Shedding light from China – an agency’s experience during Covid-19

This article was created by Annie Feng, the HRD who works at UMS Center of Excellence Department. Annie is passionate about building a young, energetic and professional team who are able to thrive in the ever-changing digital market.


The agency industry is currently saturated with news around 2020 ad spend predictions, suspension of brand marketing activities, staff layoff announcements and hiring freezes. During such an unpredictable time, many businesses have been forced to close and in what seemed like a matter of days, the world as we knew it had completely changed.

As a full-service cross-culture marketing agency primarily based in Asia Pacific, UMS has a strong presence within China. China was the first country to be hit by Covid-19, and like all global agencies, our senior leadership team has been experiencing challenges in this pandemic situation since late January. Fortunately, UMS recently completed an internal organisation change led by last year’s digital transformation, where UMS operations became less labour intensive while fulfilling an efficient remote working model. The early implementation of this structure helped us better prepare for the outbreak, allowing us to continue servicing our clients.

As China gradually recovers, we think by sharing UMS’ experience and our thinking in our response to Covid-19, we could shed some positive light with agencies around the world who are facing similar challenges. We wish to seek opportunities with others, and we believe that by standing together, we will overcome the difficulties of this pandemic.


Our crisis-response and market reflections in Q1

When UMS’ China based teams were alerted to the Covid-19 outbreak during Chinese New Year – a 7-day public holiday, our employees were spread across China for the holiday break. Their health and safety has always been a top priority for us and we wasted no time in our response due to the uncertainty of the situation.

To ensure employees’ wellbeing, we quickly arranged all China based staff to work from home until Feb 24th. As the situation improved, we gradually opened our offices but with strict protection measures including temperature screening on arrival and thorough sanitisation.

Although China is now in a stage of economic rebound, nations around the world are facing the worst of the outbreak and there is a high level of uncertainty on how the situation will evolve. Despite this, businesses must have a plan in place and be ready to quickly pivot their strategies. Mature service providers will need to stay in close contact with clients in order to communicate any obstacles. Our focus is to help our clients smartly navigate the China market – a marketplace which has become completely digital since the Covid-19 outbreak.


Market education

UMS’ three domain expertise teams: establish, connect, and engage, have been working hard to conduct an overlook of online spheres and complete research and social listening activities. In response, UMS promptly launched China Morning Brief, a product consisting of daily email reports which identifies trending topics and consumer sentiment in specific industries in China. Lots of knowledge-based insights were also published via public channels and webinars were streamed to raise awareness on how China’s consumer habits are changing.


Connecting brands with KOLs

Secondly, UMS has increased its capacity to support clients to create and execute KOL (influencer) marketing strategies. Covid-19 caused many complications within the KOL environment which resulted in a high level of uncertainty and low influencer investment in the China market. The connect team was able to quickly generate effective solutions on KOL buying strategies and identify the best set of KOLs to work with in the short to mid-term, to both raise brand awareness and increase product purchases.


Provide digital solutions

The key business goal for UMS’ engage team was to help brands build a two-way communication channel between themselves and their consumers on social media. This unpredictable situation made clients cautious about investing in their digital infrastructures, including the implementation of digital facilitations to build customer databases. UMS’ digital solution was able to provide a cost-effective way for brands to have consumer engagement activities up and running during the pandemic.

The first quarter and first month of Q2 saw a huge change in UMS’ business performance, reflecting the market’s disruption and how businesses are actively responding to the pandemic.

1. Business strategy consultations and advisories on consumer sentiment on social were in strong demand.

2. Demand increased for services around social listening and consumer sentiment preference monitoring.

3. We saw a significant increase in client demand in implementing strategies to capture and engage new customers in Q2. Building digital infrastructures, implementing social CRMs, virtual events and live streaming became the focus for our engage team while client branding needs significantly reduced.

4. Many clients have seized short-term e-commerce opportunities and have approached UMS to assist with KOL (influencer) marketing strategies.


Planning for a new normal

As China enters the early stages of economic rebound, we are gradually moving from crisis response to post-recovery planning. Professionalism combined with agility will be our new normal in the next 6-12 months. Below are some actions we have adopted:

1. SAFTY MANAGEMENT: Employee safety remains our top priority. The HR and operations team have been trained to handle any emergency in the workplace.

2. COST CONTROL: A healthy cash flow can secure company sustainability and development, a cost control plan was developed by our finance team to guide us on any investments.

3. OPERATION EFFICIENCY: Business management efficiency and operation agility are the success indicators from disruption.

4. TALENT DEVELOPMENT PLAN: A range of talent development courses are being planned to provide opportunities for employees to develop and sustain their talent and skilful knowledge in the market.