China's Women to Watch

R3's Sabrina Lee is Jean-Yves Naouri's 'Secret Weapon' in Beijing

General Manager Is Helping Publicis Groupe Expand Its Network in China With a Long Line of Acquisitions

By Published on .

When Global Chief Operating Officer Jean-Yves Naouri told Publicis Groupe investors two years ago that he would double the company's revenue in China by 2013, he knew organic growth alone wouldn't meet their high expectations.

So he found a "secret weapon" in Sabrina Lee, general manager of agency consulting at marketing consultancy R3. Ms. Lee helped Publicis expand its network in China with a long line of acquisitions, including Gomye, Wangfan, Genedigi, Dreams, Interactive Communications and Eastwei Relations.

Sabrina Lee
Sabrina Lee

"[Ms. Lee] helped me better understand the Chinese market," Mr. Naouri said. "She is extremely well-connected and respected and has managed to become a confidante for the principals in the companies we have met with.

"She has great skill at developing an atmosphere in which people become confident enough to share openly their hopes, expectations and areas of concern, which is critical to be successful in this field," he said.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Beijing, Ms. Lee left a "safe" marketing job at Ernst & Young to start her own agency at age 24. The shop, Palos, worked with brands such as BMW and McDonald's and had 42 employees by the time she left to run Dentsu's Lexus account in China.

Ms. Lee said having her own firm "made me realize that above all, agencies had to deliver brilliant work at 'China speed' for clients. China's marketers are the most demanding in the world."

She joined indie R3 in early 2010 as it was starting an M&A division to help global groups get closer to Chinese agencies.

  In the past 12 months, R3 said it has helped complete 10 agency acquisitions in China for Publicis, Omnicom Group, Engine and NextFifteen, as well as some local agencies. That represents around 75% of all acquisitions in the market, R3 estimates. Many, such as Genedigi, have been significant investments for global holding companies eager to expand in emerging markets like China to offset slower growth in developed markets.

Ms. Lee's matchmaking skills are likely to remain in demand. She has met about 1,000 local companies over the past three years at R3, but estimates there are more than 140,000 more she hasn't met -- yet.

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