Kim Benjamin
May 10, 2019

Why independent agencies thrive in China

“In Shanghai, even a new starter can get a foot in the door. If you don’t stay hungry and on top of the game, you could be supplanted without even knowing it.”

Why independent agencies thrive in China

In December, Shanghai-based Apax Group was named Greater China Experiential Marketing Agency of the Year at the Campaign Asia-Pacific Agency of the Year awards, beating the likes of global players such as Auditoire, Jack Morton Worldwide and Uniplan. 

This is just one example of how independent and domestic agencies in China are holding their own against more established competition. 

For Yeelin Ng, vice president of Greater China – events at Apax Group, the agency’s success thus far can be credited to its ability to stage creative events, ranging from a catwalk show for Fendi on the Great Wall of China to the more recent ‘Paper Flowers’ campaign for Tiffany & Co. 

Stay on your toes

“As an independent, we can remain alert on the latest consumer trends. With consumer likes and dislikes constantly changing, we have the ability to react fast to a changing landscape,” says Ng. 

Daniel Seyferle, chief creative officer at experiential agency SMS Group, which has worked on projects in the region such as the C-Class launch for Mercedes-Benz in Taiwan, says that marketing within Asia and China in particular has changed dramatically in the last decade. 

This has resulted in communication efforts being more tailored to the culture as well as the trends of a specific market, while retaining brands’ identities and tying in international aspects and innovation. “Independent agencies have been able to adapt quickly to these requirements, demonstrating adeptness in both cultural background and business dealings,” he says. 

Shifts within international client organisations, with an increased localisation of teams and marketing approaches, alongside a growing number of Asian and Chinese brands having achieved global recognition, is requiring new ways of working in terms of client services, strategy and creative. These are areas that Seyferle believes independents can also deliver on.

Reasonably sized teams in our offices allow fast and flexible adaptation for various briefs; we are pan-Asian and international when required, but can also set up teams to work on initiatives entirely locally.

Scott Goodfellow, experiential director at Shanghai-based communications agency Pure Experiential, which has produced work for Converse and Bacardi, says there’s always room for the new kid on the block in China. 

“In cities like London or New York you’re going up against these deep-rooted behemoths and a more traditional company-agency dynamic,” he says. “In Shanghai, even a new starter can get a foot in the door. If you don’t stay hungry and on top of the game, you could be supplanted without even knowing it.”

One area where independent agencies are often able to excel, he believes, is providing a balance of locally relevant ideation with the ability and know-how to make it happen. Like Seyferle, Goodfellow points to flexibility as another positive element. His agency, for example, endeavours to give a bit of extra ‘love’ by not refusing small favours or waiving small costs.

“Another thing we are valued for above all else is our speed,” he says. “Getting things done in China works on its own timescale, so while we will always be honest when expectations are not realistic, you also have to be able to deliver at a certain pace while still safeguarding quality.”

Being able to nurture and monitor qualities in teams throughout the agency is important too and as a smaller organisation, Goodfellow adds that it is easier to make sure that the agency culture and approach to work is consistent throughout.

For Apax Group, building additional in-house resources and investing in cross-collaboration are crucial. The agency has two other divisions: Apax Recreation with its focus on international IP platforms and Apax Live, which licences and organises events such as Fashion Rocks and the Shanghai International Fashion Showcase. 

“With our other divisions, we can offer a creative proposal supported by other resources, which can help to elevate both the brand’s status and consumer exposure,” says Ng. “New trends can now change overnight, so it’s important to have a wide spectrum of partners and resources.” 

More change to come

So where do challenges and opportunities lie for independent agencies? 

With the experiential industry heading towards a more effective – and efficient – integration into the overall marketing funnel, Seyferle believes that those agencies operating within the live communications space have to be able to not only dock onto other communication channels, but also drive these to create additional value. 

“While there is a changing, more subdued economic outlook in some markets, the overall volume of live marketing activity is expected to grow by another 30% over the next three to five years,” he says. “But competition has increased manifold with fights over market share increasing and new, small shops pushing into the market, partially on unhealthy terms of cost- and corner-cutting.” 

At the same time, marketers are demanding a higher ROI, changing their focus from building brand awareness to sales-driven activities. These changes, believes Seyferle, will create an even higher influx of independent agencies with various specialisations and very targeted (geographical) areas of activity.

“Yet, once growth slows, consolidation will be a natural occurrence, leading to more mature, settled and saturated markets,” he adds. “Those agencies that can localise successfully while staying internationally relevant, and which can carve out their niche while remaining dynamic and agile towards changes ahead, will succeed in this transformation.” 


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