SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- Every western agency entering China faces enormous challenges, whether it's working with local companies or finding good staff or keeping up with the rapid pace of change.
But Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Ad Age China's Agency of the Year for 2009, was the first international network to take on China by itself.
Until January 2006, agencies had to operate in the mainland through joint-ventures with local companies.
After wading through red tape for most of that year, BBH became the first significant international advertising network to open a wholly-owned office in the mainland at the end of 2006.
It was a risky move, said Arto Hampartsoumian, BBH's CEO, China who was lured from Wieden + Kennedy, Tokyo to open the Shanghai office.
"China needed another agency like a hole in the head," he said.
"We had to prove what was unique about BBH, that we share the same values that made BBH great elsewhere but also we understand the Chinese market."
Revenue up 74% last year
BBH's gamble to fly solo in China has paid off. With just 51 staff today (up from 36 in January 2009), the Shanghai office picked up over $29 million in new business last year, according to the independent marketing consultancy R3, and grew revenue by 74%.
The agency has earned widespread praise from industry watchers like Greg Paull, a principal at R3 in Beijing, who describes BBH as "the only [agency in China] doing truly breakthrough work."
BBH China managed to "move beyond niche and tackle some big accounts like Coke's dairy [products] and Minute Maid, as well as [Unilever's Surf] washing powder," said P.T. Black, a partner at the marketing consultancy Jigsaw in Shanghai. "They even made Chupa Chups cool."
Clients credit their loyalty to the hands-on management style of BBH's senior leaders in Shanghai, a talented creative team and top-notch planning capabilities.
"There are no weak links," said Linda Kovarik, Coke's Hong Kong-based chief creative officer for Asia.
"They digest what we have to say, push back intelligently and are passionate....enough to get cranky," Ms. Kovarik said enthusiastically. "Arto [Hampartsoumian] and I have had calls at 11pm yelling at each other, talking through both sides of an issue. I love that."
That healthy dialog helped Coke launch Minute Maid Pulpy, a drink tailor-made for China, in 2009.
Knowing Tropicana was about to launch its own rival added-pulp orange juice in China, BBH focused on the sensations created by drinking Minute Maid Pulpy with an innovative TV and digital campaign.
To create buzz, consumers were invited to share rituals associated with consuming the drink.
Ninety-four million Chinese viewed the television commercials and viral videos online, 54 million visited the web site and 617,000 submitted their own ritual to the site.
Shanghai creative running worldwide
Strong sales of Minute Maid Pulpy in China encouraged Coke to introduce the drink in other Asian market such as India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.
The U.S. beverage giant also called on BBH to develop launch campaigns for new tea brands introduced across Asia by Beverage Partners Worldwide, a joint venture between Coke and Nestle.
The Shanghai office leads the network's global LG Mobile business, for example, and creative work for the Perfetti Van Melle brand Mentos is running in Italy, Brazil and eastern Europe.
"Almost 70% of the work we produce is for outside of China," Mr. Hampartsoumian said. "I believe we are one of the few if not [the] only agency in China that exports more creative work then we develop solely for China, and we do not import or adapt any global or regional work into China."
Johnnie Walker is now in striking distance of Chivas
Diageo is another pillar of BBH's client base in China, where the whisky brand Johnnie Walker was forced to play catch-up to Chivas.
The Pernod Ricard brand entered China in 2001, long before Diageo was actively marketing Johnnie Walker. Chivas was the undisputed sales leader, had broader distribution, and a highly successful 'lifestyle' campaign, 'The Chivas Life.'
While Chivas Regal was aligned to progress, consumers thought Johnnie Walker was low energy, too serious and a little boring, hardly the kind of image a challenger brand needed to leapfrog the leader.
To create a bond between Johnnie Walker and trendsetting young Chinese men, BBH created an online branded film series entitled "The Pact," a initiative it extended in late 2009. (Watch an episode of the series on Youku.com.)
The series has put its market share within striking distance of Chivas Regal, said Vivek Rampal, Diageo's category director, Asia/Pacific in Singapore, and "sharply improved the brand equity attributes in the markets we have launched in. [The campaign] has now been extended into 2010 with two new episodes launched seven weeks ago in China."
Unilever turned to BBH to help relaunch Lux Ideal Oriental, a variant of the Lux haircare product line only sold in China and Taiwan.
The campaign strategy took a page out of Chinese history by using the visual metaphor of a crimson peony, China's national flower, as a symbol of modern Chinese beauty. Unilever tapped into the psyches of its target audience, dubbed the Peony Generation.
"In China, BBH stands out for its extremely strong planning capability, genuine Chinese insights that result in work that's relevant for China. They are very committed to durable creative ideas," said Alan Jope, Unilever's CEO, Greater China in Shanghai.
BBH China "is not a big agency," Mr. Hampartsoumian admitted. But his shop benefits from network's focus on strategy. "BBH is famous for planning globally and that has continued in China, which is why good work comes out of our office. It makes us more fleet-of-foot compared to bigger western networks."
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