Ex-Grey exec launches global Chinese ad agency

WE has alliances with local players and Worldwide Partners

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XIAN--Ad industry execs who turned up in Xian late last month for the 12th annual Chinese advertising festival witnessed more than the usual seminars and networking dinners. A dozen of China’s most prominent local agency founders dropped a bombshell at a press conference packed with industry leaders and government officials.

The entrepreneurs--all powerhouses in their respective provincial markets and industry specialties--unveiled an ambitious plan to pool their resources, expertise and client relationships into an alliance, WE Worldwide Partners. (WE stands for “East meets West.” Chinese script is read right to left, so the order of the letters equals the symbolic meaning of the English word.)

Viveca Chan, chairman of WE Worldwide Partners and the leader behind the initiative, hopes the alliance will help them compete more effectively against the increasing number of foreign-owned ad agencies muscling into China. Ms. Chan is best known as the former CEO, Greater China of Grey Global Group, a position she left earlier this year after 23 years with Grey.

Chinese companies go global
It also aims to help Chinese marketers develop strong brands overseas through another alliance: WE Worldwide Partners is now the Chinese representative of Worldwide Partners Network, a Dever-based community of independent ad agencies all over the world.

“We have an internationally-experienced team with Chinese roots, with our eyes on the world,” Ms. Chan told AdAgeChina in Xian. “Chinese clients are going global quicker than you think. Our dream is to combine our international experience with national pride. But we can’t do it by ourselves, as an independent starting from scratch.”

One of the prominent players backing the agency alliance is Dahe Group, a prominent outdoor media production house based in Nanjing that was the first Chinese media company to be listed on Hong Kong’s stock exchange.

“I foresee the platform is a very efficient way to bring in expertise to help Chinese companies and I am very willing to share my experience to support Viveca and her network she is building,” said Cassian Cheung, a consultant to WE Worldwide Partners who has held senior positions at multinationals in China like Wal-Mart Stores and Nestle.

“A large factor in the creation of WE is the fact that [through China’s WTO agreement] foreign agencies will be able to operate independently in China starting next year,” said Dahe’s director, Charlie He.

“We don’t want to see what happened in Taiwan happen here,” he said, referring to the lack of strong local agencies in that neighboring country.

Other agencies who joined WE Worldwide Partners include Black Horse, a strong creative shop in Guangzhou; APEX, the Chengdu-based professional event organizer behind this year’s phenomenally-successful Super Girl reality TV show; SheerOne ad agency in Beijing and a Nanjing-based brand consultancy and beer marketing specialist Meiko; and WE Marketing Group.

WE staffed by ex-Grey managers
That last agency is also the brainchild of Ms. Chan, although she will not hold the post of Group CEO for 18 months, because of a non-compete clause with Grey Global Group.

Even so, the energetic Hong Kong native said the new venture fulfills a longtime dream to start her own agency and help create the first global Chinese-run agency network. “We see a gap in the market for a third force, between the international ad agencies that find it hard to retain top talent and to develop local market understanding and big Chinese agencies that lack scale, a global network and international experience.”

WE Marketing Group opened in early October with a battery of ex-Grey managers, such as Kenny Wong and Sam Chung, the WPP Group agency’s former managing director and exec creative director, respectively, in Shanghai, Grey’s ex-Beijing Managing Director Josh Li and in Hong Kong, two former client service directors, Iris Chan and Keith Chan (no relation to each other or Viveca Chan).

WE Marketing Group is owned by WE Group, the company’s mostly ex-Grey senior executives, Dahe Group (of which Ms. Chan is a director) and individual overseas investors. Ms. Chan does not own shares in WE Marketing Group but does provide guidance in new business development and investments.

The agency has 60 staff in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing and plans to hire at least 40 more people by early next year. WE’s founding clients include Global Sources, a major Chinese manufacturing BtoB firm, several real estate developers lin Shanghai and Hong Kong drugstore chain Mannings.

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