MarketingConference CoverageHow Agencies Are Evolving into Strategic Advisors in China

How Agencies Are Evolving into Strategic Advisors in China

As brands shift digital talent in-house, agencies must evolve into strategic advisors to stay relevant, according to a panel at ClickZ Live Shanghai.

Agencies must keep ahead of emerging digital trends to stay relevant to their clients and in a fast-paced market like China, that role is evolving into one of strategic advisor, according to a panel of industry experts at ClickZ Live Shanghai, as well as our Editor, Melanie White.

Challenges facing agencies in the Asia Pacific region include clients shifting digital teams in-house, integration across verticals, and skills and talent shortages. As a result, it will be more common to see partnerships between multiple agencies with increased input from client digital teams.

Panelist Chris Maier, head of research and analytics, ZenithOptimedia, China, said: “It’s all about how can we diversify beyond what our core is, and then how to develop that integration which is so very important in terms of communications, and that is where the opportunity lies.”

China’s fast evolving technology environment increases the opportunities for agencies compared to those operating in slower paced markets, said Cedric Delzenne, program manager and Hong Kong head of data agency, fifty-five. “The role of the agency is to stay one step ahead of the client and that’s why they still need us,” said Delzenne.

For Eugene Chew, chief digital officer at J. Walter Thompson (JWT), Shanghai, agency success comes down to collaboration.

“There may be some talent or partners not partnered with us and we bring all these specialists together to make life easier for our clients,” Chew said.

clickz-shanghai

In-House

JWT has seen some of its manufacturing clients in China develop their own in-house e-commerce teams to facilitate their retail arms.

In this case there can be staff within the company using Alibaba on a regular basis and know it well. “So agencies need to bring something complimentary to what our clients have in house, and part of our role is adapting our team according to the gaps,” said Chew.

Some clients may employ in-house social media or community managers to manage company Weibo and WeChat accounts, but will still use agencies for the strategic planning around consumer insight, he added.

With digitalization also comes an increase in back-end work around data and analytics. Agencies can offer an edge in programmatic buying and data analytics expertise and help clients integrate that across other non-digital mediums including television, magazine publications and outdoor advertising.

Agencies are sometimes asked by a client’s chief marketing officer (CMO) to act as a strategic facilitator. In that role, the agency will bring external research, trend reports and its creative thinking expertise to a meeting with the client’s product design, sales and senior management to map out the direction the company needs to move in.

In APAC, this role can also extend to mediating between regional client offices and global headquarters which don’t always understand the nuances of local markets. “Often the regional team will ask us: can you please talk to our global guys and ask them to stop making stuff we can’t use,” said Chew.

Talent

Talent remains a key challenge globally but in countries such as China it seems even more of a struggle, noted ClickZ’s White.

“I have been to a number of meetings here in the past few days and there have been some notably young individuals in very senior roles. That certainly gives promise to a bright future for those that work hard, but are the skills right in order to lead businesses?” she questioned.

Fifty-five’s Delzenne responded: “It’s hard to master WeChat or how Line works without knowing a little bit about what’s going on behind the scenes and how that applies to the wider business, and that’s typically the type of profile missing from the market today,” he said.

Talent retention in China is also an issue – with the three big publishing platforms Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) offering higher salaries for graduates who have a cross-over in technology and business.

Perception is also hindering the industry. Chew told delegates the advertising and marketing industries in China don’t have the prestige of some others.

“It’s seen more as a service industry and the client is the master and the agency is the slave. So I think there are certain perceptions that need to change over time to make it more attractive,” said Chew.

Experts also risk being siloed into specific areas. “How do we transform the technical experts to be more integrated so that they can really build that understanding of the client’s business?” said Maier.

Chew added that it was hard to find that ‘magic’ person who can do everything:

“I look at myself as a digital expert whose full time job is to keep up with these trends, and then I listen to the guys talking about programmatic and I realize how much there is still to know. And I think that’s where there will always be a role for the agency for this reason. With the four to five people in the marketing team – can they really know everything?”

White concluded the panel by advising agencies to work with clients to help them stand out and to build their competitive advantage. “Don’t try to be the agency by default. Train your clients in Google Analytics, train your clients to be a part of some of the media buying, and be there as their neutral advisor, do some R&D yourself to bring something innovative to the game,” she said.

*Image via Shutterstock

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