by Berlin School of Creative Leadership.    September 04, 2019

Year after year, China is proving itself to be the next global stage for innovation and technology. But what are the cultural nuances of Chinese creativity and entrepreneurship that have paved this foundation? We spoke with Bessie Lee, Founder and CEO of Withinlink, a China-based start-up incubator and early stage venture fund, focused on Marketing Technology that supports China’s media communications industry. Bessie gave us an inside look at her work at Withinlink, and shared her insights on the trends and challenges of innovating, staying relevant and empowering change in large organizations.


Let’s start with a little introduction to the work you do at Withinlink. What new perspectives and value do you bring to the start-ups that you work with?

I started Withinlink in 2015. It was a chance to explore my own venture, while I was still CEO at WPP China. My team and I have all come from the marketing world. I think our insight on how the industry operates and particularly the pain-points of the industry and our clients, and also our connections with brands, advertisers and agencies are the kind of resources that a lot of Marketing Technology startups are missing big time. And not just in China, but everywhere. In China, there are so many financial investors, but not enough strategic investors who can help to guide the Marketing Technology start-ups through the industry and to help them find money to sustain their business.


What trends and challenges are specific to innovating and staying relevant in China?

Compared to a lot of other countries, China is still a relatively young country. We opened up to the rest of the world 40 years ago. Marketing and advertising-wise, it’s less than 30 years old. The country itself is still trying to innovate. I’m sure you can read in the press that much of our technology has skipped generations. Our consumers have leapt straight to mobile and skipped landline. We’ve skipped through credit cards and gone straight to mobile payment, and so on. Consumers in China are very curious about anything that’s new. So, for any company to stay relevant in China, you need to constantly come up with new ideas and new offerings to surprise the consumers. Otherwise, they are shifting all the time. That’s a huge challenge to any company, not just start-ups and tech companies, but to a lot of the big brands that have been around forever.


“Innovation” sounds positive, but it can be challenging to implement internally. What leadership challenges is an Innovation Officer likely to come up against and you what advice do you have for company’s who want to work past these challenges?

I think that the first challenge is in the title itself – ‘Innovation Officer’. Any company that has a Chief Innovation Officer is almost telling the entire company that the responsibility of being innovative lies only with that person. Everyone gets the impression that innovation is none of their business or not part of their KPIs. ‘Look to the Innovation Officer to come up with the next big idea!’ For a company to send a message like that is already a big challenge. It’s wrong. Innovation is the entire company’s responsibility. The second challenge is authority. If you have an Innovation Officer, usually they don’t have any direct authority in terms of hiring or firing throughout critical departments in the company, then that officer can only lead by influence. They don’t have true authority in terms of implementing changes within the organization. In this kind of environment, any proposal that an Innovation Officer comes up with may not be taken seriously. The third challenge for a big company is the system of silos within the organization. Oftentimes, innovation is not just down to one department or one team. It has to involve several teams and several divisions to make it happen. But if a company hasn’t found an effective way of breaking down silos or at least making sure that the silos can collaborate effectively with one another, then innovation is at risk of being diminished during the process of being broken down across these teams.


You must have witnessed some pretty inspiring acts of innovation and reinvention throughout your career. Is there a particular organization in China that you admire that has truly embraced innovation as part of their DNA?

It’s not a tech company, but I really admire Loreal China. They used to be my client when I was at WPP. Compared to Unilever and P&G, they’re a relatively new brand in China. Loreal surprised me because they really embrace that newness. The CEO back then, and now, would allow their teams to go out and try something new. And they put in place a tolerance of failure which is really crucial. Oftentimes, innovation happens in the ‘unknown’. You can only get acquainted with the unknown via trial and error. And when you try, there’s always a chance that you’re going to fail. Loreal learned to embrace failure in a way that gave their teams space to go and try new things. For example, in Loreal, the CEO set up a cross-discipline division which was given about five smaller brands to manage. Structurally, the CEO orchestrated to put marketing, data, and logistics management all under the same roof within that team. It was true integration. And the woman who was tasked to manage that team did a fantastic job at making sure that all these disciplines worked well and integrated together. As a result of that integrated team, marketing decisions were data-driven; e-commerce decisions were data-driven, and they were working together hand in hand. In the past year, we’ve all read about China’s economy slowing down and that mass-market brands are in decline. But in Loreal, this team was still seeing more than 100% in sales growth. Given the macro-environment in which other brands were in decline, their growth was not slowing down. That’s just one small example of what Loreal is doing. They’re very pro-active and they’re very hungry to embrace innovation in China. For a big organization, that is not easy. But to simplify it, the company just put action behind its words.


You’ve talked in the past about innovation and amplification. If an innovative company is looking to market their work and really speak to a new audience, what qualities should they be looking for in a creative partner or agency?

If a tech company chooses to work with an agency, – in its traditional definition, like a WPP or Omnicom – they should ask the agency to name the three most innovative changes the agency has made in their company in the past year. From here, you can understand if their interpretation of innovation is at the same level as yours. Otherwise, you might find that you’re not at the same wavelength and you’ll have mismatched expectations when it comes to being innovative for your own audience.


With this amplification idea in mind, what would you say is the role of good story-telling when it comes to driving innovation?

Story-telling is definitely important. But if you’re a technology company, and especially if you’re a 2C technology company, there is almost certainly a product offering that the consumer will want to enjoy. You need to make sure you’re telling that story but also that your product can deliver. Otherwise, there’ll be a mismatch of expectation versus actual delivery. In China, you will lose your audience very quickly this way.


Let’s bring it back to your day-to-day work. What is the fundamental thing that motivates you and gives you joy in your work at Withinlink?

I want to see changes through our investment and through our incubations that we can introduce to the old advertising world, and either disrupt that industry or help that industry to transform themselves – ultimately to come up with a new model. That is the level of change that motivates me and excites me every day at Withinlink. I think inch by inch, we’re doing that. Every day is a fantastic day for me, because I know we’re going to go out there and make small changes that are going to surprise people.