The China Connection

In this candid Q&A, Brendan Tansey shares his journey from his days at an agency startup to his current role: CEO at Havas Digital, Greater China. As Tansey notes, the fledgling days of digital have given way to social integration. Here, he shares why China proved to be such an attractive opportunity for a marketer.


The Mag: Tell us about your background.

I was hired as a grad into Ogilvy by the number six employee at Ogilvy globally: Michael Ball. He was a real madman who started Ogilvy Canada, UK, and APAC. When Michael started his own agency, the Ball Partnership, he took me with him. He sold the Ball Partnership to Euro RSCG, and I found myself an employee in 1991.

You founded your own digital agency in 1995, right at the infancy of the digital era. How has the industry—and how have you has a marketer—evolved since then?

It was so different then. First, there were few—or zero—marketing departments set up to cope with digital, outside of dot coms. It was exciting because none of the rules had been written, yet. Every time we did something, it was the first time. Also, there were no experienced people to hire, so we had to find talents from other industries and other disciplines.

Are we in a post-digital world now?

We definitely are. For me the next big frontier is truly tight social integration. It’s one of the reasons I came to China, because I truly believe China is at the forefront of this, and WeChat is the driver.

What are you aiming to achieve at Havas Digital?

I came to China four years ago and looked at the market before beginning our digital startup. It occurred to me that there were already many capable local digital agencies expert in the core pillars of search, social, and e-commerce, but few that could guide clients about how to integrate across the three or connect the dots back to ATL spend. And production is a commodity here more than anywhere. So we set about building a consulting led approach built on real insight and strategic guidance for clients. Many foreign brands are flummoxed by China. And most marketing departments here can not integrate across those three pillars or back to ATL. We have built our offer on this, which drives top level client engagement and higher margins.

Why is China winning the FinTech revolution?

FinTech is often driven by CRM. In China, paper-based mail is lightly used, and email is fraught because of historical spamming. So CRM has become a socially driven tool in China. Enterprise tool behind WeChat power customer dialogue and call center management.

Looking at Uber’s failure to crack the Chinese market, do businesses have to choose between China and the rest of the world? What did Uber get wrong?

Well Uber didn’t exactly lose; it got 17% of of DiDi, which will own the market. I think the lesson here is never underestimate the complexity of China and the barriers that local companies can erect against foreign competition. Without the right government connections, you are at a disadvantage, without the local understanding (about even different China regional challenges) you will come unstuck. That’s why most entrants form some sort of joint venture with a very connected China corporation or state-owned enterprise. Uber was too arrogant to start this way, but it ended up there through a harsh experience.

What do marketers need to know about the modern Chinese consumer? What does it take for global brands to succeed in the region?
They need to know that we share very little cultural groundwater with China. The myths and stories are different. The language and education system produce a very different mindset. Kipling was right when he said “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” That means global campaigns seldom work here, and you really need to create content founded on local insights.