Is the Shanghai branch the only presence Leagas Delaney has in Asia?
Yes, after London 33 years ago, as well as Hamburg, Prague, Milan, and Los Angeles. When we start new offices, our managing partners normally own the businesses ourselves; we don't buy other agencies. In the case of Shanghai, it was quite nerve-wracking for a group like us, as we have to pay for everything as well as renting an office without a lot of business in the beginning. But I know we have to be in China, because otherwise you don't get any cultural influence. I want to know what's going on in China, and when Jacob Johansen came to us [from DMG], we started the ball rolling.
That must be the rationale in 2010 when you started operations then? How much were you involved in the opening?
What happened is I came to Shanghai in 2009 to work on a Škoda pitch for the Shanghai Auto Show for about a week and I really loved it. I have been watching China for years and am interested in it politically and socially. I see Shanghai as such an optimistic and bustling city and I am completely charmed by it. At that time I decided we should be in China regardless of whether we get a piece of business or not. We did get our first piece of business in November 2009—for Sweden's nation-branding project in China. The Swedish Institute, which was the Swedish government’s information agency, appointed us to lead a digital platform that went live during the Shanghai Expo in May 2010.
Jacob moved on in June 2012 to pursue other interests [at Momentum]. In some respects, you can say that Leagas Delaney Shanghai really started about a year ago and everything before that was a soft opening. In my mind, we weren't really open for business until August 2012 after we hired a really good creative guy and a native-Chinese management partner. Now we have a team that is Kevin Lee (ECD / partner) and Kien Lim (managing partner)—the people that we wanted.
Kevin was from Ogilvy & Mather before, and he came to us because rather than be in meetings and conference calls all day, he wanted to do work. That's true of most mega agencies when they've got globally aligned accounts that are from outside mainland China. I wonder if anyone ever feels any emotion there. It's all very well to have thousands of people, but when they lose a piece of business, who cares? It means no bonus for that year for them, perhaps. We have to live with the downside when things go wrong sometimes; that's what makes the upside so enjoyable. They're running an advertising agency like a manufacturing plant.
So are Leagas Delaney folks more emotional? Aren't domestic Chinese clients very rational and pragmatic?
It matters to everyone about every pitch and every client—even the receptionist. It's tough to generalise. We have one client in China: the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB). They invited 45 Chinese CEOs, chairmen and owners of companies to London last year, and I got them to tell me about their branding problems in a workshop. They're all very interesting and intelligent. They don't have a monopoly on pragmatism, but they are quite demanding and want more for less. In China's digital landscape where things are moving so fast, you can have a digital campaign tomorrow if you want it to happen.
Is that why Leagas Delaney is positioned as a digital agency rather than a boutique creative agency in China?
We still classify ourselves as doing conceptualisation and activation campaigns through all channels. You need a concept and an activation element to it, but nowadays to maximise this, particularly with China's many digital devices and mechanisms, if we're not digital-first in China, you're not really talking to most of the people. China is leading the world in how you integrate digital into a total programme. There must be more than 100 digital agencies here, so differentiation is very difficult; all you can do is try and differentiate based on your philosophy and your people.
I want the Shanghai office to be a small diamond in a soulless desert.
You are a famous industry figure in the UK and have quite a reputation for being outspoken. What do you think about scam ads in Asia?
I have a serious problem with this. This results from big agencies being the factories that they are. Ads, say from Singapore, got submitted into a London or New York award show and got awarded because judges were a long way away from it and didn't realise the ad didn't exist or never ran. Because creative directors have awards as their KPI, this has become a whole industry in itself. Even clients themselves encourage this because they just like the idea of going to Cannes for a one-week holiday. They think it's fantastic and they are in the middle of creativity. They don't realise the whole thing may be a fraud.
Is the scam scene just a playground for the 4As? Don't you want to chase after awards too?
We don't have such a KPI for our creatives. The only KPI is to turn up in the morning (laughs).