Shanghai– On warm spring evenings in Shanghai, hordes of young people turn out to watch the lights of the fanciful Pudong skyline come to life. Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai – located across town in the international district known as the French Concession – has internalized that fanciful side of the Chinese spirit. Proof? The seating in the agency’s main meeting area is a huge red cushion in the shape of a Chinese dragon.
Unlike its U.S. parent, which is famous for brilliant TV ads, this W+K outpost is mainly a digital agency. Websites, web films, apps, social media and other online efforts make up 60 percent of the work done by the shop. It serves as Nike Women’s digital agency in China. About 100 people work here, up from 80 a year ago.
The place has the familiar elements of a creative boutique agency; three floors of open warehouse space, concrete floors, overhead ducts, mismatched furniture. Several bicycles and whirring floor fans complete the look. To show off their creativity, employees create quirky portraits of each other, which decorate the main stairway. (Scroll down for views of W+K’s Shanghai office.) On a hot day in May, a staffer enjoys a lunchtime nap, head down on the desk, uninterrupted.
Managing director Kel Hook (pictured), an Australian who launched the office back in 2005, and executive creative director Nick Cohen, who previously co-founded the agency Mad Dogs & Englishmen, work on tables in an open space between two wings of the office. Their key clients include Nike and its Converse subsidiary, Levi Strauss, Procter & Gamble, Fiat and Nestea.
Hook says digital work was inevitable. “When we opened, you couldn’t have a creative communications shop in China without having digital as an integral part of your thinking, approach and channels.” With the Wieden mission to help brands define their voice and tell stories, digital provides the channels to continue those stories, he says. “Our philosophy about [all the online] stuff is that it’s not about the technical aspects but about how people engage with it.”
Social media seems to be the current darling of the agency. A social media team was formed thee months ago under the direction of planner Patrick Searle, a British consultant who joined the agency in January. The team is made up of Searle, a long-form creative pro, a short-form creative pro and 2 production specialists. The idea is to include social media in the early stages of the creative and media planning process. Social interaction is a powerful role for the web in China, he stresses. Young Chinese, who grew up without siblings thanks to China’s one-child policy, have turned to the Net to share thoughts and information with their peers. Using sophisticated social media bulletin boards they can share their interests and dreams; “it’s where they can find their [surrogate] brothers and sisters,” says Hook.
Hook also believes that compared to the rest of the world, China is at the forefront of hybrid communication, which combines artistic expression with the impact of the web.
“Hybrid thinking is amplified here. The Chinese went from no choice to endless choice. Online tools give them a way to discover the world and satisfy their curiosity,” he says. For instance, last year the shop crafted a long-form online film for Converse sneakers showing top Chinese skateboarders on a road trip across the mainland. In the video you see fascinated locals watch as the shaggy young men skate around town landmarks, endure run-ins with cars and authorities, and slap Converse logos on public structures.
Such hybrid projects don’t come easy. To attract fresh ideas and new talent, the agency and its clients regularly invite local artists and students in creative fields to these Shanghai offices. At the end of May, for example, students from the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University listened to a presentation while seated on the big, red dragon cushion. Continual online buzz about this and other W+K-branded events is fueled by the shop’s official blog and the personal social media accounts of agency insiders.
For outsiders, Hook says it helps to think of Shanghai and China as existing in an inverted parallel universe. “Here it takes a long time to do what you think is a short task – yet for other things the time it takes is very compressed” he says with a smile. And it pays to be adaptable. As other digital agencies here attest, employees in this city work long and hard, but it is tough to get them to work before 10 a.m. W+K’s solution is classic Shanghai. It commissioned one of its employees to make breakfast at the agency every morning, but its only served from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Ever since, tardiness has taken a nosedive.