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The China syndrome: the little agency that could

Quick question: what local ad agency has a client with sales volume of 1.5 million motorbikes a year, 2,000 competitors and 6,000 retail outlets? Step forward Grey Worldwide
The China syndrome feature

Idealog July/August 2006, page 60. Picture by Tony Brownjohn

Quick question: what local ad agency has a client with sales volume of 1.5 million motorbikes a year, 2,000 competitors and 6,000 retail outlets? Step forward Grey Worldwide

For the past three years Grey has been running the creative campaign for Haojue Suzuki, one of China’s leading motorcycle brands, out of its Auckland office. In fact, it was only in January that creative director Todd McCracken made the move to the network’s Kuala Lumpur office to lead the Asia–Pacific creative team.

Peter Darroch sparked the drive for global business when he returned to head the business in early 2002 from New York, where he’d been running global accounts for Rapp Collins. Local work was not enough; Darroch saw no reason why his Auckland agency couldn’t compete in the global market. At the same time, Angela Chung, head of Guangzhou agency Itec, was determined that her agency could carve a niche building Chinese brands and taking them to a global market.

“Until then Chinese advertising was about multinational agencies bringing multinational brands to China,” says Darroch. “Angela has ‘brand globalisation’ on her card, and she means it.” Chung realised she needed international expertise, but such skills just didn’t exist in China’s emerging advertising market. Because of her Australian business education she focussed her search in Australasia. Darroch and team hit it off with Chung and flew to China to take the brief, meet the client and find the core essence of the brand. Strategic planner David Thomason ran intense focus groups, McCracken’s creative team got to grips with positioning, and the campaign was sold.

But why did Chung choose a New Zealand agency? Darroch modestly points out that Kiwis are known for their humility, their willingness to forgo hierarchy and their avoidance of business-speak waffle.

“We didn’t come in as the consultant on the white horse—we had a lot to learn about pitching to Chinese,” he says. “But we could be quite insightful and tell it like it is because we’d first established a relationship.” It helped too that the client’s business was focussed on achieving a quality ‘Japanese standard’ and prepared to be unashamedly Chinese, not me-too. Darroch fondly recounts his favourite campaign, geared at sophisticated urban women, where a model selects her scooter from a wardrobe of accessories, an image that could work in any city of the world, shot by world-renowned director Mr Feng.

“We loved it. They were great to work with, the food was superb and they were delighted at the relationship,” says Darroch. More importantly, the campaign helped position Haojue Suzuki brand as China’s bestseller, claiming some 15% of the market and whittling away the me-too competition to 35 quality brands. Now Grey’s Auckland office is working with other companies such as Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group, keen for the same Kiwi style of international brand building.