The State of The Design Industry in APAC

17th October 2017

Not so long ago I was working in London. My role was not only to manage a team of consultants and to grow my agency’s portfolio in Asia but to also do day to day recruitment for design and branding agencies, an area close to my heart given I studied Product & Transport Design at Coventry. London is widely regarded as being one of the world’s greatest creative hubs, something that I 100% agree with. When I moved to Hong Kong with MCG&Associates I was confident that Hong Kong, Singapore, and indeed other major cities would have a similar footing in their respective markets… I was wrong.

I was shocked to learn that so many of the ‘great’ brand and design agencies are small satellite studios, or in some cases don’t exist at all. I recruited for The Brand Union in London for many years, a studio that at the time had around 150 employees. Hong Kong has remained a steady 15-20 despite The Brand Union being in HK for over 20 years. A senior staff member told me their frustrations when they chose to leave; “Regardless of how well we are doing, if London does badly we can’t hire. It’s hugely frustrating”. Other big brand studios like Landor are all but 3-4 people in Hong Kong as they have focussed their NEA offering in China, likely due to the costs involved and that their clients are on the mainland. Brands like Futurebrand have all but closed their doors in Hong Kong. The ‘traditional’ creative agency model is struggling in HK. China is no longer seen as a second rate place to have a studio; cities like Shanghai and Beijing as well as Hong Kong’s neighbour, Guangzhou are snapping up creative talent like never before.

The biggest shock I’ve had over the past year is the “we can do that” attitude of agencies in Asia. In London you had a defined offering. If you were a design and brand agency, that’s what you did. You wouldn’t dare to stray into campaigns and marketing, it’s just not the done thing. Very polite. Very British. In Asia it’s incredibly refreshing to see clients raise their hand to all types of work, projects, brands, etc. If someone thinks they can do it they raise their hand and give it a go. Damn the fact that they probably aren’t the most suitable agency to work on the project, if it works it works. If it fails, then hey, at least we have given it a shot. This ‘free for all’ attitude is actually incredibly refreshing especially in the tough economic climate that we have been battling with over the past few years. This has however clearly alienated those agencies that are ‘specialists’. If you are a pure design agency and don’t offer a wider solution to clients in Asia you will struggle unless you are seen as the best in your field. Don’t be surprised if a big network swoops in and wins that latest creative rebrand. When I first came over and met with DDB I was amazed at how versatile their offering was. A studio with over 100 staff offering digital, ATL, BTL, design, production, artwork, campaigns etc, all under one roof. Amazing. Some design agencies that had for years remained fiercely independent were sold to groups this year. For me the most notable mention goes to Design Bridge. DB was acquired by WPP earlier in the year, announced ironically just after WPP lost 10.4% in its share price back in August. Make of that timing what you will.

Of the 3 major cities we work in, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai it’s clear to see that the ‘traditional’ design industry has suffered the most in HK. Singapore and Shanghai all have a number of creative design studios, from small independents to larger group owned studios. The world of FMCG design is still booming in SG and SH. Something we still see as an area of growth for many clients. Perhaps it’s the fact that many of the big FMCG brands have their hubs in Singapore; P&G, Mondelez, and Unilever to name a few. It makes perfect sense for a creative studio to have their base next door, the same can be said for SH and BJ. Hong Kong has fallen into a bit of a “no mans land”, a slightly redundant city for pure design especially in terms of FMCG packaging.

Maybe this all sounds a bit gloomy if you are based in Hong Kong, or planning on coming to Hong Kong to work in the design space…. Far from it. Hong Kong is rife with incredibly creative studios doing stunning design. More brand identity agencies that will look to roll this out into front end digital projects and printed collateral, however FMCG packaging agencies have a limited presence in Hong Kong, as do Product and Innovation agencies. Perhaps it’s the historical nature of the clients in HK (Banking, Legal, Hospitality, Aviation and Finance) that dictates the type of brands creative clients pick up here. We work with a number of creative agencies in Hong Kong that are widely regarded as being the best in their respective fields. Our best design agency clients have been the ones that have remained independent. These clients are in a great place. They can adapt to clients’ needs fast, hire quickly, and have a clear creative vision for the next few years. I personally hope to see a growth in the traditional design industry in Hong Kong, how realistic that may be is anyone’s guess. Many Chinese clients are still very traditional. High quality printed material is still widely regarded, however this generation is starting to fade and with it the digital revolution will soon take over. If you are a design agency and reading this you will need to adapt or risk being left behind or swallowed up.