Greater China PR Consultancies of the Year 2017 | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2017 Greater China PR Consultancies of the Year

The 2017 Asia-Pacific PR Consultancies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 100 submissions and meetings with the best PR firms across the region. Consultancy of the Year winners are announced and honoured at the 2017 Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards, taking place on 14 September in Hong Kong. Analysis of all Finalists (and Winners from 15 September) can be accessed via the navigation menu or below:

Ogilvy PR (WPP)
With fee income estimated at more than $70m, Ogilvy PR remains the largest international PR consultancy in China, a position is has held with distinction for many years. The firm’s regional CEO Scott Kronick, of course, made his name in the market, and remains based in Beijing, surrounded by a handpicked leadership team that has, for the most part, remained in place for more than a decade. That kind of stability continues to pay off for Ogilvy PR in Greater China, where Kronick and China/Hong Kong president Debby Cheung oversee a network that includes offices in Hong Kong, Taipei, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and a new operation in Shenzhen, adding up to around 650 staffers, a little more than half of the network’s total Asia-Pacific headcount.

After double-digit growth in 2015, Ogilvy PR weathered tougher market conditions in admirable fashion, posting a mid-single-digit uptick and bringing in new business from Kingenta Ecological Engineering Group, Sony Music, Ziroom, PRC Ministry of Culture, British Council, Astra Zeneca China, VIPKID, Adidas, Magneo, RNG, Philips, Chunghwa Telecom, CITIC Guoan Wine. The firm’s reputation with large local players and outbound-focused government entities remains second to none, with a more recent assignment understood to include high-level support for the Xian Government’s efforts to promote itself as an international investment destination. Those new accounts join an existing client roster that includes Nestle, CFA, Ford, IBM, Amazon, Tencent, Huawei, Adidas and the Chengdu Government. 

But it is not just the agency’s scale that impresses in China. The work continues to demonstrate the kind of ‘next chapter’ thinking that has been in place for several years now, thanks to a 50-strong creative contingent and one of the strongest digital units in the market. In Hong Kong, for example, the firm’s musically-themed work Huawei helped it win over sceptical consumers, while a WWF campaign ultimately convinced the SAR government to announce a total ban on ivory sales. For Intel, meanwhile, a PC refresh effort in conjunction with World of Warcraft reversed years of decline and resulted in increased sales. 

Meanwhile, Ogilvy’s focus on upgrading its planning, products and services continues to bear fruit. It is worth noting that, while the broader group grapples with the challenges of becoming one agency, Ogilvy PR is already a central presence at Ogilvy China, evidenced by the senior roles held by Cheung (who oversees Shanghai) and Ogilvy & Mather Beijing president Selina Teng. — AS

Finalists

BlueFocus Digital (BlueFocus Communications Group)
Since its launch in 1996 (then known as Blue Focus PR), Oscar Zhao’s company has grown into the largest public relations consultancy in China and one of the top 10 public relations business in the world, with 2016 fee income (per our 2017 Top 250 ranking) of close to $270 million—up by 17% last year.

Today, BlueFocus Digital Marketing Agency is the main subsidiary of the BlueFocus Communication Group in China, employing 1,300 people and offering a unique blend of digital marketing and public relations services in China  across offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Xi’an. The firm is led by CEO Richard Jiao, supported by COO Stanley Xiao, chief strategy officer Yorf Guo, VP Bruce Zhu and SVP Donna Li. Key new hires last year included chief technology officer Su Zuan and Otype VP River Wu.

As such, it represents many of the country’s largest companies (Lenovo, Baidu, JD.com, Tencent, FAW-Volkswagen, Volvo, Canon, GAC Toyota and NETS) . New business over the past 12 months came from Bybo Dental Group, Ferrero, Nestle, WMF, China UnionPay, Chevron, L'Oréal, vivo, Lianjia and 5i5j.

That helped BlueFocus Digital grow its revenues by 8.9% in 2016, despite a challenging market that included many clients looking to optimise their marketing budget. In response, BlueFocus has a built a more modern purchasing and operation department, supported by upgraded client servicing capabilities. The firm has also stepped up its creative capabilities, because of the demands placed on its digital work. A central creative team is supported by investments across big data, artificial intelligence and cloud technology, reflecting BlueFocus shift towards digital CRM and social media marketing. 

High-profile work includes developing Infinit’s customer loyalty platform, a mobile effort that leveraged big data to optimise the carmaker’s marketing experience and led to a substantial increase in owners’ usage. For Baidu, meanwhile, BlueFocus supported the transformation of visual art into music via artificial intelligence, and also developed an AR-fuelled restoration campaign of nine city gates in old Beijing. — AS

MSL (Publicis Communications)
Having made three very different acquisitions in China—strategic communications consultancy Eastwei, events-driven company Luminous Experiential, and digital marketing and PR firm Genedigi—it has taken a while for MSL’s operations in Asia’s most dynamic market to mesh, but despite the fact that the latter two firms retain their original brands, it is becoming increasingly difficult for competitors to pretend that the Publicis-owned agency is not now a major player in the market, uniquely positioned to provide both top level strategic counsel and local market execution that includes 750 professionals in 11 Greater China offices.
 
Growth over the past 12 months reached 16% despite the economic downturn, along with further 24% expansion during the first half of 2017. Much of that was propelled by a stellar new business haul, which included Yili, Volkswagen, Allergan, Madame Tussauds, Hfax, BHP Billiton, UGG, JD.com and AB InBev in China; Taitra, Princess Cruises, Orient Europharma and Chungwha Telecom in Taiwan; and Swisse, Tiger, EA Mobile, Melco Crown Entertainment, Heineken, Marriott, China Mobile, Coca-Cola and Alibaba in Hong Kong. 

An increasing proportion of those assignments, meanwhile, featured integration with sibling firms, in line with the ‘Power of One’ philosophy that sees MSL sit within the Publicis Communications P&L. And the firm’s burgeoning digital capabilities continue to feature at the heart of its success, bolstered by an i3 planning methodology and investment in the high-profile Conversation2Commerce platform, which has already helped develop cutting-edge work for P&G. 

That was not the only campaign highlight for MSL in Greater China. For Heineken Hong Kong, the firm’s ‘Shape Your City’ effort created an illuminated tram bar that helped spur the market leader to a 17.3% sales uptick; the innovative Air Ink campaign for Tiger Beer, meanwhile, turned carbon-rich soot into useable ink; Whisper’s #LikeAGirl Butterfly initiative addressed the critical issue of puberty education for Chinese girls; and, Ikea’s ‘Find Your Extraordinary’ helped galvanise its Chinese workforce via an impressive employee engagement effort. 

The diversity of MSL’s leadership team is also worth noting, with key figures including China MD Daisy Zhu and Hong Kong GM Terence Yam, although the gender discrimination claim filed by former Greater China CEO Faith Brewitt cast a shadow over the firm’s efforts on this score. — AS

Red Bridge Communications (WE Communications)
Red Bridge’s rapid rise to prominence since its 2009 launch included winning this category last year, so it came as little surprise when the firm was snapped up by WE Communications in early 2017. And while ownership has changed, the qualities that have made Red Bridge such as unique force in the market are thankfully intact, under the able leadership of founder Penny Burgess, managing partner Nicky Wang and associate director Maho Saito. In particular, Red Bridge has established itself as something of a rarity in the China market — an independent agency that has demonstrated an ability to win big business without the sometimes cumbersome scale that is often required of the country’s most successful firms. 

Growth in 2016 again shone, with the firm up around 20% to almost RMB25m, drawn from 55 staffers in Shanghai that work across corporate and brand marketing. A profit margin of 31% attests to Red Bridge’s successful progression, as do a few other key stats — 100% client retention and an 84% new business conversion rate. The latter included new assignments for WeWork, Taylormade, BridgeClimb, Australian Fashion Week, Cartier, Lululemon, ROLI, Thomas Cook, Schroeders and University Technology Sydney, who join an existing roster that features Value Retail (China & Europe), Melia Hotels & Resorts, Forever 21, DFS, Ted Baker, Soneva Group, Bloom & Grow, UTS Insearch and Revolve.

That performance, of course, has come despite a slowdown in the market, with Red Bridge addressing this issue by reinforcing its integrated capabilities and focusing on premium brands that target China’s middle class. That includes a flair for healthier sectors such as outbound tourism, sports/wellness and corporate. Red Bridge also increased its training budget by 50% and developed a new integrated planning process, helping it to become the only Greater China agency shortlisted in our Best National Agency to Work For category last year.

Campaign highlights included Melia’s ‘365 days of travel’, which won over China travellers on a limited budget; the integrated ‘Ensemble in China’ campaign that helped Forever21 create a distinct brand positioning in China; and ‘Stylist in Residence’ for Value Retail Europe, another outbound tourism effort. Now backed by investment from WE Communications, it will be intriguing to see how Red Bridge develops its offering in the years to come. — AS

Weber Shandwick
 (IPG)
Weber Shandwick has posted impressive regional growth over the past three years and Greater China exerts a compelling influence over that expansion, with the sub-region accounting for 51% of regional revenues. More than a third comes from mainland China, where growth slid in line with a tougher market to around 7%, albeit during a year when Weber Shandwick attempted to reset its capabilities around a much clearer focus on digital and creative. The firm now has 510 people across offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong, with the latter market continuing to power ahead with another year of double-digit growth, making it one of the SAR’s biggest PR firms.

Under the leadership of chairman David Liu and president Darren Burns, China has established itself as a global innovation centre for Weber Shandwick, thanks in large part to the C3 platform that connects content to commerce. The firm has also developed an influencer management tool called Weber Shandwick Kloud Nework, and has worked hard to make inroads into integrated digital and creative assignments, hiring senior talent across analytics and creative. Accordingly, there was new business (plenty of it purely digital) from Massimmo Dutti, TAL, GSK, BYD, Hyatt, Royal Caribbean, Garett Popcorn Shops, Vanguard and Newell Rubbermaid, joining an existing client roster that features Mars, SGM/GM, Mercedes-Benz, Nike, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, Amazon and Amore. 

All of those efforts helped Weber Shandwick shoot up the R3 rankings for PR agency perceptions in the country, bolstered, no doubt, by some eye-catching campaigns for Nescafe Dolce Gusto (a successful social and ecommerce initiative); Ocean Spray (igniting awareness of cranberries and driving online sales by 50%); and, Abbott (focusing on parents dreams in Taiwan for nutritional supplement Ensure).

Meanwhile, under the leadership of Albert Shu, Hong Kong continued to motor along, growing 12% — its seventh consecutiveyxar of double-digit growth. New business included Facebook, Nasdaq, Tencent and Vanguard, while the firm retained Abbott, AXA, HK Jockey Club, MasterCard, Pfizer, Samsung and Wynn Resorts. — AS