Alibaba's Huge E-Commerce Fest Has Changed the Game For Agencies in China

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This week, as Alibaba hosts the world's biggest online shopping event, some agency staffers will pull an all-nighter, working right through the 24-hour event. They'll be operating brands' online shops, adjusting promotions and reacting to competitors' offers in real-time.

Alibaba Group launched its one-day Nov. 11 e-commerce fest, called Double 11, 11.11 or Singles Day, back in 2009. Since then it has ballooned in proportion, with other online shopping players like JD.com joining in. Alibaba, which logged $14.3 billion in sales on its platforms last year during the 24-hour festival, is kicking off its event with a livestreamed variety show featuring singer Katy Perry, band OneRepublic and former Lakers' star Kobe Bryant. It also had three weeks of marketing activities leading up to the event.

As the event has grown, Double Eleven has deeply impacted the way some agencies do business in China.

At WPP's VML, half the agency will be staying up through the event to manage online brand shops for Crayola, Mead Johnson and Erdos, a local cashmere brand. Yi-Chung Tay, CEO of VML China, estimates that 70 or 80% of the agency's work in the second half of the year revolves around Double Eleven and e-commerce, including other events and promotions.

"Every conversation we have now on marketing campaigns involves asking – especially around this part of the year – 'Does it drive e-commerce?' as question No. 1," he said.

For Colgate, VML just created a video in the runup to Nov. 11 featuring actor and heartthrob Yang Yang; in a Don Draper-ish scene, he played an exec trying to figure out the toothpaste brand's marketing strategy for Double 11. ("What we sell is … smiles!") The campaign got 11,000 orders in 24 hours, and many more after that, Mr. Tay said.

"However you communicate, with a video or post or anything, there must be a laser focus on communicating what the product really brings to people," Mr. Tay said. "I don't only have to convince you I'm a big brand, I have to convince you I'm a big brand with products worth buying right now."

Alibaba taps many creative and digital agencies to work for it, mostly on a project basis. VML, which has a contract to be one of Alibaba's so-called "preferred vendors," did a charming viral digital campaign to promote Double Eleven that was widely shared on all-purpose mobile app WeChat. It gave the viewer a 3D feeling of flying through outer space and into a treasure-filled palace. (Watch it above.)

Hylink, a major Chinese independent digital agency, works with both Alibaba and JD.com. Humphrey Ho, the U.S. managing director who heads its new office in Santa Monica, is spending time explaining the event to clients in the U.S.

"How agencies behave is not unlike how they treat the Olympics or how they treat a major sporting event where live marketing needs to do be done," said Mr. Ho, who previously worked at Google China, Wieden & Kennedy Shanghai and Leagas Delaney Shanghai. "Today you are constantly live-changing the message depending on how a competitor is doing … There's constant iteration, and reacting to who said what in the leadup to the event."

At Publicis' Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, which also manages online shops for clients, teams will be working 24 hours, or even 36 hours, and some clients stay up with them too.

"For some of our clients 11.11 is so important that they can do the turnover in one day that they usually do in one month," said Cyril Drouin, chief commerce officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Greater China. Preparation for the event starts in July, he said.

Saatchi created banners for three clients, Moleskine, Pampers and Safeguard, featured in subways and on billboards to advertise the sales event on Alibaba platform Tmall. There are 49 banners in total, each featuring creative interpretations of Tmall's cat logo.

For brands in China, doing 11.11 is no longer an option, Mr. Drouin said. "Two years ago you could say, 'I don't want to be part of 11.11.' We don't have any brands anymore that don't take part. It's not a choice anymore."