How China's Tech Giants Are Luring Big Hires from Western Companies

Latest Example: ZenithOptimedia's China President Heads to Tencent

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Internet giant Tencent just hired prominent media agency executive Steven Chang.
Internet giant Tencent just hired prominent media agency executive Steven Chang.

Lately, China's tech and internet behemoths have been attracting big-league talents from Western companies, another sign of their growing global ambition and clout.

A former Google pioneer on artificial intelligence joined Chinese search engine Baidu, as did a top Microsoft China executive. A PepsiCo exec left for e-commerce giant Alibaba.

The latest to make the switch comes from the ad world and is one of the most respected China-based media agency talents. Steven Chang has traded his job as president of Publicis Groupe's' ZenithOptimedia Greater China for a new post as corporate VP for online media advertising sales at Tencent, the Chinese internet giant said Thursday.

Hong Kong-born Mr. Chang will work on a range of Tencent products, including an internet portal, news offerings, a microblogging service and a video platform. (His portfolio does not include Tencent's hot social mobile app WeChat or messaging platform QQ.)

Greg Paull, Hong Kong-based principal of agency-management consultancy R3 Worldwide, said the hire shows how "Chinese digital companies want to embrace global best practices." He added that Mr. Chang is "one of a very small handful of top media practitioners" who will be a valued asset at Tencent.

In the U.S., technology giants like Google and Apple have been raiding leading marketers and ad agencies to acquire marketing and creative expertise. It's a little different in China, where the big Chinese internet companies are advertising savvy, but have a strong need for high-level, global talent.

But why would top talent from Western companies be attracted to the tech sector in China -- a country whose government carefully controls what internet users can access, blocking Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter?

For starters, the reach of Chinese tech giants is huge. A chart making the rounds on Twitter is labeled "World Populations." It lists the biggest, starting with China, India, Facebook and then Tencent at No. 4. The Hong Kong-listed company's products have around one billion users. Its market capitalization isn't far from Amazon's, and it's much higher than that of eBay, Yahoo or Netflix. And though Chinese companies haven't traditionally paid as much as Western ones, they can afford to hire top caliber global talent.

Steven Chang
Steven Chang

Most importantly, although some Chinese internet and tech giants started out by copying Western models, they have evolved into innovators in their own right. And joining a fast-changing Chinese company can be an exciting, out-of-the-box career move.

Baidu, which has a research center in Silicon Valley, has made strides in visual search, and it's working with BMW on driverless car technologies. Alibaba, which just set a record with its $25 billion initial public offering in New York, created an online payment system where credit cards aren't necessary. It also launched the world's biggest online shopping day, when 21% of purchases were made on mobile devices last year.

As for Tencent, many Westerners who use WeChat say the user experience is smoother and offers more functionality than Facebook, and the company also offers a whopping 10 terabytes of free cloud storage, compared to just two gigabytes from, say, DropBox.

At Tencent, Mr. Chang will report to SY Lau, senior executive VP. A former CEO of BBDO China, Mr. Lau made the jump to Tencent way back in 2006 – well ahead of the current wave.

Here's a look at some other executives who have joined Chinese internet giants:

Hugo Barra, a high-profile Google Android executive, traded Silicon Valley for Beijing last year to become the global VP for Xiaomi, the Chinese startup that has become the world's fifth-largest maker of smartphones just four years after it was founded. (The company's global marketing director, Amanda Chen, joined from Yahoo in Taiwan.)

Artificial intelligence pioneer Andrew Ng, a Stanford professor and founder of the Google Brain project, joined Baidu several months ago to become its chief scientist. Soon afterward, Zhang Yaqin was named Baidu's president for new business, after leaving his job as a top executive for Microsoft China, which is battling an anti-monopoly investigation here.

Jim Wilkinson was hired by Alibaba in May to head up international corporate affairs. He joined from PepsiCo, where he was executive VP-Communications; before that, he also worked for Brunswick Group and was chief of staff for former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

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