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Creative Agency Models China

How one Shanghai indie agency raced against lockdown to shoot new creative work


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

June 1, 2022 | 5 min read

Producing top creative amid the Shanghai lockdowns isn’t easy. We speak to the founder of boutique agency Water to find out how it has managed to shoot new work around the restrictions.

A still from one of Water's recent work for Nike

A still from one of Water’s recent works for Nike / Water

When Hao Dong launched his new agency business last year, he could have been forgiven for thinking that the worst of Covid-19 in China was in the rearview mirror. Instead, he has been working to grow his new Shanghai indie agency amid severe lockdowns and harsh business conditions.

Water was launched by Dong – formerly a creative director at Wieden+Kennedy – just eight months ago. It already has a staff of 10 and a major client in Nike.

“The reason I started running this agency is pretty simple: I don’t want to waste my time on something I don’t like,” he tells The Drum. “Most agencies have their own philosophy. I don’t have a fancy one, so the philosophy of Water is very simple: I just want to do the best work my clients have had in their lives.”

Less than a year in and Dong’s team is already competing with his old colleagues at W+K. But even with that strong start, trading conditions are tough. Dong’s team – along with the rest of Shanghai – has been under Covid-19 lockdown for almost three months. “It’s a tough time for everybody, especially for agencies,” he says. Although restrictions themselves are easing (gradually but unevenly), Dong says it’s been hard on staff. “The first month was tough. The second month was tough as well. But now that we’re allowed to go out three hours a day, it’s much better.”

And although client activity in China has certainly slowed during the months of lockdown, Dong says the agency has still picked up new business.

“Most agencies are just trying to get enough projects to maintain their business, but we’ve had six projects in the first two months of lockdown. Some of those are small-scale, others medium, but it feels like a very good sign because clients trust us. That’s a huge sign.”

Getting a client to sign off on new work is one thing. Actually pulling it together around the stringent lockdown rules put in place by the Chinese government is another.

Water was commissioned to produce a short documentary for Nike’s running brand, which originally called for shoots in three Chinese cities. With Hao and his creative team unable to make the trip, they had to book in local crews and remotely coordinate each shoot, editing together the film from Shanghai.

“We wanted to shoot some runners in Beijing, Chengdu and Guangzhou. But our creative director, director and movie director are all based in Shanghai and we couldn’t go out. So we got three different crews in three different locations, each one shooting the day before the other. We collected all the shooting materials and edited the whole film. It’s been very tough.”

The project ran into worse luck when the areas slated for shoots began to be put in lockdown themselves, he says. “We heard a rumor about Beijing locking down, so we changed the shooting plan. We finished the shooting one day before lockdown. We were shooting a project about running, but it was like being in a race against the government’s lockdown policy.”

It has not just been a logistical challenge, but an artistic one. “Every crew has a slightly different shooting style,” Dong adds. “And it’s very hard to control the quality because we can only watch from monitors online – we couldn’t see the entire shooting environment.”

Dong’s small team have managed to bring the just-released project in to shore, however. And despite the modest budget against the documentary, he’s pleased with the results. “So far, the client [Nike China] and I feel very satisfied with the work.”

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