Viveca Chan ’76: Ad Agency Pioneer

Viveca Chan co-founded WE Marketing Group, China’s first international ad agency. The company, with offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, and Hong Kong, helps global marketers represent their products to the Chinese market. Courtesy of Viveca Chan.

When Viveca Chan ’76 stepped onto campus in 1973, it was her first visit to the United States. A young woman from a Hong Kong banking family, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life — only that she wanted a U.S. education.

Today she’s the founder, chair, and CEO of WE Marketing Group, China’s first international advertising agency based in that country. WE represents global power brands such as Estée Lauder, Mercedes-Benz, and Lufthansa with a staff of two hundred and offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, and Hong Kong.

Chan says that UW-Madison “let me explore who I am and what I like,” as she wandered through majors such as French and business before stumbling into a marketing course her third year. From there, her trajectory was swift and certain — even though her father had hoped she’d become a doctor or a lawyer, or, at least, another banker.

“When I told him I wanted to get into advertising, he said, ‘You must be kidding,’ ” Chan recalls. “ ‘I paid for all this U.S. education, and you want to be a walking salesman?’ ”

Undeterred, Chan dove into her coursework and other opportunities. She cut her cold-calling teeth as an advertising sales representative at the Badger Herald before signing on at the UW Press in customer relations. She also knocked on the door of the International House of Pancakes on campus and offered to put her newfound marketing skills to good use — for free.

Armed with a business degree and a glowing resume, Chan returned to Hong Kong and landed her first ad agency job. Within three years, she was working for the agency that eventually became industry leader Grey Global Group. In the mid-1980s, she emigrated to Canada to hone her skills with multinational clients, then returned to China in 1989 just as that market was opening up. Chan found herself perfectly positioned to help U.S., U.K., and European brands represent their products to the Chinese market. But she couldn’t help wondering, “How come China is one of the world’s biggest ad markets, but there is no kind of global agency there?”

In 2005, Chan and six partners co-founded WE, the name derived from the first letters of West and East. She thrives on challenges such as the cross-cultural social-media problem. Because YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are blocked in China, Chan must help global advertisers to harness such Chinese platforms as Weibo and Wechat to get in front of the country’s half-billion Internet users. Today, her long list of professional accolades includes a spot on Ad Age Global’s 2012 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising list, alongside Oprah Winfrey and Coco Chanel. She’s used her UW experience “countless” times, she says, even busting out her old marketing textbooks while creating WE’s business plan.

“At Wisconsin, I really did learn things that help me today in terms of marketing and advertising,” says Chan. “But more importantly than the content itself is the way that it was taught: that nothing is going to be spoon-fed to you; you’ve got to take the extra step to learn and be inquisitive. I learned the approach to learning.”

Published in the Winter 2013 issue

Tags: Alumni, Business, China, International

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