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Inside Retail & HKTDC

Refresh: How Mainland China’s F5 wants to reinvent the ad agency model

Shanghai creative Adams Fan is on a mission to transform the traditional advertising agency model, making it more relevant in an era where there is constant market disruption in almost every industry. 

Fan is the award-winning founder & chief creative officer of independent creative agency F5, which is fast building a reputation as a disruptor in Mainland China’s evolving advertising industry. He will be speaking at this month’s MarketingPulse 2021 virtual conference organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. The two-day event kicks off on March 30.

“We live in a world where everything is constantly disrupted because the truth is, if you want to stay relevant, you have to constantly reinvent yourself,” Fan tells Inside Retail Asia. “I’ve always thought that change and new discoveries lead to new golden ages and that if something doesn’t exist, invent it. This truth applies not just to individuals, but also to entire industries.”

At F5 – which takes its name from the button on a PC keyboard that represents refresh – Fan has implemented an entirely different approach to that of traditional ad agencies in developing solutions to meet client briefs. 

“In traditional agencies, you have people that are specialised in doing just one job, but at F5 Shanghai, the people here are all hybrids. They’re ‘jacks of all trades, masters of some’,” he explains. “PR managers and copywriters who double as ‘suits’ – managing clients, making negotiations, and closing contracts – or art directors who also write. When an agency is composed of such hybrids, not only does it get to future-proof itself, but as individuals, being able to take on multiple roles and honing different skills allows one to future-proof his career.”

Fan’s approach is to always tell clients not to treat campaigns as advertising material but to treat them as “real-world experiences”. 

“I tell them to place themselves in the customer’s shoes and picture what would wow them; what could be the brand or product’s role in providing that experience?

“The way we work helps us create more mind-blowing work which is now more crucial than ever.”

For example, F5’s Baidu ‘Know You Again’ campaign relied heavily on technology, but Fan explains that human truth and purpose were at its core. “We saw that the product offered facial recognition capabilities and so we matched that with a human pain point, which was aiding in memory loss for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their caretakers.”

For pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s ‘Mozart 80 Concert’ the brief was to create an employee recruitment campaign – “but we were able to create something bigger,” says Fan. “AI-generated symphonies proved the point that science and technology could do infinite wonders, such as create vaccines and bring back hope to a world that is battling with a global pandemic.”

F5’s unconventional approach has attracted some high-power attention. During the Taobao Maker Festival 2018, Alibaba founder Jack Ma applauded an F5 project at the event. “His advice was to continue working with the right people, not just the best people, and this is something we continue to do to this day,” recalls Fan.

“Since the agency was founded in 2016, we’ve always had the technologist, planner, and creative work together to solve business problems right from the get-go, because it cuts time and protects the quality of the work. In traditional agencies, there are layers and the idea gets passed down the line after creatives develop the initial solution.” 

Fan’s team looked at that model and thought: why not have everyone involved at the beginning stages of ideation – that’s the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas, where an idea is understood as a basic element of thought that can be either visual, concrete, or abstract. That way, everyone could contribute right from the very start.

“Compared to traditional setups where it’s just art and copy working together to crack a brief, this approach is something we’re proud of and continue to improve,” says Fan. 

F5 is the only Chinese ad agency to collaborate with the country’s three internet giants – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent simultaneously and its client list includes major international brands such as Pfizer, Midea, Taobao and Alipay.

At MarketingPulse 2021, Fan will demonstrate how creativity is the key to help brands doing “good works” that resonate with customers, in a session during the afternoon of Tuesday March 30, titled ‘Doing Good with Creativity’. Chris Tung, chief marketing officer at Alibaba Group, will share insights on the true value of integrating marketing and philanthropy – taking Alibaba Group businesses’ examples to demonstrate how to merge social good into businesses through digitisation, innovation and technology. Eray Li, GM of Southern China at Kuaishou (Magnetic Engine) and Alves Huang, CEO of Qianxun (Hangzhou), a live-streaming commerce firm in Mainland China, will join a panel discussion on live-stream commerce and short-video marketing on the mainland.  

Buy a Pass to this year’s Marketing Pulse virtual conference here

A scene from a previous MarketingPulse event. This year’s will be virtual.