Monday Mar 27

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The Nitro Group

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Issue #02 - Interviews

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Jennifer Tan

Who are Nitro? Well, they just won Best of Show at The One Show. They are also an agency with their roots firmly planted in China. The network boasts one of the richest shopping carts of prime brand property held by any independent anywhere.

irstly, Jennifer Tan. Presiding over one of the world's hottest young networks, this diminutive global ECD based in Shanghai is the creative matriarch behind brands such as Kraft, Mars and Conagra - and the mountain of FMCG they produce. Then throw Volvo, Nike, Virgin Blue and RBS into the mix and you've clearly got a network that is doing something extraordinary.

After more years than she'd care to mention in the business across the Asia-Pacific, Jennifer is one of the most respected branding people on shopping-planet Earth. Chris Clarke is the founder and CEO of the show. Upon meeting them, many would agree the two are indeed the human equivalent of Nitro Glycerin.

Agency.Asia: You’re like some laser-guided bomb silently gliding toward its target - the first most advertising networks know about Nitro is when their client drops the bombshell informing them that your network now handles their account. Perhaps begin by telling us a bit about your own history in the advertising business ‘til today.

Chris Clarke: About 15 years ago I was asked to direct a TVC for Mars directly; I did not like the scripts, so I rewrote them with the client. Luckily the client loved them and it was the start of a direct relationship with Mars that continues to today.

I was fortunate to be able build one of the hottest creative shops across Asia, called Pure Creative. I had great support from clients like Mars, P&G, and Australian Tourism and an outstanding young talented group of people.

After 7 hard years I was exhausted and sold out to Bcom3, (Darcy / Leo Burnett). It wasn’t long before I missed my clients and the business. So I set up a new business but this time I set up a non ad agency, even though we still make ads. Now the rationale is to be a true partner with our clients and therefore our services include:

  • Innovation
  • Advertising & Digital
  • Branded Entertainment (JV with ICM)

Agency.Asia: With all respect, even today we sporadically encounter senior industry figures that quizzically go, “Nitro?” – As if you were some start-up, or they’ve genuinely never heard of you.

We’re talking here about the agency that handles Nike, Volvo and the huge Mars conglomerate. Needless to say, many blue-chip clients aren’t asking who you are - which is gratifying. You’re intentionally stealth like?



Chris Clarke: Yes we focus on servicing our existing clients and we approach new business very differently. We normally don’t pitch and we ask if we can solve their biggest business issue. We like keeping to ourselves and not losing focus on the industry or what people think of us.

Agency.Asia: Jennifer, how did the two of you hook-up in the first place?

chris clarkeJennifer Tan: It was love at first sight. Or more accurately, Chris seduced me out of retirement in Bangkok with Shanghai. And I fell in love with this amazing city and its even more amazing people.

Chris Clarke: Our success in China has been based on Jen Tan’s outstanding leadership and creativity … I feel really blessed to have her as my partner.

Agency.Asia: You refer to Nitro as a ‘challenger agency’ – where global brands come to you as an alternative to the larger networks.

Whether or not this would be considered a huge paradigm shift is open to debate, but you’re clearly doing whatever you’re doing better than the ‘big guys’ in the eyes of a handful of key global advertisers.

Chris Clarke: We place our clients as the number one priority. We structure our teams and service delivery to provide maximum benefit to our clients – not for ourselves.

Other networks have one way of working and are refusing to change. Clients want digital teams and traditional teams working together, under one roof working as one team.

Big networks refuse to change and are refusing to structure the way clients want their service delivered. That has created the opportunity, which has been one of the key success factors.

Jennifer Tan: The Agency model is and should be changing. This is why we see ourselves to be in a unique position to offer something completely different. Our focus is on their business, not just a marketing or advertising solution. Anything less, is myopically naive. When you think smart rather than big, the effect can be phenomenal.

Take what we did for the ‘Best Job in The World’ campaign for Queensland Tourism. We were given the challenge of creating a brand on a shoestring budget, but yet had to tell the world.

So what did we do, we created the Best Job campaign and seeded it via small classified ads and let the internet do the rest. At our last count, it was US$80 million in free media. A great example of a non traditional idea that received a non traditional result!

Agency.Asia: Congratulations on your performance at The One Show, Cannes, D&AD, NY Festivals and pretty much every major award show this year for 'Best Job in the World', through CumminsNitro in Australia. We'd imagine that you will make an exception this once and say that you're rather pleased with yourselves.

Jennifer Tan: Hmm ... yes .. of course. All credit goes to our Brisbane office. But every Nitro office shares the same philosophy. We won’t give you an ad, we’ll give you an idea.


Agency.Asia: Does this Nitro philosophy apply equally to the creative offering, Jenifer? We discussed that you tend to adopt somewhat of an ambivalent attitude to entering awards, while to the casual observer – in this instance Agency.Asia – much of your team’s work is potentially award winning. Let’s face it, clients don’t hang around too long if the advertising isn’t getting the results they expect.

Jennifer Tan: Strangely, awards have never meant that much. And on the odd occasion when I do enter, I’ve always asked the client to receive the award.

It’s easy enough to write an ad to impress your peers but for a client to buy that vision, that’s a client that should be awarded.

Agency.Asia: We’d have to agree with you there, Jennifer.We’re actually not too far away from an award where it is clients that nominate their agency – which should pove as interesting to see who doesn’t get nominated as to which agencies do.

You do some pretty amazing work for charity – which is one of the noblest things the advertising industry does.

Of course, we’re still regarded down alongside used car dealers and real estate agents in that oft quoted annual report of the world’s least regarded professions.

Jennifer Tan: All the blue-chip clients are gratifying but the most rewarding is what we’re doing for 'Millennium Promise' and 'Malaria No More' that is truly rewarding. Guess I like to think we’re the spark with a heart.

Chris Clarke: Currently one million children a year die of malaria that is a totally preventable and treatable disease. What Nitro has done is taken responsibility for one of the villages.

Agency.Asia: We talked with you a decade ago and you credited ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu - one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world – as your personal mantra and the secret of your success. Business and war are so much alike? You were 23 when you started this incredible trip, have you changed?

Chris Clarke: I have been lucky, got some great breaks, was smart enough to work bloody hard to make it all work out. Clients have been very trusting of me; they know I care always about doing the right thing by them and the brand. I think I have grown up a lot. Become more centered, I had to.

Have recruited brilliant talent and now give great freedom to deliver on tight KPI’s as opposed to Pure Creative I was too hands on and a micro manager. I am enjoying working more this time around.

I really like the Nitro culture, think we have very strong engagement levels from people; they have taken my dream and made it so much better. I still love that book, definitely the best business / strategy book I have ever read.

It has all the answers when you have a brand or business problem. I’ve added a book but it’s more of a life book, Ekart Tolle, The Power of Now - a beautiful and powerful book to live one’s life.

Jennifer Tan: I’ve always defined a Nitroite as someone who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty no matter how senior you are. And that stems from the man who found it. I remember a pitch where he was helping me to proof-read and collate – at four in the morning!

Agency.Asia: Jennifer are you going to tell us that you too were inspired by Sun Tzu – or was it more the likes of Western philosophers like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach? You started life in Singapore, moved to Australia and now base yourself in Shanghai. How markedly does the advertising culture differ among the three?

Jennifer Tan: Your first advertising agency is like your first kiss. You remember it. In this instance it was Ogilvy. David Ogilvy was both cantankerous and charismatic and the only awards he believed in were the ones that sold products. And that’s the award I still keep.

Agency.Asia: You established a foothold in China arguably before many of the other major agency networks. In fact, Nitro started life in China – before opening up in London, New York, Sao Paulo, Melbourne, Brisbane and Moscow.

BBH is said to have been the first foreign agency allowed to operate independently in China - in 2006 - but we suspect Nitro might contest that. How did you enter the market initially – and what made Shanghai Nitro’s first home?

Chris Clarke: After Pure Creative I missed my clients, people and the work so I wanted to get back in it. I didn’t want to start in Australia for a few reasons; one I had completed what I wanted to achieve in Australia regarding my personal work and two, China was the best place strategically to set up a network.

When I look back it was pretty crazy that I believed I could build a global network out of China. I have never been a logical thinker when it’s about me and my company; it has always been run very instinctively. Thank God it worked out.

Jennifer Tan: You couldn’t come in here gun slinging as a western company. Though there’s an advantage in being a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside for those who haven’t worked that out - because clients often see that as having the best of both worlds - Western expertise alongside Eastern insight.

Agency.Asia: So, in 2002 when many other agencies saw China as being altogether too hard and perhaps unwelcoming to foreign companies, you were presumably quite happy to see them remain in residence in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

What edge do you think that has given you? Also, do you represent any Chinese brands abroad, or is your focus bringing American and European brands together with the Chinese consumer?

Chris Clarke: I think the edge Nitro had in China was we believed in the market, long before others really did. We recruited great talent early and have maintained a very dedicated team of quality people, who check their egos at the door and do the right thing by our clients.

I never wanted to start Nitro anywhere else but China. I could have started in the US, Australia, London but to me the 21st century will be the century of the Chinese … I wanted to be the first global agency established out of China. We are committed to the market and everyone knows that.

Jennifer Tan: The world is getting increasingly smaller with the digital tidal wave and Nitro is committed to helping our clients reach out to their consumers across the world no matter where they are.

Agency.Asia: Tell us about Nitro’s foray into the branded entertainment field with International Creative Management. Have you embarked on any major initiatives in the China market as yet?

Chris Clarke: The partnership with ICM gives us access to the best talent in Hollywood but it also gives us more opportunities to work with the writers and producers of the world’s most popular TV series.

A recent example is the Julia Lewis Dreyfus work we have just running for Healthy Choice; it is an amazing campaign that we are proud of. We have three other very interesting pieces of work coming out in next few months. It’s starting slowly but to have true access to Hollywood is a great asset for us and our clients.

Agency.Asia: You have kindly agreed to be a ‘talent scout’ on our non-for-profit conjoined site, DesignWeek.Asia, whereby emerging visual artists stand to be discovered by luminaries such as yourself. In a nutshell, you spot the best of the best - and we introduce them to the world.

It is somewhat of a generalisation, but while Asian peoples are accomplished marketers, they are arguably self-effacing when it comes to promoting themselves. Do you feel that to be the case?

Jennifer Tan: Definitely. It’s just not in the psyche - which will make talent scouting a bit of a challenge in, say, China - unlike a country like Thailand which is hugely creative, but whose people are arguably more exuberant and outgoing. Westerners are instinctual self-promoters – and that is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s quite a contrary.

China particularly needs to come out of its shell. It’s true that Asians are often slaves to ‘face’ and being too reserved. The talent is here and I for one am happy to be a ‘scout’ – particularly because I get to see these guys and girls before the other agencies across Asia!

I wholeheartedly welcome this DesignWeek.Asia initiative, because my fellow judges are the most amazing people in advertising and design across Asia and globally – and they get to put something back into the business that has treated them well. And mostly because there are promises be so just much erstwhile unseen talent there.

Agency.Asia: You can both answer this one. As one of the very few bi-lingual publications in the Asia-Pacific, we sporadically find ourselves caught up in the debate as to whether most client meetings in China are conducted in English or Chinese. Perhaps it’s both! Being completely honest now, Jennifer, how is Chris’ Chinese?

Jennifer Tan: He says “Mate, Ni Mao Ma?” with so much aplomb.

Agency.Asia: Chris you became a father a couple of year’s back, so we’re expecting you’re more Dr. Seuss than Sun Tzu these days. What are your favorite books? And Jennifer, do you ever find time to read?

Chris Clarke: I think I know the kids books cover to cover. These are my favourites:

Jennifer Tan: Emails - Squillions of them a day. And if my eyeballs don’t fall off, I love trash. Maybe they’re not that different from most of my emails.

Agency.Asia: We’d like to thank you both for talking to us – and all the very best of luck with Nitro, though it seems luck has little to do with it. As you know, we ask our guests to recommend someone in branding they feel our readers would most like to hear from next.

Jennifer Tan: An interesting brand experiential company called AMC run by a gifted bloke called Bernard Oh. Newish in Shanghai but has made huge impact in Singapore, Thailand and Malyasia. I particularly like their work on booze and cars. But then probably it’s because I like the subject matter.

Chris Clarke: We have an innovation division called ‘Leftbluesky’ which is about turning ideas into assets for our clients. Chris Nurko runs it for us globally and has the most amazing background and experience. He has created brands, products, airlines – you name it and he has created it.

He has also just run one of the most amazing projects with Kraft Globally where he used co-creation to get 8,000 Kraft staff to participate in a global branding exercise. Truly it is very inspiring.


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