My Shanghai Adventure – by Charlie Davison, Reprise

May 30, 2017 | Share this article

In February this year I had the chance to spend a month in the IPG MB Shanghai office as part of a global initiative to upskill the local team there in digital. My brief was to train the Reprise team in SEO best practice.

The trip was a fantastic opportunity for a number of reasons. From a personal perspective I’d never been to Asia before and from a professional point of view it was a perfect fit for my new role as SEO Director for EMEA. My specific brief in this role is to try to upskill the regional markets in SEO. The Shanghai trip gave me the opportunity to fully consider all the elements of what we do so well in the UK that I would need to share with the local teams. I put together a big folder of all of our best work for this purpose before I went out.

China in particular as a market presents some challenges. It is one of the few markets globally where Google isn’t the dominant search engine, in China, Baidu is the prevalent search engine. In fact, the digital media scene in China is very different generally. The digital landscape in China is dominated by 3 tech giants. Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu. Everyone does everything – payment, ecommerce, search, chat, games, news etc. As key players in the market, they are trying to build a great wall to protect and expand their business and as such you have to abide by their rules.

China is now ahead of the game in digital and has come from nowhere to be in this position in the last 5 years or so. Everyone pays for everything on their phones using WeChat (their version of WhatsApp), I felt like a dinosaur carrying around cash! Colleagues out there even communicate with their clients on WeChat! What is especially interesting is that in terms of payment, the Chinese went straight from using cash to mobile payment without using card payment in between. WeChat is also one of the go to social networks, and as such feels a bit like a cross between WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram in western terms. As a key entry point for mobile traffic, brands fight hard to gain exposure on the platform.

Returning to SEO, strategies for Baidu are very different to our UK Google approaches. Baidu organic search results are dominated by Baidu products. Baidu has its own version of Wikipedia, eHow, Quora, Pinterest and YouTube amongst others which heavily influence the search results. Therefore the opportunity to have a brand website rank, especially for generic keywords, is severely limited. The main focus of SEO in Baidu therefore is in trying to ensure positive sentiment in the search results by optimising brand mentions on these Baidu platforms. It is more a game of reputation management, brand perception and damage limitation. It’s a great example of how the big tech players out there force you to adopt their principles and push their agenda. If brands want to be visible on Baidu, they need to take to Baidu’s platforms.

Suffice it to say, training the team in our Google-focussed practices was challenging. In fact, it really took me until my fourth and final week to fully understand the implications of the differences in the way that Baidu works. For the first two weeks, everything I showed the team or suggested was met with a slight raised eyebrow and the response, ‘er, yeah, that doesn’t really work on Baidu’. Presentations that go down a storm back in St John’s Square were met with confused expressions.

I learnt that the SEO industry is very different generally. Link building (the sort we used to do 5 years ago) still works and is therefore still acceptable. Smaller, independent ‘local’ agencies tend to dominate this area over media agencies however, hence why Reprise is only now launching its SEO function. Eventually however I did make some headway, chiefly in explaining how SEO keyword research could be used to help inform brands’ wider content strategies. Educating clients in how to augment media strategies through these keyword research insights is certainly one way that IPG Mediabrands can prize away SEO from the local agencies.

Overall it was an immensely valuable experience. It has been said many times before but travel does broaden the mind and being planted in a completely different culture was great of getting perspective. It has taken the best part of five years and various peoples’ involvement to get the UK SEO team to where it is today so it’s unrealistic to assume other markets can simply follow suit – there are always going to be unique challenges in every market. As such I think it’s important to do a lot of listening when new to a role or situation in order to understand these complexities rather than going in all guns blazing expecting what worked in one particular scenario to be applicable and work everywhere else.

The trip has helped me to formalise and prioritise what I will share with the regional markets in order to improve their SEO capabilities. I now better understand what elements are market agnostic and can be interpreted, adapted and made use of throughout the region versus those that are less relevant and more specific to the UK market.

The greatest learning was actually how little I know in the greater scheme of things and how much I have to learn from others. This in itself is incredibly useful as it helps me prepare and adapt my approach for the many more times when I am not the expert and need to see things from others’ perspective. After all, sometimes there’s more than one right answer.

Finally, the best bit about the trip? The people – especially all the people from the team that took me out and showed me the sights! Otherwise I have to give a special mention to the food – especially the dumplings and the local ‘Shanghai Food’. Overall it was just a brilliant opportunity for me and very valuable in terms of getting a wider perspective on things!

“We feel grateful to have Charlie’s visit to Reprise SH team. SEO is a key capability we aim to further strengthen for MB China’s overall performance marketing offering. Charlie’s sophisticated tech skillset, strategic thinking approach gave our team lots of inspiring learnings. My Reprise team enjoyed great collaboration with him. This program really promote a learning community and make us feel the attraction as global network. It will also be much beneficial for global SEO project. We hope to keep close communication with Charlie going forward.” – Prince Zhang, Chief Digital Officer, China.