To succeed in China, foreign agencies must adapt to a lot; speed might be the biggest challenge. One client asked FF Shanghai to put together a Mother's Day campaign in a week—seven days from brief to idea to execution. The campaign was for Didi Kuaidi, the Uber-like car service backed by Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba.
The agency's solution: Drivers in 500 cars offered passengers free rides if they changed course and surprised their moms with a visit. Hidden cameras recorded what happened next, and the agency cut a sweet short film for social media. (Filial piety is apparently still going strong: Most passengers took Didi Kuadi's offer.)
That campaign moved quickly, even by Chinese standards, but it's an example of a challenge a brand might lob at an agency here. And it shows how FF has embraced China and all its particularities in the three and a half years since opening in Shanghai. Besides adapting to China's energy and culture, that means working with country-specific platforms and understanding consumers' advanced mobile habits.
Take WeChat, the all-powerful mobile app from Tencent that is the envy of Silicon Valley. People in China use it to communicate, but also to buy airplane tickets, book massages, shop and pay their electric bills.
"In our field, China is becoming a laboratory for tomorrow's digital. China's digital is five years ahead," said Frédéric Raillard, who launched the agency in Paris in 2007 with longtime creative partner Farid Mokart. (Fred & Farid Group now uses the name FF Group.)
Mr. Raillard fell in love with China during a visit; he moved to Shanghai with his wife and three children in 2012 and set up the local office with longtime FF Paris creative Feng Huang, who grew up in China and has been central to the agency's success.
In 2015, FF's third full year of operations in Shanghai, China revenues were up 38% from the year earlier. (Vivendi Chairman Vincent Bolloré personally owns a 30% stake in FF Group that is unconnected to his stake in Havas; the two founders own the rest.) The agency has a staff of 130 in a converted warehouse overlooking the Shanghai skyline.
Immersion in a challenging new landscape has inspired a burst of creative energy for the independent shop, with campaigns blending the agency's French irreverence and luxe touch with Chinese digital savvy.
For Me&City, a local clothing brand, it posed models on Shanghai streets and made sure they showed up on the Tencent platform that is the local answer to Google Streetview.
For HP, it created a funny online mini-sitcom that lampooned the Chinese industry of online influencers paid handsomely to promote brands. That honesty resonated with millennials, and the series had more than 15 million views.
Emily Ketchen, regional head of marketing services for HP's printing and personal systems group in Asia-Pacific and Japan, was impressed by the agency's deep understanding of the market and fresh, quick way of looking at business problems. "Working with that level of creativity and sharing ideas back and forth was refreshing—there's no arrogance in working with them," she said.
Other clients have included local powerhouses Tencent and state-run TV network CCTV, for which the agency did a public service spot for the Lunar New Year's gala, a program that gets six times the views of the Super Bowl.
FF is also taking on new challenges: The agency just won a contract with Audi to conceive innovations in China. At the group level, it has a fund for investing in startups. Bolstered by success in China, it set up a five-person New York outpost.
Even amid success, business is hard work in China, where agency-of-record relationships are scarce and pricing is lower. For FF Shanghai, projects outnumber retainer work by a ratio of 3-to-1. Since 2012, the agency has worked with 80 clients. Pitches are constant.
"The whole industry is moving to project-based anyway, so we need to adapt to that," Mr. Raillard said. To ensure finances are on track, the agency has a business review every Monday to talk numbers. Mr. Raillard takes martial arts classes before work to get into the fighting spirit.
Those challenges are part of adapting to China. Mr. Raillard believes success in the market comes only to people who sincerely love it here. That should be the main criteria when recruiting foreigners for jobs, he said. "I know it's not rational. But if you don't love it, how can you embrace it—how can you embrace such fundamental changes in your behavior?"