Imagine china, new office in a challenging country

Jerome Lacrosniere, Director at Imagine China ,  the leading photo agency in China, recently sent us some pictures of their new office in Shanghai. Having already visited their very well designed former premises I asked him a few questions about the reasons behind moving to a new office    

Jerome, you moved to a bigger office in the middle of a great recession and by the looks of your design you haven’t held back on spending. What made you decide to make such a bold move?

Was really great to see you in our place a few months ago Marco. You’d be surprised how few people actually really come to China to understand what is happening despite daily claims this is the greatest hope or last whatever frontier of our industry. I am impressed with some of our rare partners who manage to come regularly to both discuss on the market evolution and review our operation. It brings nothing to simply feel things are changing in China, but physically coming to question the reality of the Chinese Market makes a key difference.

Back to our new office, we greatly developed our commercial operation in the past two years. We then had pressing needs for reorganising a fast changing and growing business. Plus mid last year was a period of historical low occupancy and better conditions for tenants in Shanghai. Finally we signed with a rare municipal landlord who could offer stable and long term lease, something still rare in shanghai.

Where is the office located and what are the advantages over the previous one?

Very downtown, and importantly for our staff right behind a new subway line just opened a few weeks ago and before the world expo.

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How many people are in the office now? Have you grown your team?

We have 100 staff in China. More or less the same number than the past two years, but with an improved turnover management. Main operation is in Shanghai with 80 people and teams nearly running 24/7. Beijing bureau is mostly sales. Then we have a couple of guys in different regional cities. Overall, we cover all North, East, West and South China, each region has its own specificities.

I noticed from the pictures that you have a studio in the middle of the office floor. How is that working out? What is the studio used for mostly?

We have daily needs to feed our editorial, commercial and corporate businesses.

For our local news service, we syndicate close to 1000 chinese photos from our regional paper syndication and contributing photogs. We also have a few staff photogs in Shanghai and Beijing. Besides regular corporate and commercial jobs, the studio is of great help to provide a few additional and exclusive thematics and illustrations to beef up the news service.

Now to integrate a studio in our office offers more flexibility as we are greatly developing our stock business. We have been distributing RF/RM for the past five years, and decided recently to start commercial productions. We built a fresh new production team, mixing experienced foreign creative director with very talented local photogs and production people.

Our office is located in a former factory building, the owner agreed we opened the roof and allowed us to create a 40sqm of glass roof, this gives us fantastic daylight, something unique downtown, really good for mixing studio and natural lightning environment. Studio is now operating every day, already too small.

I remember you designed most of the your previous and very cool office yourself, was it the same this time?

We stayed six years in our former premises which were about 650 sqm. The new set up is slightly bigger at 800 sqm. We had clear ideas how we wanted to re organise the different depts. especially under the angle of the growing production and commercial teams.

We actually did our former office ourselves directly employing a construction company. The new project was more ambitious. We knew we wanted to build something solid to support a few years in a challenging environment where quick growth but also sudden crisis can impact your business quickly. We commissioned a team of young and talented architects from a french firm recently based in Shanghai. Building our new office was a great experience. We learnt a lot about us.

We will talk about this more later but I just want to touch on this briefly; the hopes of the world seem to be on a quick recovery of the Chinese economy. Do you think this is correct? Are you seeing things improving quickly this year?

Hopes are biaised Marco. We are in China in an economy where savings represent more than 40% of the revenues. This not only for cultural reasons but most likely linked to deep distrust towards failing redistribution systems. And when they consume, the Chinese  mostly buy luxury, cars and real estate. No need to be a genious to anticipate that if they save less and really start buying  consumer goods and services, business should surely steadily grow. Does this not sound good to our naive ears? but these were already the assumptions of P&G 20 years ago.

I would like to be more optimistic, but besides the general crisis of our industry, better call it structural mutation, there are still so much issues specifically inherent to China, from severe internet controls which prevent us for example from working; API, daily censorships, rampant piracy. All legal and administrative obstacles, from lack of IP rights protection to unreliable court decision enforcement, institutionalised corruption, government and other blurred agencies intrusive actions and regulations,…

I suggest you read this great recent article James McGregor wrote in Time last month, , a smart introduction to understand what we are facing daily.

Overall, the main issue lies less with any recovery of China and more with  our ability to provide and understand the needs of Chinese clients. We need to provide high quality local productions and services at reasonable prices to both editorial and especially commercial clients that are less and less willing to use foreign content.

The market has changed a lot into that direction since the Beijing Olympics. I think time to simply bring foreign collections to China has passed. In any case, you already need very strong re-editing, then full captioning with Chinese keywords. Eventually, these will only supplement an offer that should primarily be based on local productions.

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Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

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