For This Shanghai Shop, Advertising Is Truly Art

NeochaEdge Started as a Social Network for Artists and Is Now a Collaborator for Brands

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The team at NeochaEdge
The team at NeochaEdge
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NeochaEdge is the definition of art as advertising.

The Shanghai creative agency began as a social network for artists in 2006 and evolved into a shop that has created inventive collaborations with brands. It put work by local contemporary artists on T-shirts for The Disney Store, a Burton snowboard and Sprite soda cans. For Volvo, seven artists in NeochaEdge's collective staged a four-day performance in a busy European train station, taking turns painting over the same car as crowds of travelers streamed past.

But the shop best known for art-driven projects is also open to bigger jobs typically reserved for classic creative agencies (it's at work now on some more traditional projects for a Coca-Cola brand, lemon-flavored Schweppes +C).

"If I want to work with any particular type of artists -- graphic designers or composers or toy designers or Chinese folk artists -- [NeochaEdge has] this amazing ecosystem they have built across China," said Pratik Thakar, Coke's VP-Asia Pacific for creative and content excellence. "I see them as a more efficient system, as a kind of creative collective rather than a creative agency. They're like a studio with a lot of different resources available. … And I am not necessarily paying for all those resources."

Though prolific, the agency has only 21 full-time employees and five on a part-time or project basis. Its in-house creative, account, production and graphic design teams are bolstered by the shop's community of artists drawn from its social-network origins. In fact, NeochaEdge evolved into an agency as a means to pay for bandwidth for the network, which eventually grew to 100,000 members.

The initial idea was to sell ads for the site. "But it was a tough sell, a super-niche community of just artists in China," recalled Adam Schokora, the agency's American co-founder, CEO and exec creative director. "What a lot of media-buyer types were telling us was, 'You guys have this great community; you shouldn't be trying to sell ads, you should rather build a business model around a community that involves creating content.'"

The founders who stuck with the project -- Mr. Schokora, CY Ding and Sean Leow -- quit their day jobs, and the agency moved to its current home on a quiet Shanghai lane. Art by the collective's members fills the walls leading up the staircase to a terrace with a view of the city's former French Concession, where plane trees line the streets and laundry hangs out windows.

Over time the agency has witnessed a shift, with Western brands more interested in Chinese innovation, trends and youth culture.

"Five years ago, (young creative) talents were there and lingering, but it's just that they didn't have many opportunities to pursue it seriously," said Mr. Schokora, a 34-year-old former Edelman Digital employee who has lived in China over a decade. "Now because of that demand, there's a lot of those younger creatives who think, 'I can actually make a life out of this.' … Five or 10 years ago, most Chinese people thought of creative endeavors as hobbies or things you might want to do on the side … now that's starting to change, very fast."

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