Blogs & Comment

A Canadian ad man in China

AKQA's Johan Vakidis talks Nike, digital advertising in Asia, and why Chinese kids don't run.

It’s no secret that major marketers and, consequently, ad agencies have long been openly salivating at the opportunities in the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). Growing economies with huge populations can do that to people.

Montrealer Johan Vakidis is an award-winning ad creative who moved to China more than a decade ago, first working at OgilvyOne, then at AKQA‘s Shanghai office for the last two years. While at Ogilvy, he worked for Adidas in Beijing in advance of the Olympics, and now heads up creative for AKQA’s two biggest clients in Shanghai, Nike and Unilever.

The agency recently launched a cool Nike campaign to help encourage running in China, where it’s not traditionally seen as a sport. The “Run For” campaign used Chinese social-media networks and video-sharing sites, like the Facebook-Twitter hybrid Sina Weibo, to ask runners why they run, making web videos out of the best stories. The brand also hosted nighttime “Lunar Run” events in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan, featuring fitness instructors, live music and celebrities, all to making running a social thing for a young, urban, image-conscious Chinese audience.

This gave us a perfect excuse to talk to Vakidis, now an executive creative director at the agency, about the Nike work but also about the Chinese ad market, agency culture and whether he’ll ever come back to Canada.

Canadian Business: The Nike running campaign sounds like a perfect challenge for any brand and agency. How’s it going?

Johan Vakidis: It is a perfect, hit the wall but let’s do some cool stuff, type project. Nike in China is definitely doing some great things. But with running, which is the base of almost every sport, it’s a big challenge here.

CB: What’s wrong with running?

JV: It’s really cultural. People just don’t run in the street here. If people see someone running in the street they think you’re either getting chased by the cops or a thief. It’s a school thing here, where kids only run in phys ed. class but they don’t really see it as a sport. So we’re trying to show how cool it is and Nike’s done a great job with the lunar runs here, to change that perception a bit.

CB: Western agencies talk a lot about new work in emerging markets, China being chief among them. What are some of the biggest challenges, as a Canadian, to create work that resonates with the locals?

JV: It’s been a very good experience because China has its own homegrown everything, like Facebook and Twitter replicas, and clients aren’t conservative, they like to try new things. They’re very comfortable with these homegrown versions of social media. So I’ve had the chance to try some experimental projects for them on these platforms.

CB: What are some of your favourites?

JV: That’s a tough one. Back at Ogilvy I got to do some very experimental things with Adidas. We tried some crazy stuff around the Olympics, in that we played on these social platforms, which were still pretty raw at the time. With China’s Twitter clone, we did things with visuals, animations and things like that. Also, our recent Nike work, with the idea of story enabling, getting people to script the work, was something new. We got all these stories and, based on the best submissions, created some cool content.

CB: Are the strategies much different than here in North America? We always hear how much more advanced mobile advertising is, for example, in Asia.

JV: I think there’s a bit of a myth there. It’s a common thing to think that people in Asia are much more advanced in terms of mobile and digital, but there is very much a reluctance to get mobile going as an ad platform here. If you look at the Chinese mobile market, there are 450 million users but the devices and platforms aren’t very standardized. So it can be a hard sell. Telling a client you’d like to do an iPhone and Android version of the work doesn’t really cut it.

The behaviour in terms of digital is very powerful though. Chinese people have more virtual friends than real ones. There’s a very strong virtual culture. That said, mobile is coming along.

CB: What are some of the biggest differences between the Chinese ad market and agency culture and North America?

JV: I’ve spent time in our San Francisco and New York offices over the last few years, and agencies see the same challenges and approach to work. China blocks out Facebook and Twitter, has their own homegrown versions, but the campaigns they do on these platforms are very, very interesting. There’s a really gung-ho approach toward digital here in China, which is a good thing. There’s a lot of very interesting work that is progressive in how it’s used these platforms, going beyond tweets to use animation, audio and video. The Chinese version of Twitter is actually pretty awesome.

CB: What’s the make-up of your creative department? A lot of internationals like you or mostly locals?

JV: It’s about 40% local and 60% foreign. There’s a significant base of Chinese nationals but more of what we call Chinese internationals. In my creative team, for example, I’ve got people from Sweden, South Africa, Malaysia, Taiwan, so it’s a mix. We make sure everyone speaks the language, because it’s very important to keep the culture in the work, to know and understand your audience.

CB: Did you know how to speak Chinese when you first went over there?

JV: No, not at all [laughs]. I didn’t know the difference between Saigon and Shanghai. Four years in, I picked it up and now it’s home. My home is Shanghai, my wife is Chinese, my son is half-Chinese. It’s home.

CB: Any plans to come back to Canada or North America?

JV: Not right now. But I’ve got a house in the country outside of Montreal where we go about once or twice a year.