An Interview with KBS Shanghai CEO Douglas Lin

Douglas Lin kbs+ Interview - Branding in Asia Magazine
Douglas Lin, CEO, KBS China

It was a year ago this month that renowned international brand agency kbs+ announced plans to open an office in Shanghai as part of their long-term move into China.

Led by partner and CEO Douglas Lin, along with fellow partner and chief creative officer Jonathan Ip, setting up shop in Shanghai wasn’t about hanging a shingle with a well-known name in China’s increasingly sophisticated marketplace; it was about laying a foundation from the ground up, said Lin when the opening was announced.

“This isn’t a question of simply inserting a foreign agency model into China. We are working to advance a more modern marketing approach with our clients in China to help them grow – both domestically and internationally.”

 
 

kbs+ Shangai - Douglas Lin

To that end, kbs+ chose a Chinese brand name and logo “事话 (Shihua)” –representative of their global mantra, “Do things that matter”.

A graduate of Cal-poly, Douglas Lin brings to the position a strong portfolio of experience in China –most recently as managing director of TBWA’s Digital Arts Network China and prior to that, he led BBDO/Proximity China as its managing director.

 
 

Branding in Asia recently caught up with Mr. Lin at his office in Shanghai to talk about how things were going as he rounds the corner of 2015 and heads into the new year.


kbs+ announced plans to enter China a year ago this month. Moving into a new market is full of both challenges and rewards. What grade do you give you and your team on the report card?

I give us a solid ‘B’. We’ve developed and established our presence and built solid foundations with our core clients. At the same time, we’ve made inroads with our own client wins.

Where we have had challenges is expanding the team and functional capabilities beyond your typical agency requirements. This is partly due to the basic core baseline requirements by clients, as well as identifying talent which fits with our culture. In a country of billions, it’s about finding the gems.

I think it’s human nature to try to orient anything we can’t or don’t understand to an internal personal or cultural reference. A common phrase is “how different China is” – but that’s a bit of a cop-out.

When the China office opened you said, “we are working to advance a more modern marketing approach with our clients in China to help them grow.” Can you talk about that philosophy?

When we talk about “modern”, this isn’t synonymous with just “digital” – whether that’s online, social media, or mobile. It’s bigger than this and includes the operational foundations (including monitoring and tracking), speed to market, and less reliance on campaigns versus content driven marketing.

How does an agency navigate the transition to modern marketing approaches with an audience more familiar with traditional marketing? Is there a learning curve for the audience as well as the agency?

Absolutely. A lot of the navigation comes from the hard realization that we’re not the ones with all the answers – nor should we be. The learning isn’t mono-directional. Audiences, clients, and agencies all bring something to the table. 

I think this is where a lot of global agencies and clients stumble is in the belief that modern equals “Western”. There is a lot of discussion about the pace of development in China from an economic and infrastructure point-of-view. But I think what people fail to grasp is this also includes the marketing sophistication of brands and consumers.

Innocean recently released a report about how well Chinese firms have done in Europe even though most lack a strong brand strategy. How would you assess Chinese firm’s branding in their domestic market?

Domestic brands have definitely done a better job within China. Companies like WeChat, XiaoMi, and DianPing are top-of-mind for most Chinese. 

My belief is this has less to do with their brand communications and marketing, and more with their products and services which deliver quality domestic consumer experiences.

Where a lot of global agencies and clients stumble is in the belief that modern equals “Western”.

What are some trends in branding in China that you like?

A trend which probably isn’t exclusive to China is the use of lifestyle content to connect with brand and products. For example, during Valentine’s Day GE China posted content on how the human brain reacts while in love. The story wasn’t written from a medical or engineer’s point-of-view, but as a human interest story which any consumer could understand. The tie back was the findings were made possible by GE medical scanning technology – which was very compelling content, particularly considering GE is a B2B brand in China.

What are some trends you’d like to see come to an end?

The follow-the-leader mentality. “H5” sites became the big trend last year on WeChat channels, and a lot of brands gravitated towards them without any ideas or strategy. It felt a lot like when people first created websites or mobile apps – it was more just to say you had one than to understand how it fit into your strategy let alone provide any ROI.

Are there any plans for further expansion into Asia?

We’re working with clients in Malaysia and Hong Kong as well as throughout China. For us, it’s going to be a combination of the right client opportunity and the ability to find the right talent in that market.

If you were to give advice to the first time marketer, day one in China, what would it be?

I think it’s human nature to try to orient anything we can’t or don’t understand to an internal personal or cultural reference. A common phrase is “how different China is” – but that’s a bit of a cop-out. Everything has developed and works in China for a reason.  It doesn’t need your external approval or understanding to validate its existence.

I guess my advice would be – “talk less, listen more, and take things at face value.”


You can visit kbs+ on the web www.kbsp.com

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