On the surface, not much has changed since five WPP brand and design shops merged into a new agency, Superunion, 12 months ago. In the Hong Kong office that was formerly Brand Union, the biggest agency in Asia to fold into Superunion, fresh signage is in place and a huge, bold new artwork by senior designer Gianluca Crudele, who moonlights as a Hong Kong street artist under the name Barlo, now stretches across two walls.
But beyond the spruce-up and some important new hires—including strategy director Jolin Guan in China and creative director and animation expert Joao Seabra in Hong Kong—business continues relatively as normal. Asia CEO Benedict Gordon’s team of 100 is still operating from the same seven offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta and Mumbai, and projects that the agencies were running before the Superunion merger have continued seamlessly.
The difference that led to 2018 being a year of double-digit growth in Asia, including work for Facebook, Nivea, Samsung and some new sports clients (including the Women’s Tennis Association and the Chinese Basketball Association), Gordon tells Campaign Asia-Pacific, is a subtle shift rather than an obvious change. “I think there's something nice about a new agency forming that just gives a sense of freshness and energy, which I think is positive. Certainly we've felt the market respond to that. People are just interested, they want to know who you are, what you do, what makes you different and so on.”
It is a boon to be growing during a time when Gordon says the trend for brands to take once-outsourced capabilities such as design in-house is continuing. “We have definitely moved away from a world where clients were happy to brief the agency and then the agency would go away into their ivory tower and create the brand and come back and present it,” says Gordon.
Clients expect a more collaborative process, he explains. “We are doing a lot more workshop-based work, where it's much more a co-creation process with our clients. We'll be bringing our insights and learnings into the room but getting to the answer alongside our clients and their teams because they also have more of these capabilities themselves in-house.” The complexities of this can be difficult to navigate, he admits, but experience helps.
One important tenet of the agency’s 2018 growth has been the acceleration of its China business, helping both outbound brands seeking the next wave of expansion, and Western MNCs seeking to counterbalance low growth elsewhere by over-investing in Asia. Gordon says he sees “a lot of opportunity” in both instances. “In both scenarios, brands really need support that agencies like Superunion can offer because you’re suddenly talking about unfamiliar markets, an unfamiliar set of target audiences that you're trying to speak to and you're having to think about how to localise your brand for that scenario to be as relevant as it can be in that new market.”
He gives the example of the Guangzhou Auto Company (GAC), a client that at just 10 years old will produce its millionth car this year and is looking for the next milestone—expansion to the world, particularly to the US. “For a company that has a great understanding of the market in China, this is an entirely new challenge. How do you do everything, from the way you are named to the way you present yourself and what is your value proposition in a very competitive market.”
Companies like GAC stand to benefit the most from Superunion’s new larger network and remit to work “as one” in Asia and around the world, says Gordon. While the agency team on the ground in China can provide daily support and understands the company’s nuances the best, others from Hong Kong and Singapore offer broader expertise, and eventually Superunion’s US team will jump on board as well. “It’s obvious, it’s in the name, but that idea of the union is really part of our proposition and our sweet spot,” says Gordon. “The more we can make it seamless internally in terms of how we operate and therefore present to the client one joined-up team, the better it will be for us. That's definitely been the experience of 2018.”
Gordon sees other potential opportunities for Superunion in news events like the recent outcry over D&G’s allegedly racist advert and controversial statements reportedly made on social media by founder Stefano Gabbana in China, which prompted thousands of consumers to shun the brand. “I think if anything it just helps reinforce for companies less familiar with China that they do need that expertise and counsel. It is just such a different environment. Not just culturally but also in a very systemic way. The tech platforms are different; if you don’t understand the power of WeChat and so on it’s just very hard to get to grips with the marketplace and how consumers interact with brands.”
He thinks there is “no doubt” D&G will suffer long-term damage from the incident. “The insensitivity there to a customer base, which is so important in the luxury brand context, is quite staggering. I'm amazed because typically, especially at that founder level, social media is a well guarded thing. This feels like a Donald Trump-type scenario where it is private messages and private content that then escaped.”
“China is a very proud nation, and there’s a very powerful narrative in China around the rise of the nation, and a reclaiming of its global status. That pride runs very deep I think, so when when brands are perceived to be condescending to Chinese consumers, that is just an absolute no-no.”
Beyond GAC, Gordon says the majority of Superunion’s large ongoing projects in Asia are now serviced by more than one team in more than one geography. The broader network is also allowing Superunion to pick up new clients in regions where it doesn't have offices such as the Philippines, where the agency is working with a new integrated hotel and resort called Solaire, and South Korea, where one new client is a soon-to-launch cosmetics brand targeting young millennials. This is a joint venture with Ogilvy, which provides the communications expertise to Superunion’s branding and design knowledge. With no office in the country as yet, Superunion is working on the brand from its bases in Hong Kong and Singapore.
“Some of the more traditional cosmetics brands are really struggling to maintain relevance,” says Gordon. “That’s an international challenge where you’ve got to find something that's going to appeal to the Korean market, which in the cosmetic space is quite idiosyncratic, but then also with a view to at some point in the future an expansion overseas. So it’s how to create a name, a positioning, a brand idea and obviously a design and a visual language that is going to do both of those things, which is no easy task.”
Not much is easy about keeping up growth levels as a design agency these days. The closure of Superunion’s competitor Interbrand in Singapore in September was sad to see, says Gordon: “Obviously it is better for everyone when it is a good healthy competitive environment.” But with plans afoot to grow in markets like South Korea and India, where Gordon feels Superunion is currently “only scratching the surface”, the CEO is cautiously optimistic that the agency’s new model will lead to a good 2019. “Famous last words,” he jokes.