The “Agency of the Future” is a well-worn subject, and typically viewed from a Western perspective. Given the ascent of China, which is still hurtling down the track to become the world’s largest economy, it’s due time to consider the topic from an eastern viewpoint. I asked Doug Schiff, Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy Beijing, and a colleague of mine during his BBDO days in the US, to comment on present differences and the future outlook for Chinese agencies.

Brandingmag: Before we talk about what the agency of the future will look like in China, please let me know how you define it today.

Doug Schiff: Basically, agency structures in China aren’t all that different from those in the States or Europe. There are a growing number of boutiques on one end, and there are whoppers like Ogilvy Beijing where I am on the other end. A place like Ogilvy offers everything from big branding pieces to customer engagement, CRM and e-commerce, to digital media groups to sports marketing to a branded entertainment group, all under one large roof. But if there is a difference between China agencies and those in the West, it exists when you look at local (as opposed to network) agencies, and their client relationships; you very often see cases where a kind of loyalty between local agency and client trumps distinctive work as a reason for a sustaining partnership. Kind of makes you scratch your head at times.

BM: In the past, arguably, international offices of agencies like yours,  headquartered in the US or Europe, have often followed the creative campaigns established by “lead agencies” in other countries.   Do you find that to still be true, and do you see it changing?

DS: I suppose places like China are on an evolutionary path. There’s the first stage where the agency opens an office in X country, either because they see opportunity or one of their biggest client asks them to. At that point in time, they’ll of course adapt work that teams close to the global client have developed. But as the market grows in stature, everyone realizes that often enough, the campaigns that work in the home market do so because they’re developed from insights unique to that market.

So then comes the stage of the watered down ‘global campaign’. Can’t you see the earnest planner with laser pointer taking you through the ‘basic human truths’ deck? Many clients never get out of this stage for various reasons.

But other clients, in a market big enough—like China—arrive at a stage where they write their own briefs based on a shared global brand message. Ogilvy calls it The Big IdeaL. (A play off of ‘big idea’ to describe the deep-down-under-it-all ‘ideal’ that a company really stands for—with the upper case ‘L’ making it own-able.)  This is happening more and more. And in some cases, when the China market is among the most important, you see global work originating here. That’s the case now with Chinese brands going international. We already see that from our clients Huawei and Lenovo. And it’s currently not at all uncommon for clients here to run their work at least across the region.

BM: What do you see as the biggest current differences between Chinese creative and that in the west?

 DS: In terms of creative, China still has a lot of catching up to do. It’s just not been exposed to as many years of marketing, of course.

So the assumptions advertisers take in the West, about their audience’s level of sophistication (read: cynicism), are vastly different than here in China. 

In the West, most advertisers understand you make a deal with an audience: you show them something entertaining, and in return they’ll pay attention to your clever end line or absurd visual long enough so that they’ll not easily clear it from their brains. It’s a very fair deal. But in China, advertisers don’t hold up their end of the bargain because they don’t realize their audience is as demanding as it truly is. So advertisers and their agencies here more often tend to follow a category formula rather than strive to break it.

BM: Are Chinese agencies structured similarly to western shops, with writer/art director teams reporting up through creative directors, who interface with account people who, in turn deal directly with the clients? If not, how does it work? (The audience for Brandingmag is primarily European and American, with a smattering of readers around the globe)

DS: Agencies in China are generally the same, except for the writer/art director teams usually come in groups of 5-8 people; meaning they often like to work in larger teams. It may be there’s less exposure to risk for each individual that way. Or it may be a holdover from their school days, when a group mentality is stronger than in the West.

BM: As technologies and cultures converge, do you see a convergence of skill sets going forward? For instance, in my recent interview with David Armano of Edelman Digital, he described a new ideal team as being  “creative director, planner and a really savvy social person,” all working very tightly together.  Do you see any reshuffling of such roles and skill sets ahead in China, too?

 DS: Social is at least as important here, so I second the social person’s inclusion. it’s also important to add the role of a content curator to the new team. Most teams would be wise to add a technologist as well.

We’re currently planning to reshape our teams to be more social, as well as more content and UX oriented.

BM: What do you see as the biggest trends shaping the future of Chinese agencies and creativity going forward?

DS: There was the move within multi-nationals to break off into individual silos a decade ago, which showcased the offerings of unique pockets of expertise. Then there was the move to integrated, through the coming together of those very silos. This was hard work, but has usually been successful when brand centric teams were put together. And now, we see more and more of the ex-agency start-ups (’boutique’ makes them sound bigger than they are), that offer nimble expertise for less, whether it’s social, consulting or even coding.

The future agency will likely be a talent pool of people with more varied experiences and talents, perhaps a combination of both East and West as well.