AKQA Shanghai: Tapping Social, Cultural Traditions

Shanghai– The bright lights and exuberance of Shanghai – China’s tomorrowland – tend to be subdued and westernized in the modern offices of the city’s digital ad agencies. But the excitement is the same. Ask anyone and they’ll agree with AKQA CEO Tom Bedecarré that Shanghai is the hot spot for China’s nascent digital marketing industry, and award-winning digital campaigns seem to come naturally in the city’s ambitious, commerce-happy culture. But that’s just part of the story.

AKQA, an independent digital shop based in San Francisco and London, is one of the pioneers. It opened in Shanghai in 2006 as a wholly foreign owned enterprise. Its first job was to assist Coca-Cola, a sponsor in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

AKQA’s latest offices in Shanghai are in a semi-suburban building complex that the government converted from factories into offices for creative firms, such as designers, public relations firms, and yes, ad agencies. AKQA’s space is sleek and understated – with white walls and glass dividers, meant to mimic the décor of sister agency offices around the world. When the shop moved here last March it had 35 employees. Today it has 50, which is still just a drop in the bucket of AKQA’s nearly 1,000 employees worldwide.

The offices’ largest client Unilever markets wholesome family values to mainstream Chinese consumers, but the agency itself exudes pure technology. It’s a mood also appreciated by its other key Shanghai clients Nike, Volkswagen, and healthcare marketer GSK, maker of healthcare products.  In the last year the shop added Calvin Klein, but most of its growth has come from Unilever brands, such as Dove, Lux soap, Rexona deodorant, and Clear shampoo.

General Manager Leo Chu, who has been in charge for about three years, previously spent a decade at major marketing agencies in the U.S. and greater China, including a stint at USWeb/CKS, one of the first U.S. online agencies. Born in Taiwan and raised in San Francisco, he says his shop’s current mission is to redefine digital marketing to include digital retail experiences and innovative digital outdoor ads. He emphasizes that his shop’s tech capabilities have been expanded into creative and business acumen for a wide mix of product categories.

Campaigns currently in progress at AKQA will show off the shop’s knack for bringing digitally-enhanced experiences into the offline world, he says. As of April, 85 percent of the shop’s output was on websites and social media, split about evenly between the two. Only about five percent involved offline marketing.

In a typical creative session on May 19, the brainstorming is led by Executive Creative Director Johan Vakidis, who appears the polar opposite of focused, well-organized Chu. johan-vakidis-leo-chu-featuredimageVakidis, a rumpled presence in a wrinkled shirt, worn jeans, and green and yellow sneakers, has been with AKQA for two years, after serving eight years as digital creative director at OgilvyOne across town.

In the creative session, which is subdued and slow-paced by Western standards, Vakidis seeks to pull ideas from a collection of creatives, an account person, and an account planner. Three are from Shanghai, one is from South Africa, and another is from Singapore.

Under discussion is a social media and video promotion for an event hosted by one of the shop’s roster brands. Typical campaign elements are tossed around, such as celebrity endorsers, user-generated content, and contests. In between long pauses, the only sound comes from the hum of an air conditioner. Everyone speaks English except for a burst of quick Chinese as two members hammer out the logistics of a particular idea. Generally, the Chinese members offer details about similar events, offer reality checks about what products the Chinese target can afford, and suggest themes that the audience would like.

Themes of aspiration and support for the community get a thumbs up from the locals. Crowdsourcing has its limits. “I’m Chinese,” says Jason Wang, senior account manager. “I’m not going to watch something that shows a regular person, but add a celebrity and I will.”

Vakidis, the group’s mentor, patiently guides the discussion and encourages more feedback. Considering they have a client meeting within a few days, no one seems particularly stressed.

The technique seems to work.

AKQA Shanghai’s biggest award winner last year was a social media effort for Unilever’s Lipton Tea.

To overcome the cultural tradition of drinking Chinese tea, the agency tapped even the more powerful cultural tradition to celebrate the Chinese New Year 2010, giving people a fun way to send branded Happy New Year’s greetings to each other online. The campaign resulted in a staggering 103 million users sending, sharing, or receiving greetings, a social media benchmark for Unilever.

With a staff that is mostly young and Chinese, Chu is proud that the shop has bucked the local job-hopping trend, the bane of Shanghai’s dynamic ad industry. How? “We foster an environment where everyone plays a part, whether it’s the guys who’ve been around since the early days of digital to recent graduates,” he says.

Incisive Media’s SES Shanghai, a digital marketing conference and sister organization to ClickZ.com and ClickZ.Asia takes place May 24-25, 2011

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