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How Leo Burnett Looks to Stay Ahead in a Fast-Moving China

Leo Burnett Shanghai Director of Client Service Matthew Cheng on being fast, insightful and action-oriented to help brands catch up with consumers

Leo Burnett China kicked off 2016 in style with the announcements of two new business wins and a high-profile campaign for CCTV, the state television broadcaster’s annual Spring Festival celebrations.

With about 200 employees in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Leo Burnett China boasts a robust client roster that includes Baidu, China Mobile, McDonald’s, Pfizer, P&G, Uni President, Yili and others.

We had a quick chat with the Shanghai office’s director of client service, Matthew Cheng, to learn more about the region and how the agency is helping brands tap into consumer needs and wants.

Leo Burnett China is on a roll — two new major business wins (Huawei EBG and China Mobile “And”) in the first month of 2016. What do you think were the reasons behind those successes?
There are always a number of factors involved in winning business pitches, but I believe there were two key elements to our winning both these accounts:

Our understanding of the Chinese consumer. We know how to convey the benefits of products such as those of China Mobile “And,” in terms that resonate with consumers and address their needs.

For Huawei, our understanding of technology was a real plus. And also our understanding of the customer, which in this case, is other businesses. We have a deep grasp of B2B communications and how to craft messages that work successfully in this vital space.

We pride ourselves on not just being an agency partner, but a genuine business partner by providing a broad range of brand consultancy and business services across the communication field for all our clients.

What are major brands looking to accomplish with their creative partners?
Brands are looking for original thinking and communications expertise across the entire spectrum of today’s constantly evolving media platforms.

Clients need ideas that deliver maximum communications clout and results for every dollar they spend. Of course, clients have always wanted results, but today the media mix is far more complex, so the creative ideas need to be more sophisticated, more targetable and more flexible.

Even major corporations are finding they can’t handle this alone and, increasingly, they are looking for real business partners who understand their products, their brands and their customers to a far greater degree than ever before.

What do you think is the national sentiment influencing Chinese consumers in 2016?
This is an interesting question. And there are national swings that do influence sentiment throughout the nation. But often they don't last long. For example, during the Olympic Games, there was a great feeling of national pride in being the host and in the performance of the national team. This was a rather obvious sentiment at the time, but for marketers, the swings in consumer moods can be much more subtle at first and yet very powerful. We pride ourselves on being very close to the ground and being able to spot these early.

How do brands tap into these swings?
We tailor make advertising and communication programs that tap into these trends and relate them to our clients’ products and brands. For example, during the Olympics, there was great warmth toward the virtues of sportsmanship and a sense of oneness with the world. These are universal values that almost every brand can relate to in a positive way. However, tapping into nationalistic fervor is something that has to be handled with great sensitivity and understanding.

What are some of the industry trends in 2016 that you’re excited about?
The growth of digital spending in the overall marketing budget of many China clients is maturing. And this could be a challenge for some agencies with more specialized offerings.

Recent research suggests that clients are leaning back toward one-stop integrated agencies that offer them greater flexibility in maximizing their budgets. Whether this will be a big shift in 2016, however, remains to be seen.

Retail, pharmaceutical and technology have been traditionally high-spending categories.

Do you see a shift in opportunities for Leo Burnett in terms of foreign-based vs. China-based clients? And what are Leo Burnett’s greatest strengths in the China market?
To be honest I don't see a shift. I think Leo Burnett has always been in a good position to address both groups. With our international background and understanding of the local China market, we are a perfect fit for foreign-based clients. At the same time, these qualities also make us very appealing to China-based clients, particularly to those with both local and overseas markets. In many ways we offer a cultural, intellectual, creative and business bridge for clients into areas they themselves may feel they need extra support in. This is what I mean by being a genuine business partner.

In addition to our core areas of expertise in mass communications and our understanding of the local consumer, we have the capacity to react extremely quickly to address the fast-changing China market.

Although we have substantial resources, we have remained very light on our feet and flexible. Both consumers and clients are changing every day, and our team is very good at unraveling these changes and finding insightful communications solutions to match them. In this regard, I think I would say being, fast, insightful and action-oriented are our key strengths.

Matthew Cheng is the business lead on the agency’s Huawei EBG account. With more than 14 years of industry experience, Matthew has also worked in the agency’s Guangzhou and Hong Kong offices. He has won numerous awards for his work including Gold and Silver Effies. In his spare time, Matthew practices martial arts.