Tribal DDB Shanghai – Giving Branding a Digital Core

By Joan Voight

Shanghai– In the intense marketing hothouse of Shanghai, digital agency Tribal DDB safely resides in the house of its parent, the DDB Group. Among DDB’s four China outposts, Shanghai is the biggest; of the 230 staffers here, 65 work for Tribal. But you won’t find the offices in one of the cities glamorous – and ubiquitous – skyscrapers. In an unspoken nod to Tribal’s importance, all of DDB Shanghai is housed in an office park of converted factories populated with entrepreneurial, digitally oriented companies. Tribal’s rival AKQA (which ClickZ profiled last month) is in the same complex. Across the street is a shady park where local residents practice ballroom dancing each afternoon and elders get their walking exercise. It’s a neighborhood where Caucasian faces are rare.

When you step inside DDB’s glass doorway, however, the mood changes. A sharply Western and corporate setting is marked by giant photos of agency founder Bill Bernbach and his pithy quotes, such as “Rules are what an artist breaks, the memorable never emerges from formula.” Frosted glass and designer white-and-gray furnishings dominate the agency’s open floor plan. Tribal and DDB creatives work side-by-side at their computers in formal and hushed quarters.

But when you venture downstairs the corporate formality starts to dissipate. In a communal area, clusters of animated young Chinese employees eat and chatter loudly around open laptops. The rest of the Tribal team works at desks nearby. This casual feeling is no coincidence. Tribal ‘s staff, mostly in their 20s and 30s, start at about 10:30 a.m. and frequently put in 12-hour shifts. Since many live with their parents, as is the Chinese custom, the agency often serves as their second home.

Currently Tribal’s work consists of 50 percent websites, 30 percent social, and 20 percent mobile, says Jesse Lin, president of DDB Group Shanghai (pictured above). He expects a boost in both social and mobile work this year from major clients such McDonald’s. Simple mobile phones that can cruise the Web combined with legions of homesick Chinese migrant workers in the cities are fueling the growth, he says. For instance, online instant messaging service QQ now has about 640 million subscribers. In comparison, Twitter has just over 200 million accounts.

At the same time, the lines between Tribal and DDB are blurring. Increasingly, brand campaigns for Philips, Volkswagen, Johnson & Johnson and other clients are born with a digital core, says Lin. Among the agency’s latest goals: make DDB more digital and Tribal more brand savvy.

In a recent Tribal planning session, digital strategist Keong Loh, business director Daryl Ho and a pair of account handlers huddle in an airy meeting room to craft an overview of Chinese mobile marketing for a consumer goods client. Everyone in the meeting is ethnically Chinese but hails from different locales: Malaysia, Singapore, the U.S., and Shanghai. Chatting in English, they decide to show the client how mobile elements can “fill in gaps in the consumers’ journey” to purchase. After an hour they break, with plans for another meeting in two days, and a presentation to the client within a week. Ringleader Loh joined Tribal only two months ago, armed with two decades of experience in Asia Pacific working for JWT, Leo Burnett, BBDO and others.


Another Tribal newcomer, executive creative director Chris Jones (pictured above), hails from Ogilvy Amsterdam, where he was digital creative director. He notes that Chinese staff members in Shanghai seem more reserved and less spontaneous than other places. A Brit who has toiled around the world, Jones says he has adjusted his management style. “To help spark thinking here it seems to work better to put some topics together and then let the creatives go off to brainstorm privately. They’ll get together in small groups and the next day the groups will offer their collective ideas,” he says.

Those ideas have contributed to recent campaigns such as a crowdsourced project for the Philips 360Sound technology. In early May a Chinese director shot a two-minute silent video and the Chinese public was invited to record and submit sounds online to go with it. Users vote on the submissions and the winning sounds will be incorporated into the branded video, which will be shown in stores and online in June. Another new project was a micro-blogging effort for McDonald’s 100 percent beef burgers. Similar to a Twitter campaign, the promotion included a T–shirt giveaway for “100 percent real men.” An estimated 4 million people entered the contest to win 50,000 shirts.

Outsiders who are intimidated by the diversity of the huge Chinese market, may be missing the point, say Loh and Jones. “The Internet is effectively flattening the country’s regional differences,” says Loh. With the Net, everyone is seeing the same thing. Overnight a hip phrase is being used all over China, adds Jones. It also helps that the entire country is in the same time zone and speaks Mandarin. “These days, even in the villages they want an iPad,” laughs Loh.

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