China finds its edge

Part online showcase, part creative agency, Shanghai’s NeochaEDGE provides a platform for the burgeoning Chinese creative community, writes Patrick Burgoyne

Led by the likes of Ai Weiwei, Chinese artists have long since made their mark on the international gallery circuit, but what of the communication arts? In its formative years the Chinese advertising and design scene looked, unsurprisingly, to the west, but a new generation of Chinese creatives is making its mark. Giving a platform to this emerging talent is online country-wide creative collective and agency: NeochaEDGE.

Take a look at Neocha’s website and alongside work from Shanghai and Beijing, you’ll find photographers from Sichuan, illustrators from Chengdu and artists from Nanjing. In short, a vibrant young creative community of over 200, drawn from all parts of the country.

NeochaEDGE was started by two enterprising Americans: Sean Leow and Adam Schokora. Leow grew up in Silicon Valley with a Chinese engineer and an Oregon farmer as parents. An economics graduate, he moved to China in 2004 and has worked as a consultant as well as a contributor to trends agency PSFK. Schokora studied political science and Mandarin at university before moving to China in 1999, eventually leading Edelman Digital in China and working as a strategist.

Potential

Leow started the original neocha.com site as a place for some of the growing number of young Chinese creative types that he had encountered to display their work and get to know each other. After Schokora and Leow met up at a Shanghai music festival they decide to develop the site together but, as yet, were unaware of its true potential. “Our website was initially set up as a platform to aggregate creative portfolios from all over China,” Schokora says. “We unknowingly (at the time) were compiling an immensely valuable asset for our current agency model. The site afforded our team easy access to and an intimate relationship with a robust database of creative talent in China.”

Schokora and Leow had been trying to develop their site as a magazine but their attempts to sell advertising on it were not pulling in the revenue they had intended. People they spoke to in fact seemed more interested in the content of their site and the people behind it and soon Leow and Schokora realised their opportunity lay in matching their community with potential commissioners.

In 2008 Leow and Schokora remodelled their business, splitting it in half to become Neocha.com, a website showcasing the work of their community, and NeochaEDGE, an agency matching the showcased talent with client briefs via advertising agencies and managing the work produced.

Their work now covers live action film, animation, toys and street art as well as more traditional forms of advertising. NeochaEDGE takes a percentage of the fee on each project with the rest – typically between $1,000 and $3,000 US according to reports – going to the creative concerned.

Carefully groomed

So far, says Schokora, most of their work has come in from “large international ad agencies on global brands. However, over the past year we’ve been approached by more and more local brands and agencies. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of the latter in the future,” he says.

As well as Nike and Puma, the Shanghai-based agency boasts the likes of Converse, Vans, Nokia and Pepsi on an impressive client list. In addition to commissioning and co-producing content for campaigns, NeochaEDGE also offers to curate and manage collaborations with its artists and brands as well as to create exhibitions, events and workshops. In addition, it exploits its direct line to young creatives in China by offering trend analysis and insight, consumer research and internal training and briefing sessions for its clients. And, in a new addition, it is even making work produced by its community available for sale or licensing.

NeochaEDGE markets itself as “a carefully groomed cast of China’s premier creative talent”: not everyone gets to be represented on the site. “Since the business transitioned to a creative agency and the website to more of a web-magazine, we’ve had to work hard at curating the content in order to truly showcase the best of the best (and the latest) in China,” Schokora says. “Now, almost two years into the web-magazine, we are again in the fortunate position of attracting talent to us. We get literally dozens of emails every single day from artists, designers, and musicians all over China who want to be featured on the site, considered for commercial client projects, and / or would like us to represent them. We have artists and designers in every province of China, with higher concentrations in certain cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, etc., and even some Chinese artists abroad. But, the way our agency works with most of our talent, it really doesn’t matter where the artists are located. If they are not in Shanghai, the creative process is managed virtually, via IM, Skype, email, webcam etc., with work passed back and forth and submitted digitally.”

Self-taught

When it comes to choosing a creative for a project, Schokora says, “it depends on the brief. Sometimes our clients have briefs prepared when they approach us. Other times, they just have an initial idea about what they want and we help them come up with the brief. Either way, the brief drives our thinking around which artists / designers would be best for the project. We have a strong understanding of what our talent pool is good at, what they aren’t good at, their styles, who will bring content alive in which ways and so on.”

Much of that talent is self-taught with Schokora sounding less than impressed with the local colleges: “none of the local schools are all that noteworthy. In our experience, the most solid artists are self-taught, or, went to any number of the mediocre art or design schools in China and forget most of what they learned in favour of sorting it out on their own. A few of our artists studied abroad at institutes in the US or Europe but a good portion of our artists have no formal training at all.”

Leow and Schokora have plans to expand their model elsewhere in Asia but, for the moment, have their hands full coping with a rapidly maturing domestic market. “From the client side, we’ve noticed a dramatic shift in demand for increasingly creative or art-driven content from brands of all kinds,” Schokora says. “A few years ago, there were probably only a handful of brands interested in or willing to push the envelope with content in their campaigns or around their products, now everyone’s doing it. From the creator side, we’ve seen the amount and quality of local visual artists and designers experience healthy growth. All good things for a healthy creative industry.”

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