Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Sep 3, 2012

Saatchi & Saatchi's South China restructure off to auspicious start

HONG KONG - It is not every day that a Western ad agency chief executive has 'pig cutting, lettuce catching, lion's eye painting' marked on his diary. Justin Billingsley, chairman and regional CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Greater China, wrote down just that in a move that symbolized the agency's restructure and the reopening of its Hong Kong office.

Saatchi & Saatchi's South China restructure off to auspicious start

Billingsley told Campaign Asia-Pacific in an exclusive interview that the border between Hong Kong and the South China mainland is becoming more blurred. "We have Shenzhen clients who want to be serviced from Hong Kong, and Hong Kong clients who want mainland insights, so we have to find the right balance in South China as part of our five-year plan".

Guangzhou's government also favors five-year plans, and as part of its 12th, is looking to integrate Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta through the promotion of economic, legal and travel synergies. Billingsley said the government is looking to unlock skill sets in Hong Kong for the benefit of the mainland, and it is the same for the agency creatively.

"We need to make Hong Kong less inward-looking, only making stuff for domestic clients, but to look north," he said. Hong Kong used to be a regional hub for Asia, but a lot of clients have moved their hubs to Singapore. P&G, which made a decision earlier this year to relocate its global Pampers operations to Singapore, is one example.

"What we already do differently is to consolidate the P&Ls of our four China offices so they don't end up competing internally," Billingsley said. "When I first arrived in China four years ago, our Beijing and Shanghai offices were pitching against each other for the same client."

Now, every cost incurred is a 'China cost', not a Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou cost; therefore people in Saatchi & Saatchi flow across work opportunities in different city offices, he said. If a new pitch is won, Billingsley said he will "move people around like water as we need them".

"If I use resources from Guangzhou to serve a client's project in Hong Kong, for example, two P&Ls are a problem because I have to worry about cross-border transactions and currency exchanges," he said. "It becomes a mess and we spend all our time fretting about these little dollars."

This means agency margins may be ultimately different in the mainland and in Hong Kong, but Billingsley looks at it as a total sum of a blended result.

Another reason to formalise Saatchi & Saatchi's South China operations, apart from following in the footsteps of other agencies, was client assignments. "We used to win China pitches and Hong Kong pitches, but we are seeing more and more for Greater China, so it makes sense to consolidate Hong Kong and Taiwan with the southern provinces of China," he explained.

All is fair in love, war...and advertising. A recent poach from McCann Shanghai was Carol Lam, whom Billingsley said will be "much happier and produce better work based in Hong Kong due to better chemistry".

"Hong Kong's next wave of growth must be to serve South China, and that's what we're leaning towards," he said. "We're also making at least 30 new hires in the next four months."

The South China offices will look after Head & Shoulders, Safeguard, Pampers, Ariel, Crest, Guinness and Emirates. Historically these clients have been managed out of the Guangzhou office, but will now be run out of Hong Kong.

When asked about how to deal with dissimilar language metaphors and nomenclature between the three regions, Billingsley stated that it is the agency's job to create "human ideas, not provincial ideas". Take Pampers for instance: the brand message is about giving children the best start in life. "That's a human idea, not a Taiwan idea or a Xiamen idea," Billingsley said. "Yes, there will be executional differences due to culture that we will respect, but a higher-order idea will travel to more places".

The formalisation of the South China label and the boosting of the agency's Hong Kong office are trigger points to transform the way the agency works, he said.

"Instead of an office that has account servicing on that half, creatives on the other side, planners over in the corner, and producers behind the door in front of their Macs, this is a new office that's going to be much more like a newsroom, where each client team has their own 'tribe', much like a pit or newsdesk. So people 'tribe' around the brand," he said. 

Saatchi & Saatchi also wants to shift from a campaign mentality—making an ad that sits on a reel that goes out to one base station that plays out to one audience—to an always-on mentality, where conversations are happening 24/7.

"Our old way was like a baton relay: it takes time, there can be slip-ups. Our new way is more like a huddle. The idea of waiting hungrily for a two-page brief from a client who has all the consumer knowledge is very old; we want to generate our own briefs for clients based on our social listening tools, suggest to clients what they can do, and even challenge their briefs." 

Granted, Billingsley said the agency can only evolve one step ahead of clients. "There's no point being the most bleeding-edge creative agency that no one uses because they don't know they have the need. We [also] never want to be behind the clients. When you hear that some client has appointed so-and-so to be its digital agency, it means that the AOR was behind what they needed".

Of course, Billingsley does not want to fall behind. After all, he has successfully cut the pig, caught the lettuce, dotted the lion's eyes, and blessed the new Hong Kong office as part of a traditional Chinese ritual. For Saatchi & Saatchi, that is a good start.



Campaign China

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