MONTREAL--As a part-time novelist seeking a lifestyle that allows plenty of time for writing, Leon Berger is an unlikely figure to run an ad agency in China’s fast-paced advertising world. Especially because he lives in Montreal. But Mr. Berger, 58, runs one of China’s top independent shops, offering western expertise combined with close Chinese connections in a nimble environment.
As president of Oriental and Rende, known as O&R, he is the agency’s guiding force, leading major agency projects and mentoring its 200-strong staff, such as its exec creative director, Leo Leow and Dong Xiao Rang, a journalist who heads the public relations division.
Since Mr. Berger joined O&R in 2003, the agency has helped Volkswagen build Jetta into one of China’s top-selling cars and created the launch campaign for the the VW Caddy in the mainland, one of the most competitive car markets in the world. Both models are produced locally by VW’s joint venture with First Automobile Works (FAW), China's first car manufacturer. VW was the largest carmaker in China for two decades, until General Motors Corp. edged it out last year, and China is still its second-largest market worldwide after Germany.
The agency recently won a pitch against Ogilvy & Mather and Lintas, a joint venture in China owned by Guangming Daily Group and Interpublic Group of Cos., to create the launch campaign for FAW-VW’s Magotan sedan, which will go on sale in China this year.
O&R also works with the Chinese sportswear manufacturer and retailer 361°, with 4,500 stores in mainland China, Microsoft Corp., Bayer, DaimlerChrysler’s Mercedes-Benz division and General Electric Co.
The private company does not release financial information, but Mr. Berger said O&R has grown 500% since 2003, with offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shenyang, and Changchun, and there are plans to open an office in Shanghai.
Mr. Berger has largely overseen the agency’s expansion from his home in Montreal, communicating with staff by phone, e-mail and frequent visits. One major reason for staying in Montreal is his long-time partner, who operates a brand consultancy there.
The unusual setup works partly because he’s spared the day-to-day management chores at O&R’s headquarters in Beijing. The agency’s owner and CEO, Liu Qilan, oversees the administrative details, while day-to-day operations are handled by Sun Lei, VP-general manager.
“How do I manage? I don't do administration, finance, or recruiting,” he said. “I don't even supervise the smaller projects like test drives or event planning because these are ‘doing’ jobs, not ‘thinking’ jobs, and the agency is perfectly capable of handling that bread-and-butter stuff on its own.”
He also travels to China up to eight times each year for stints lasting two-to-six weeks to lead the major projects.
“Leon has great listening skills [and] is very focused,” said Louis-Eric Vallée, president of Saint-Jacques Vallée Young & Rubicam in Montreal. “He’s an excellent problem solver, is very inspirational and has the great ability to detect talent.”
Mr. Berger began his career as a creative in London but soon moved to Montreal, working at agencies such as O&M, JWT and finally Y&R. That agency moved him first to New York as international creative director with worldwide responsibility for Colgate-Palmolive in 60 countries and then to Singapore as senior VP and exec creative director, Asia/Pacific at its Asian joint venture Dentsu Young & Rubicam.
Back in Montreal, he headed creative and strategy at Marketel McCann-Erickson while writing novels such as Globo Sapiens: Fiction for a Business Class Lounge and Tabloid Trash: A Murder Mystery.
In 2003, a friend introduced him to O&R’s founder, Ms. Liu. She was searching for a senior advertising executive who understood the communications business and had experience in China, to bring fresh ideas and experience into her agency.
After getting to know Ms. Liu, whose well-connected family also operates businesses in real estate and toy manufacturing, he agreed to give a one-week seminar to O&R about modern marketing communications.
“When I arrived, I found it was a bunch of juniors in what was basically a brochure design shop who'd managed to land a piece of car business and had no idea what to do with it,” he recalled. “I decided to make the seminar of practical use by focusing not on vague theory but on the car itself.”
Over the week, he sent staff out into the streets of Beijing to do consumer interviews, take videos, brainstorm about the car’s core values and develop a brand strategy. He was then invited back to lead the first major client session for the car, and since then, he has led every major presentation and major new business pitch.
“In China, trust and personal commitment are extremely important,” he said. “My task is to lead the work. Although we have department heads in each field, as president, I have final responsibility for everything.”
Other people news in Greater China
[shanghai] Coca-Cola Co. has relocated Jean Francois DeKimpe to Shanghai as VP-marketing for China. Coke has been without a marketing director in the mainland since January 2007, when Mr. DeKimpe's predecessor, Ilan Sobel, resigned as general manager, strategic marketing & innovation for personal reasons.
Previously, Mr. DeKimpe held the marketing leadership role for the Mediterranean and southeastern Europe for Coke, based in Athens, Greece. From 2000 to 2003, he was new products director for its South Latin division based in Santiago, Chile. Before he joined Coke 11 years ago, he spent a decade at Procter & Gamble Co.