A new agency star rises in the East

How BlueFocus aims to become the Chinese version of WPP

As we prepare to put our annual PRWeek Agency Business Report to bed for another year, one theme that has emerged stronger than ever is the increasing globalization of public relations.

Expansion at the major PR firms has been especially fueled by Asia, with Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky among many others identifying China as a strong growth engine in the past five years, as well as India and South Korea.

But there is a new agency star rising in the East that has ambitions to compete on a global stage and is already making impressive inroads through an aggressive acquisition strategy that echoes the way Martin Sorrell grew his nascent WPP empire back in the 1980s.

BlueFocus unveils its 2013 full-year financials in Beijing on Monday and is expected to post global revenues in excess of $550 million, up more than 60% from 2012's $338 million.

Founded in 1996 by a group of five entrepreneurs in Beijing, the agency really came to prominence in 2010 when it went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange's Growth Enterprise Market (China's equivalent of the Nasdaq), having already established itself as the largest PR firm in the region working for tech clients such as Lenovo and Cisco.

Through its acquisitions, which included buying Chinese ad agency Bojie Advertisement, BlueFocus expanded revenues six-fold and turned itself into a genuinely integrated player. Other clients include homegrown tech companies such as Baidu and Tencent, and big global brands such as PepsiCo.

Last year, it paid £36.5 million for a 19.8% stake in Shandwick founder Lord Chadlington's British-based Huntsworth group, owner of PR agencies including Grayling and San Francisco-based Atomic, which it bought in 2011 and rebranded as Grayling in January 2014. And, in December, BlueFocus bought a majority stake in UK social media agency We Are Social for an initial payment of $30 million. It now employs over 2,000 people.

Before its IPO, BlueFocus had been courted by numerous global networks about being acquired, including, ironically, Huntsworth, but the entrepreneurial founders eventually decided to go their own way and shoot for a more ambitious outcome. Being public in China has helped its credibility in terms of acquiring other agencies in Asia and the rest of the world, as well as making it a more attractive employer in the notoriously fickle Chinese talent market.

The agency's leaders, spearheaded by CEO Wenquin "Oscar" Zhao, have an ambitious plan to grow tenfold by 2020 to over $3 billion and Chadlington has already characterized BlueFocus as on track to become China's answer to WPP. It intends to garner at least 30% of this growth revenue from outside China (i.e. approximately $1 billion) and sees the US as a critical market.

BlueFocus Communications Group of America's president is Helen Fu Thomas, a 20-year veteran of US ventures including S&W Fine Foods (now part of Del Monte), LeapFrog, and Livescribe. Thomas explained to me this week that BlueFocus' mission is to build bridges between the US and Asia and help brands go back and forth between the two. This is especially the case on social media, where international brands are keen to understand the potential for them on Asian social networks, and Chinese brands want to take advantage of opportunities on global social media platforms.

BlueFocus has about 1,000 clients in China, many of which want to grow overseas. Its priorities are conducting effective client work between the two cultures; the acquisition of entrepreneurial agency brands in the PR, design, social and integrated spaces; and big data, social, gaming, and advertising relevant to marketing communications.

The Huntsworth and We Are Social deals have really put BlueFocus on the global map and more agencies are now contacting BlueFocus than vice versa. I would expect to see at least one deal in the US this year as the agency continues along the road to becoming "China's answer to WPP" and, by the end of this decade, a serious competitor to big global PR players such as Edelman, Weber Shandwick, and FleishmanHillard.

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