Isobar’s Jean Lin on marketing in China: ‘The speed of evolution is tremendous’

Jean Lin, global CEO of digital marketing shop Isobar, manages more than 5,500 people across over 45 markets. While many holding group agency CEOs are based in advertising hotbeds of New York and London, Lin has run Isobar from its Shanghai office.

Lin spoke with Digiday about the Chinese advertising landscape, the role of consultancies and how her team works with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (known as the BAT). Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Why manage Isobar from Shanghai?
I come from the region, but I also see a lot of evolution from [the] Asia-Pacific [region] in general. A chart from the World Economic Forum listed the top 15 global cities that would contribute to global GDP [gross domestic product] by 2030. Nine are from China, along with Tokyo and Jakarta [in Indonesia], which says a lot. It’s clear that lots of dynamics are taking place in APAC, especially with the digital economy. I want to stay close to the market, and I think the world needs a more balanced view.

What examples of evolution do you see?
The speed of evolution in APAC is tremendous and amazing. A few months ago we partnered with Alibaba to improve KFC’s dining and checkout experiences with cashless payments. In China, I never bring my wallet because the only thing I need is my mobile phone and my WeChat. Most stores are WeChat-enabled or Alipay-enabled. That evolution has changed people’s lives and has an impact on retail and financial services.

What are hot topics for advertisers in China?
Everyone talks about “O2O,” which means online to offline, or “OMO,” which means online merges with offline. That requires the understanding of a complex infrastructure in China in terms of different industry sectors, how the trade middlemen work, and how to enhance brands’ logistics and design brand experiences.

The key is the convenience of mobile apps and how people are used to calling in services on mobile. For instance, delivery services in China are happening at an amazing speed. My colleague was trying to arrange a grocery delivery to her home yesterday, and the company would make the delivery in 15 minutes. In China, brands think about how they can speed up the delivery of their services, from brand inspiration to transactions.

Is marketing easier in China than the U.S. because of the BAT?
Not at all. A lot of traditional channels are still working, and they are really important, so there is more than the BAT. Meanwhile, there are lots of new offerings in automotive and financial services segments. You can’t just work with the BAT to reach over 1.3 billion people in China, although the BAT is very important. We look at the BAT’s respective strengths and form a different partnership with each company.

How so?
One clear strength of Baidu is its artificial intelligence development, which is understandable because Baidu has been big in search. We have also worked with Baidu on a lot of voice recognition projects. There are more than 30 different dialects in China, so if a brand is trying to make its customer feel at home, the brand needs to talk to them in their home tongue. We co-designed a robotic ordering device with Baidu for KFC called Dumi that can recognize over 30 accents from all provinces in China.

How about Alibaba and Tencent?
We work with Alibaba on connecting online and offline. We’ve helped clients improve in-store experiences and online promotions around Singles Day, for instance. Alibaba also gets more involved in the physical space, so we’ve also tested many technologies with Alibaba for offline stores.

We have partnerships with Tencent that help us do better targeting. In last year’s campaign for [culinary provider] Unilever Food Solutions around Chinese New Year, we only targeted chefs, as they [had to work at restaurants during the holidays] and thus couldn’t go back home during Spring Festival for a family reunion. Tencent’s data allowed us to do that.

You started Wwwins Consulting in 1999, which became Isobar’s China office. Is there tension between agencies and consultancies in China?
There’s more face-to-face encountering between consultancies and agencies, which actually gives clients more options on how to make things happen. The current gap with consultancies lies in creative and design areas. That is why they go out and acquire companies. One challenge for consultancies is to integrate creative culture into a strong consulting culture. They are still figuring it out, while agencies can do better in understanding insights, consumer behavior, emotional attachment that people have with a brand and how that impacts the brand’s overall experience. It’s a race between consultancies and agencies that are both expanding to have better integrated offerings, which is good for clients.

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