a consumer-centric, data-enabled and content-targeted digital transformation organisation that integrates business strategy, digital data, product R&D, package design, digitally-driven creative & media, social content, interactive entertainment IP, short videos, new retail and social e-commerce to achieve a ‘1+1>2 effect’. 

The integrated nature of the agency has served it well during a period of uncertainty, when brands need their agencies more than ever. LDN’s digital capabilities also mean it is positioned to help brands engage with online audiences in a more efficient and agile manner. 

According to Dalton Zheng, LDN’s CEO, the value of agencies is not only in the provision of creative and marketing services, but also to come up with business-oriented integrated solutions to solve specific challenges faced by the client. In a post-Covid world, agencies need to work more collaboratively with brands to ensure that they’re keeping a close eye on market sentiments to devise solutions that are targeted, effective and agile. Agencies have the chance to build mutual trust and respect with brands, and this symbiotic relationship would ultimately benefit both agencies and brands in the long run. 

Zheng says LDN has always strived to provide integrated solutions serving both the up- and down-stream – from business strategy, digital data, product R&D, package design, digitally-driven creative & media to social content, interactive entertainment IP, short videos, new retail and social e-commerce. What this means is that marketers are able to engage with customers at every point of the purchasing journey, thus enabling them to better understand what their consumers want – and when and how they want it - allowing them to improve brand experience and marketing effectiveness. For Zheng, this is a win-win solution from both a business and communications perspective. 

It is perhaps because of this agility and focus on customer experience that LDN has done so well in today’s world, where companies are reliant on agencies to provide solutions that simultaneously achieve business goals and benefit the community they’re in.

“You see a company, and different departments having different goals. What we can do is help them achieve these different goals using an integrated approach and in a cohesive way.”

Putting customers’ experience first

While Covid has had a negative impact on the industry as a whole, there has been a spike in demand for short videos and live-streaming. 

Arguably, and especially in China, short videos and live-streaming aren’t new, their birth and proliferation in the past few years having recalibrated purchasing paths and in turn, marketing funnels. 

The period of lockdown has only accelerated that change. 

And yet, with increased online content also comes increased competition – and scrutiny. Brand marketers must ensure that their content stands out from the crowd. 

Live-streaming and short video has been one of the key business focuses for LDN in the last two years, and the agency has strengthened its capabilities during this period, ensuring that these tools aren’t goals in themselves, but that they are a means to a greater end, that is, seamless customer experiences.

From Zheng’s perspective, live-streaming could remap the customer journey, allowing brands to more directly engage with their customers.

For established brands, live-streaming can be leveraged to not only drive up sales in the short-run, but also to expand markets and their customer database. Meanwhile, start-up brands can make use of live-streaming to quickly ‘put their name out there‘.

The CEO also believes that the shift to digital will allow LDN and its clients to dip into tier-three to six markets in China. The digital arena has always been a great equaliser – as brand marketers move their live activations online, it also means they’re reaching not only audiences in a particular city, but anyone who can get online. This allows brand marketers to build a bigger database, which better allows them to reach business growth goals in the long-run.

“Live-streaming isn’t only about selling a product, it is also about accumulating customer database, and extending business channels. Live-streaming can not only shorten the linkage between brands and existing customers, it can also help brands build connections with new customers. This will ultimately energise brands to build and manage the private traffic on their own channels.”

The CEO also advises brand marketers to integrate live-streaming and short video capabilities. Live-streaming can help drive sales and short video can help ‘plant grass', a Chinese term which means that once you plant the seed of awareness, people will become curious and will want to try out the product or service. Live-streaming and short video may become a day-to-day marketing tools in the future, just as WeChat and Weibo have. 

Achieving all of that takes putting the customer at the heart of the marketing strategy, and a keen understanding of how Chinese consumers interact with brands and each other. LDN is well-placed to help brands navigate the complexities of China’s digital marketing landscape.

Since 2018, LDN has been a pioneer in the realm of live-streaming, short-video and social e-commerce, having been building strong collaborative relationships with Bytedance and the affiliated Douyin, Xigua, Huoshan, and Kuaishou, Taobao live-streaming, celebrity and influencer marketing. In 2019, LDN clocked over RMB 7 billion collaboration volume to become Toutiao’s top agency. Its business revenue also increased by more than 300% on Douyin/Ocean Engine during the 2020 Spring Festival.

To cater to this new demand, LDN set up 15 live-streaming rooms inside the office and established a base for short videos in Chongqing. By centralising operations, LDN is essentially providing a one-stop solution for clients, allowing it to serve both clients and consumers in a more efficient and effective manner. 

Agencies need to help drive sustainable growth

For Zheng, it has never been about picking between the short and long-term. Looking ahead, LDN will continue to draw up campaigns that not only help clients achieve short-term targets, but also mid-and long-term ROI. Only by doing so can brands stay sustainable. 

“How do you create a good brand? Today’s youth are bombarded by content on a day-to-day basis - how do we make sure they’re getting value out of a brand and not only the product?” 

2020-2021 is shaping to be the year that Chinese brands will thrive – not least because of strong local demand. On the one hand, pride in homegrown brands has been climbing in the past few years; on the other hand, more and more Chinese brands, especially those in the tech sphere, are proving themselves worthy competitors on the international stage. This in turn has encouraged the birth of new brands. During 2020 Double-11, a major shopping festival in China, 360 new brands topped the best sales list in their categories. 

Looking ahead, Zheng notes that LDN will work symbiotically with companies, be they up-and-coming companies, established companies or those launching new initiatives, to come up with integrated solutions to drive sustainable growth. The agency, with its understanding of both the Chinese and international markets, is also perfectly poised to help propel Chinese brands – and to also bring a uniquely Chinese brand of creativity, innovation and aesthetic – to the international stage.


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