Store Builds. Creative. Merchandising. Brand Strategy. Logistics.
The Story Behind WPIC’s Engagements Team
Sit down and have a conversation with WPIC Executive Vice President of Engagements, Alex Palmer, and it’s clear his fixation is not limited to the present.
He’s hyper-focused on the future and how to execute his vision of what that future can look like – for his organization, his team, his brand partners, and their stakeholders and their partners. He’s delicately balancing today’s key goals with what’s going to be crucial tomorrow.
It’s safe to say that his challenge is a unique one:
Step 1. Take a growing consultancy and enablement partner whose focus is the most explosive growth markets in the world: APAC.
Step 2. Rapidly expand its core solution set so that brand partners are the net beneficiaries of an end-to-end digital, e-commerce, and logistics system.
Step 3. Build a dedicated service layer, operating across 24 time zones, several languages and numerous disciplines.
“It’s an interesting challenge, and one that forces you to live both in the present and in the future. I liken it to changing the tire on a car that’s already moving,” remarks Alex.
“There are things we absolutely need to focus on today to ensure that our brand partners are seeing meaningful growth for their businesses in the region and are being delighted with each touchpoint. On the other hand, our team is spending a significant amount of resources thinking about what the future is going to look like – not only for the key players in APAC, but equally for our partners and our own capabilities too.”
Tasked with re-building WPIC’s brand new Engagements division in 2020, Alex has been scaling up a component to the firm that hadn’t been a focal point of the business before – a dedicated client service that bridges together WPIC’s brand partners around the world and the APAC-based operations teams.
“At a high level, the Engagements team exists to maximize value for our brand partners,” he explains. “We exist to ensure they receive high-value, seamless, effective service for the entire duration of their engagement with WPIC, from the strategy development phase through to the execution phase.”
“Not only does the Engagements team ensure that the strategy for each brand partner is well-structured, but they also ensure that that strategy is being executed effectively, for the duration of an organization’s partnership with WPIC,” he adds. “In practice, what this looks like is that the Engagements team serves as the primary point of contact for our brand partners and governs their APAC business.”
Why do this?
“This is a significant pivot,” explains Joseph Cooke, Co-founder and President of WPIC Marketing + Technologies. “Along with Jacob, our CEO, our position has always been to invest in building out the data, technology, and e-commerce product layers, because the best tech is absolutely required to win in APAC, and that’s been our north star for the past 12 years. But as we’ve looked towards the future, we’ve become convinced that the winning formula is to be both end-to-end vertically integrated, and, at the same time, provide our brand partners with the best human layer in the business. This is all about working with people, delighting them, and leveraging technology in the process.”
“If you can be the port in the storm for the brand partners, you’re going to make APAC markets so much more accessible for them. So, we went ahead and invested in this Engagements division. And what that team has been able to do so far is bridge language, culture, and time zone differences between our operations teams in APAC and our partners around the world. Ultimately, we want to sit on the same side of the boardroom as our brand partners, looking at the horizon together, and it’s been quite successful.”
“Anyone who has gone to market in APAC will tell you that it’s a whole other ball game with respect to just how many different moving parts there are. There are negotiations with platforms, creative execution, shipping and logistics, in-market compliance, performance marketing, merchandising, and so much more. So, we wanted to simplify every element of that process for any brand looking at a market entry or growth program. Rather than deal with hundreds of moving parts, the brand deals with one entity and a few key points of contact in our organization,” explains Alex, an executive wise beyond his years that’s executed digital transformation projects for companies like Shell and Cargill.
A Deep Bench of Specialist Talent
The moment a brand joins the WPIC portfolio, they are appointed a team of specialists to guide their program. While each partner requires a unique arrangement, almost all programs leverage the services of an Engagements manager and several coordinators.
“The Engagements Manager is a crucial role” Joseph explains. “With the support of the coordinators, that individual is mandated to manage every aspect of a market growth program. They are like the quarterbacks on their respective teams. And we’ve been fortunate to have found some killers – digital first, APAC-first, business acumen-first, with subject matter expertise.”
“I’m in awe of our team,” remarks Alex. “We’ve managed to tap into this incredible talent pool, and they’re totally empowered to leverage their own creativity and problem-solving abilities. They’re the ones who act on behalf of the brands. Our senior leadership team just builds systems around them and puts them in position to succeed.”
To help shepherd these brands in APAC, WPIC’s Engagements managers and coordinators bring together a diverse background in product merchandising, program management, and marketing – and have a nuanced understanding of the e-commerce environment in China and other APAC markets.
Take, for instance, Toronto-based Director of Engagements Abigail Liu, who has spent a decade working with both Chinese and international brands at some of the world’s leading marketing agencies – and leverages this expertise to help foreign brands grow in the Chinese market.
“For so many of our brand partners, it’s been a bit of an education,” explains Abigail, who joined the Engagements team in 2020. “I think at this point, most people in the digital and online commerce worlds understand that platforms and consumer behavior in Asia are going to be different from the West. But what I consistently find is that most new brands are a bit unaware of just how different, at a tactical level, any market growth plan is going to look like. The steps that our brand partners need to take in-market are going to be something they’re not at all used to. So, a good portion of our respective roles involves us being the liaison between the brand and the market. Reducing what could otherwise be a friction-filled experience is a key part of the job.”
Vancouver-based Engagements Manager Snow Yu has rich experience across both e-commerce and marketing in China. She explains that while “omni-channel” may be a bit of a buzzword in the West that’s not fully realized for most companies, it is crucial in APAC.
“Because the landscape is so much more fragmented over there, a significant component of a brand’s success in China and broader APAC is their capacity to utilize omnichannel marketing—both within the marketplaces and through other digital channels – to drive traffic to the store and convert more buyers,” Snow explains.
“Now, when you consider that, besides that fragmentation, China is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in the world, it becomes even more important to partner with a team that has their finger on the pulse of that world and can explain that landscape and execute within it. “So, we make sure brands understand what the key channels are, why they’re important, and how best to go about activating them,” she adds.
Subject Matter Experts
Before a brand partner meets Abigail or Snow, however, their store must go from concept to transactional. And there are more than 1000 individual steps to make that a reality.
Enter divisional leaders Jen Rowan, Justice Hampton, Charles Lavoie, and their respective teams.
These subject matter experts are geographically spread out across the globe, working alongside the Engagements managers and coordinators, with almost all brands in the WPIC portfolio, to assist with creative, merchandising and project management.
After knowing and collaborating with the Cooke brothers for several years in China, Charles Lavoie joined WPIC to build out and oversee the new Creative Labs division. Having lived in Beijing for over a decade, he led brand strategy in-market for organizations like Daimler, Nestle, Bauer, and many more.
“We’ve wanted to have Charles join WPIC for many years now, and we’re thrilled he’s leading our creative endeavors,” explains Joseph. “This guy is a star who builds brands in China like no one else. He understands the different consumers so well and does a phenomenal job translating the essence of foreign brands to the Chinese market.”
In the onboarding stage, Charles works with brands to develop a creative strategy for their market-entry program.
Leaning on human psychology, demographic insights, pop-culture trends, and other key elements that tap into consumer behavior in market, Charles and his creative team – based across multiple offices in China – identify a brand’s target audience, and then develop localized design assets that can be leveraged to appeal to that audience – both through in-platform and out-of-platform channels.
“Creativity has become brass tacks in China,” Charles explains. “You need creative campaigns that attract consumer attention and sell them on both product benefits and a brand identity. It’s the case around the world and China is no exception.”
“Another very real challenge is figuring out the appropriate amount to localize your content. Whenever we work with a brand, there is always a fascinating balance that we have to strike between the organization’s natural and authentic creative and their need to localize content for the APAC markets – beyond just translation.”
His counterpart is new Director of Merchandising Justice Hampton, who joined WPIC having worked for 15 years in product merchandising for Ralph Lauren, Coach, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Lululemon.
Working closely with WPIC’s data sciences team in Beijing, Justice’s chief responsibility in the onboarding phase is to advise brand partners on which SKUs they should bring to market, at what price, and at what inventory volume. Then, he leverages that data and his experience to build out “the science of sell-through”.
“Merchandising strategy is essential, so we do that in-house because we have a deep understanding of its value,” Justice explains. “It’s no longer the case that brands can simply flood the market with SKUs at home market prices and expect to make profit.”
“Today across APAC, it’s much more complicated. We lean on data to get some powerful insights into consumer behavior in the market. Then, once we have those insights, we develop formulations on how they can maximize turnover and drive growth with their program.”
“Having a world-class merchandising team has been a game-changer for us,” explains Joseph. “When we’re talking with clients about ‘buy orders’, ‘sell through rates’, or ‘cash conversion cycles’, it’s a much more in-depth conversation than what they’re used to, so that expertise is a big point of differentiation for us. Many brands want to know ‘what does your product team look like?’ Well, we’ve got a fantastic division, led by a rock star in Justice.”
Tying all the moving parts together to get a store live?
Meet Jen Rowan, Director of Project Management.
Having arrived at WPIC with over 20 years of project management experience at several of North America’s leading consumer giants, Jen specializes in business performance management, small to large-scale program management, and knowledge management.
She draws on this experience to manage the complex program of launching a brand on one – or several – of China’s leading e-commerce marketplaces.
Her primary tasks involve carrying out the operational and regulatory procedures for launching an online store in China. Whether she is lobbying for access from platforms, ensuring product compliance, deciding on a plan for shipping and warehousing or settling payments into merchant accounts, her part of the “go-live relay” lasts between 45 and 90 days, and applies a project management framework to each engagement.
“Imagine you’re solving your half of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but you’ve only got 2 hours to do it and it’s got to be set up in such a way that the next person is also successful,” Jen laughs.
“It’s hectic, and intense – but fun. You’re coordinating so many different elements – brand partners, platforms, design processes, global shipping considerations, regulatory frameworks, and more.”
“Piece by piece, you’re watching the program progress, and at the end of the on-boarding process, you look up, and you see there’s a business in China that’s been built. It’s deeply satisfying.”
From Onboarding to Store Launch
The keys to the program are handed over to the Engagement Managers and the brand partners. At this point, together, they’ve built out an over-arching strategy for the program, which generally includes detailed revenue trajectories, merchandising, brand-building, and product marketing. While there are multiple people operating each program, it is the Engagement Manager who acts as the brand’s “chief shepherd” in the market.
“By this point, we’ve had a lot of discussions with our brand partners about both in-market vision and the specific strategy needed to get to that vision. Once we hit this mark in the program, the store is ready to go live,” explains Abigail.
A Partnership Ethos for the Future
So, where does it go from here?
“A mile wide and a mile deep,” responds Alex. “Not only do we need to know and deliver everything better than everyone else in the market, but we’re also obsessed with delighting our brand partners in the process.”
As for the long-term future, it’s safe to say that what we’re building out is going to be a crucial part of our organization’s identity for years to come and we see a ton of runway to scale up these solutions – no matter how Asia’s dynamic landscape changes.”
“Jacob’s got this fiercely technical and operational background, while Joseph is a product of Shangri-La Hotels’ 5-star hospitality management training. In that way, WPIC is in a unique position to be able to combine those two approaches.”
“Essentially, the Engagements division is how WPIC delivers operational excellence on fine porcelain.”