For connecting Chinese artists to global brands.
The 1930s Shanghai town house is buzzing with activity: In the ground-level photo studio, stylists are tying a dozen orange helium balloons into a male model's long black hair as part of a shoot for Red Bull energy drink. Up the staircase, which bursts with colorful Chinese graffiti art, video gurus are adding animation to some clips for Gap jeans and cutting together footage from a relaunch party for Adidas's Stan Smith sneakers. In another office, a young woman in a stocking cap is scouring the Internet, scouting for Chinese street artists, musicians, photographers, and sculptors to feature in a bilingual web magazine she updates daily with new discoveries. The door to her shared work space bears an Andy Warhol quote: "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."
Welcome to NeochaEdge, a hub of Chinese creativity and commerce that's got global brands banging at the door. The company's nimble group of two dozen whiz kids is sussing out some of the freshest young Chinese artists, marketing their talents, and generating content for multinational companies including Volvo, eBay, Esprit, Nike, and Vans. Along the way, they're taking a sledgehammer to the notion that China can only copy—not create and innovate.
"The goal is to be the first internationally recognized Chinese creative agency, because there just isn't one yet," says NeochaEdge and driving force Adam Schokora, 33, a Detroit native and fluent Mandarin speaker who's been living in China for more than a decade. "As late as 2006–07, the creative industry in China was still hit or miss. But there's been a huge jump in the last couple of years. It's tremendous, the number of great artists, designers, and creative thinkers coming out of here."
Schokora first visited China as a teen; post-college, he landed at global PR firm Edelman in Beijing, where he began consuming Chinese pop culture and learning his way around the developing Chinese Internet. He struck out on his own about seven years ago, teaming with friends to build a social media site—along the lines of MySpace—for Chinese artists. They dubbed it Neocha (cha means "tea" in Mandarin). Despite attracting about 100,000 active users, they struggled to generate sufficient ad revenue.
Then, inspiration struck: Instead of trying to peddle companies and products to China's artistic community, why not sell Chinese artists to corporations eager to attract the mainland's young masses? Neocha began matching artists in its network to corporate clients with myriad needs—graphic designs for T-shirts, illustrations for books, music for film scores. Eventually, Neocha opened its own agency, NeochaEdge, staffing it with multihyphenates such as Jimi Zhang (account director–stylist-producer), Leon Yan (filmmaker photographer), and Taylor Shen (curator-editor).
The Neocha social media site became a curated platform, and the top artists were highlighted in a polished web magazine edited by Shen. The best of the best, fewer than 200 artists so far, have been invited into a community called Edge Creative Collective. NeochaEdge draws on this group to supercharge its clients' projects. An e-store sells prints, toys, and books made by members.
International brands are eager to affiliate themselves with local artists and influencers—from rural handicrafters to indie bands and urban graphic designers—to communicate to consumers that they're part of the contemporary cultural fabric.
"NeochaEdge has managed to create an amazing network of artists," says Pratik Thakar, Coca-Cola's vice president for creative and content excellence, Asia Pacific. "They have influence and access, because they are continuously scouting and advocating with artist communities... Large ad agencies, multinational agencies, they don't have this kind of reach or influence." NeochaEdge helped Coca-Cola understand music trends in the region's smaller cities to shape a marketing campaign.
Grace Wong, Shanghai-based vice president of marketing for Gap Inc., has enlisted NeochaEdge on numerous projects; Schokora and Zhang recently put together a campaign in which 10 artists—five from China and five from the U.S.—will reimagine the clothier's logo for a new "Remix" collection of T-shirts hitting Chinese stores in May. "Adam has really tapped into the Chinese psyche, and specifically that younger person between 20 and 30," says Wong. "To have such an understanding of that market is pretty cool."
Adidas recently had the company execute a guerrilla-style street-art project in Beijing and Shanghai—which briefly landed two NeochaEdge employees in police custody. ("The cops took them in, and we sort of had to bail them out, whatever," says Schokora. "It was a lot of fun.")
Whatever NeochaEdge does, there's one point it doesn't budge on: The artists always get paid. "It is something I believe in strongly," says Schokora. "One of the best things we can do is create consistent, paying opportunities for the most talented folks we see."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.