So it may come as a surprise to learn the Australian has quietly transformed Nitro from a boutique creative shop headquartered in China into a small but global network covering five continents on the back of two global advertisers, Mars and Volvo.
Mr. Clarke, 39, a one-time employee of former Mars’ shop D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, founded the independent creative agency in Shanghai in 2002. His relationship with Mars, which put Mr. Clarke on track to create a global network, goes back more than a decade.
In the early ‘90s, at the age of 23, Mr. Clarke set up an agency in Australia called Pure Creative. Impressed with his work, Mars in 1994 asked him to open Pure Creative in mainland China. Pure Creative was sold to Bcom3 Group in 1999 and folded into D'Arcy and, after D'Arcy was dissolved, was renamed Leo Burnett. Nitro still handles a significant portion of Mars' business in Asia for brands like M&M's, Snickers and Dove, and is one of the agency’s top four accounts globally.
Mr. Clarke has come a long way since Shanghai, where Nitro works with Mars, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Unilever's Walls. Early offices in Hong Kong and Taipei, as well as back home in Melbourne and Sydney led to offices in the world’s two leading advertising centers, New York, where Mr. Clarke is now based, and London.
"I have a lot of respect for WPP and Omnicom, we are not trying to be like them," said Mr. Clarke. "What we are about is trying to create a new style network...a micro global network that has a unique product offering under one roof. Having innovation, through the line advertising (including digital) and branded entertainment as our mix in Nitro Group."
He quickly proved in New York that he can win business away from big agencies. In 2004, he got Mars' confectionery brand Twix in the U.S. at the expense of WPP Group’s Grey Group. The following year, the agency picked up more Mars brands, such as the Dove line of premium-priced chocolate products.
Now, riding on the expansion of another global client, Sweden's Volvo Car Corp., a global account won by Nitro in April 2007, the agency is heading to Japan. It has formed a partnership with Ad-Comm, a Tokyo agency founded two decades ago by Andreas Dannenberg.
Nitro has a global relationship with Volvo as the car maker's lead creative agency. At the country level, the automaker traditionally works with Euro RSCG and Arnold Worldwide but Nitro is slowly replacing the Havas agencies at the local level too. Besides Japan, Nitro works with Volvo in the U.K., Japan, China and North America.
Nitro talked to potential partners in Japan, but felt Ad-Comm was “head and shoulders above” the other local agencies, said Will Davidson, Nitro’s group operations director in London. He was one of Nitro's first employees and established the agency’s operation in Australia. He is now responsible for the finances and operations of all Nitro offices around the world.
Ad-Comm works with multinational marketers such as Porsche, Renault and BMW in Japan, where client conflict is rarely considered an issue. Other clients include Hilton, Oracle, Heineken and Austrian Airlines. Nitro has no equity in the Tokyo office that’s being set up to work with Volvo, and no Nitro staff will move to Tokyo permanently at this stage.
The Tokyo office will only handle Volvo in Japan for now, but Nitro is talking about Japan with its three other top clients--Mars, Nike and Foot Locker, an American sportswear and footwear retailer that has already expanded into Europe. Nitro also works with Kraft in the U.S. and Australia.
Mr. Dannenberg, a German who moved to Japan 24 years ago, has “great multinational experience” combined with 20 years in Japan. “That was fundamental to us, said Mr. Davidson. “We definitely acknowledge that we needed to go into Japan in a different way. We never felt we’d be able to set up organically in Japan. That’s why it’s a different strategy compared to what we’re doing in Moscow.”
In Russia, Nitro is setting up a wholly-owned start up in Moscow this month, working with several Mars brands. It is also negotiating to acquire a creative agency in Brazil, its first stop in South America. Excluding Japan and Brazil, Nitro has about 400 staff around the world. Including the partnerships in those two markets, its staff headcount rises to 600.
“The plan is to continue our growth in France, Germany, Dubai and India,” said Mr. Davidson. “That’s on our radar for the rest of this year. Nitro is still a challenger agency. Global brands are coming to us as an alternative to the larger networks.”
Other appointment news in Greater China
[beijing] The Beijing-based Chinese-language internet search provider, Baidu.com, has appointed Peng Ye as chief operating officer, starting April 25. Previously, he was Apple Computer’s general manager, China. Baidu’s last COO, David Zhu, resigned in April 2007 for personal reasons.
[shanghai] JWT has appointed Elvis Chau as senior creative director in charge of the WPP Group agency’s Ford Motor Co. business in China. Previously, he was creative director of TBWA Worldwide, Shanghai. At JWT, he has reunited with Yang Yeo, who joined the agency late last year as chief creative officer, China from TBWA, where he was group exec creative director, China.
[hong kong] The Walt Disney Co. has promoted Hong Kong-based Anna Woo to VP, business operations and finance of the Disney Channel and Disney-ABC International Television in Asia/Pacific, responsible for the commercial strategies, business operations and financial planning for all of the company’s television business in the region. Previously, she was VP, finance and operations, Asia/Pacific at Disney-ABC International Television.