We Are Social just opened in China, where the social media agency will navigate a dynamic but challenging market that has its own platforms -- WeChat and Weibo instead of Facebook and Twitter. The new office in Shanghai has a staff of 15, and it's hiring five more. Clients include L'Oreal, equipment manufacturer Liebherr and GMAC, which administers the GMAT exam for business school admissions.
We Are Social's Shanghai debut has an unusual twist: It's a global agency that's Chinese-owned, though it hasn't had a China presence until now. Founded in London in 2008, the agency expanded internationally before being acquired in 2013 by BlueFocus Communication Group, China's fast-growing agency company with big international ambitions. (BlueFocus is No. 13 on Ad Age DataCenter's World's 50 Largest Agency Companies, just below MDC Partners at No. 12.)
In Shanghai, BlueFocus has provided office space to We Are Social, as well as back office and logistics support. Its backing allows We Are Social to offer services at scale immediately.
"They have been an amazing help -- and the help we hoped they could give us in China was one of the reasons we were so keen to partner with them in the first place," said Robin Grant, We Are Social's global managing director. "We're not naive, we know it's a very unique marketplace, increasingly domestically driven, looking less toward the West for how things are done, and more about inventing new ways of doing it themselves. Had we just tried to open in China without BlueFocus's help we would have struggled, as a lot of Western businesses do these days."
People and platforms
China's social media scene is unique because its Great Firewall blocks most Western platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Their blockage allowed local versions to flourish, including the Twitter-like Weibo and WeChat, the ubiquitous mobile app that serves as China's Facebook, Instagram, Skype and WhatsApp rolled into one.
Despite those differences, We Are Social reasons that its global tactics remain valid -- focusing on creativity, marketing strategy and understanding what motivates people to share or talk about something online. The emphasis is on people, not platforms, Mr. Grant said.
Being in China is also an opportunity to learn – "a lot of innovation is being led by platforms like WeChat rather than Facebook and Twitter," he said. (Emojis and animated gifs, for example, have been big on Asian messaging apps like Line and WeChat for years.)
With the new staff in Shanghai, the agency's global headcount is over 550 people in 10 offices -- London, New York, San Francisco, Paris, Milan, Munich, Singapore, Shanghai, Sydney and Sao Paulo.
As Shanghai managing director, the agency tapped Pete Lin, who started his digital career in the U.S. but has worked on the mainland since 2007, with jobs including business director at Grey Shanghai, client services director at Publicis, head of digital at JWT and general manager and chief marketing strategist at Gravity Group Asia. Creative Director Ying Chang worked at Leo Burnett, DDB and AKQA, where she was associate creative director.
Mr. Lin's plans are to build analytical tools for China social media, amass a collection of prebuilt WeChat games that can be quickly adapted and deployed for brands, and set up contractual deals with video creators even before brands need them so they can be tapped quickly. Meanwhile, he says, the next phase of cooperation with BlueFocus will be business synergy.
BlueFocus sees We Are Social, with its global reach, as complementary to its existing BlueDigital brand's strength in China, said Steven Chen, VP-BlueFocus Communication Group.
"With We Are Social now in-market, many of the domestic brands in our client portfolio are also expressing an interest in working with We Are Social's Shanghai office to run global campaigns," he said.