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In China, Art Is Making a Commercial Statement

IT isn’t the familiar Adidas look — that bold and basic three-stripe logo. Instead, it’s a design meant to evoke blowing wind, flowing water and flapping wings.

An employee examines football boots at the final check of the factory of German sporting-goods maker Adidas AG in Scheinfeld, Germany.
Getty Images
An employee examines football boots at the final check of the factory of German sporting-goods maker Adidas AG in Scheinfeld, Germany.

The tricked-out design for new T-shirts in China was created by Chen Leiying, a 27-year-old artist known as Shadow Chen who lives in the coastal city of Ningbo. She is not even an employee of the company, but multinationals like Adidas are beginning to turn to young creative types like her to dream up images and logos for the under-30 set in China, a group that is 500 million strong.

Call them China’s youth whisperers. From Harbin in the north to Guangzhou in the south, young artists, musicians and designers are being tapped to make companies’ brands cool.

Like its counterparts elsewhere, this arty crowd sometimes looks and acts unconventional — but it’s not with political ends in mind. These young artists tend to set aside politics for commerce, and the promise of attractive paydays from foreign businesses.

At the center of this experiment is NeochaEdge, the first and only creative agency of its type in China. It was started in 2008 by two Americans, Sean Leow and Adam Schokora, to showcase the work of illustrators, graphic designers, animators, sound designers and musicians from across China. It now has 200 member-artists; NeochaEdge pays them per project to work on campaigns and product designs for brands like Nike , Absolut vodka and Sprite.

Adidas wants to be cool, “and the only way to be cool is to appeal to young people,” says Jean-Pierre Roy, who until recently helped oversee product development in China for Adidas. To help enhance that image, Adidas selected four Chinese artists, including Ms. Chen, to design 20 graphics for its new T-shirts.

Over the last year, members of the agency have also produced a soundtrack and a streetlight graffiti show for Absolut, designed sneakers for the Jimmy Kicks shoe company and created content for an e-magazine for Nike about basketball culture in China. And by the end of this year, NeochaEdge will also become a virtual art gallery, selling artwork from its artists through its Web site.

“You can’t just stroll into China and see who is a hot artist,” says Mr. Roy (who now works for Oakley, the eyewear company, in Shanghai). “It’s all still a little underground.” So Mr. Schokora, 30, and Mr. Leow, 29, have become trusted guides.

“There are not many young Americans who speak fluent Mandarin and are as much at home talking to chief marketing officers as they are talking to graffiti artists in Guangzhou,” says Paul Ward, head of operations for Asia at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Shanghai, which has collaborated with NeochaEdge on projects over the last year.

Members of NeochaEdge are a far cry from Ai Weiwei, the 53-year-old Chinese artist and dissident who was recently detained by the government. These graphic designers, sound artists and animators have other motivations.

“They want to advance their careers, not challenge the political establishment,” Mr. Leow says. “Commercial art has rarely, if ever, contained dissent.”

Defne Ayas, an art history instructor at New York University in Shanghai, put it this way in an e-mail: “For some artists in this younger generation, the new political has become the ‘market.’ They tend to be curious and friendly to the market; they don’t want to miss out on its opportunities.”

In fact, the government is putting its muscle behind companies like NeochaEdge. In Shanghai alone, the government has created more than 80 creative industry zones for 6,000 businesses. In 2008, the Shanghai municipal government named NeochaEdge as “one of the top representatives of the creative industry.”

SO how did two young guys from the United States — Mr. Schokora grew up in Detroit and Mr. Leow in Silicon Valley — end up becoming conduits to the young, creative community in China?

Before founding the company, Mr. Leow, who studied Chinese as an undergraduate at Duke, was living and working in Shanghai as a business consultant and consuming large quantities of Chinese culture.

“I was going to a lot of art exhibitions and indie rock shows, and I always thought that China was all about imitation and nothing creative, but I was wrong,” Mr. Leow says. That prompted the idea to develop a social networking site for creative types in China called neocha.com. (“Cha” is Chinese for tea.) There was just one problem: revenue from advertisers was not coming in.

At the same time, Mr. Schokora, who has been living in China since 2003, was working as a manager of digital and social media for Edelman, the global communications firm.

“I knew about neocha.com even before I met Sean,” Mr. Schokora recalls. “It was pretty much the only site out there aggregating what young, creative kids in China were doing online.” In 2007, Mr. Schokora and Mr. Leow met at a music festival in Shanghai, and the meeting quickly evolved into a partnership.

Soon, Mr. Schokora left his position at Edelman and teamed up with Mr. Leow to take neocha.com in a new direction. Mr. Schokora, influenced by his perspective working for a big agency, suggested changing the business model from a social networking site to a creative consortium.

The founders say the strategy has worked. They would not reveal their revenue, but they say it has more than doubled in the last year. They are also considering expanding to other Asian markets, like India.

Depending on the type of project, members of the artists’ group make 20 percent to 90 percent of NeochaEdge’s fee, which can range from $10,000 to $100,000.

The compensation, Ms. Chen said in an e-mail, is “more or less the same as a senior designer at an in-house agency makes in China.” But, she adds, “there is much more freedom and opportunity to build your name.”

Li Man, 27, an independent music producer in Beijing, is a NeochaEdge member who has been contracted to work on three projects over the last year, including a video for Absolut. He makes 6,666 renminbi, or around $1,000, per assignment. “The income I’ve brought in from my work from NeochaEdge has allowed me to buy a lot of electronics,” he said via e-mail, “and I’m now starting to work on record projects.”

Shadow Chen heard about the consortium through Twitter. She says NeochaEdge has helped her become noticed. “In China, it’s very hard to be appreciated if you are an ordinary, independent artist, as opposed to a famous artist who is represented by an art gallery,” she says. “NeochaEdge is probably the only good outlet for independent young artists to be discovered.”

Hurri Jin, 26, a Shanghai-based artist who goes by the name Hurricane, has worked on five different projects with NeochaEdge and earned 20,000 renminbi, or a little more than $3,000, since he became a member of the consortium in December 2009. “NeochaEdge has really helped my work,” he says.

BACK in the early days, Mr. Schokora and Mr. Leow went searching for members at indie rock concerts, gallery openings and music festivals; now, however, the artists mostly come to them.

Mr. Schokora says the company receives dozens of e-mails a day from young people all over China who want to be featured on the Web site, which also showcases work from artists who are not members of the consortium. Sometimes, artists even show up at the company’s office in the Jing An District in Shanghai without an appointment.

As well as playing matchmaker, NeochaEdge produces trend reports and a monthly e-magazine on the creative scene in the youth market. It also recruits for focus-group research, plans exhibitions and performances and holds workshops and training for artists.

“We are a complement to advertising agencies,” Mr. Schokora said. “If an advertising agency wanted an illustrator from, let’s say, Harbin, it would be pretty easy to search the database and find their portfolio online,” he says, referring to the capital of Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. “Then we just hop on instant message and get in touch.”

As companies expand their reach beyond the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, local talent and authenticity will be more important, says Damian Coren, chief operating officer at Leo Burnett in Shanghai. “All the brands are looking to get into those second- and third-tier cities, and anything that will help them push into regional markets will be quite welcome.”

Mr. Coren, incidentally, had not heard of NeochaEdge. But many others have. Coca-Cola recently teamed up with it for a contest to find a young, creative type to put a Chinese spin on its American theme of “energizing refreshment.” The winner — or winners — will receive up to $65,000 in cash prizes and a trip to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

The agency has found its niche in providing innovative art and music. But will that be a selling point with bigger brands that are less out-of-the-box?

“NeochaEdge does so much cool, quirky stuff, but a lot of brands want less quirky stuff,” Mr. Ward says. “If they are going to appeal to wider range of brands — a Procter & Gamble, for example — they are going to have to combat the image that they only do stuff with graffiti art.”

Mr. Coren also wonders whether NeochaEdge will have appeal beyond multinational companies. It’s hard to imagine major interest from local Chinese brands, he says, “because they are just not as experimental or avant-garde yet.”

The future direction of NeochaEdge is not yet certain. The founders could decide to be absorbed by a large ad agency and work exclusively for that firm’s roster of clients. They say they have been approached by three major advertising conglomerates interested in acquiring them. The company could also stay independent and become even more daring, perhaps by showing brands that they don’t have to involve the middlemen — the ad agencies.

NeochaEdge is proving that with some clear direction from a brand, it can find the right illustrator, graphic designer or music producer for the job from its outside pool. No in-house creative team is needed. “The traditional agency model is broken, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s disrupted,” Mr. Leow said.

Still, the ad industry hasn’t yet gone through that seismic change — and that leaves NeochaEdge in an interesting position to consider its next move.

“Whatever we do next, we want to continue to give hope to the young, talented kids in China that they can make money in the creative industry,” Mr. Schokora says.?