This Cross Border Communications Firm Has the Ears Of China's 'Global' Startups

Although a boutique communications agency, Eleven International is mostly known to an inner circle. But is quietly building a reputation for itself

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In a global environment, companies from different regions of the world can jockey with each other for a larger global share of voice. The competition today couldn’t be more stiff.

Paul Lin

But among Chinese tech startups in particular, the appetite to build a global brand is voracious. Chinese startups in the past would take step-by-step measures in markets including southeast Asia, India, east Asia and South America to make sure that the ROI was sound.

This approach today is increasingly being put by the wayside as they rush to build awareness among tech consumers. Most Chinese startups these days will aim to go big—from zero to a worldwide hit. It’s a high risk, high reward option, especially for a startup. But to have a shot at their dreams of global awareness, there’s no better way to make one known than by starting out by going direct to the thought leader capital of the world, the US.

Cross-border, a new type of agency model

Of course, this is easier said than done. Tech companies from China have to navigate around cultural barriers and uncertainty in today’s political landscape. And these are typically nuances that sit well outside of their comfort zone. So they’ll often look for an extra hand to navigate the Pacific on their way to the US.

To bridge this gap, there’s a small but new breed of nimble communications agencies that are rising up with cross-border capabilities. It’s not a new concept, but it’s unique as they’re increasingly operating from outside of their target markets. These agencies don’t command for agency budgets, but can deliver a lasting impact for startups that still manage to leave ripples on the other side of the world.

One agency that’s filling in the void is Eleven International.

Although a boutique communications agency, Eleven International is mostly known to an inner circle. But as a confidant to some globally recognized tech startups big and small from Beijing, Shenzhen and San Francisco, Eleven International is quietly building a reputation for itself.

Its clients tend to be venture capital funded AI, robotics and blockchain companies and include recognizable names including Alibaba, Kuaishou, TikTok and OPPO. But you might recognize a name or two from its roster of once unknown startups that Eleven International had a hand in putting on the global map. Some of these include Nreal and Rokid in augmented reality. Vincross and ForwardX in robotics. Cobo Wallet and imToken in crypto. CastBox the popular podcasting app.

Foreseeing a wave of change

If you were following drones back in 2016, you may remember Zero Zero Robotics’ foldable black AI drone, which could follow a user’s face. Called Hover Camera, the drone in its heyday briefly gave DJI a run for its money as it eventually flew into Apple Stores. That buzz compounded as Zero Zero Robotics was in acquisition talks with Snap. Spearheading marketing at the time for Zero Zero Robotics was Francis Bea.

But in the four years since Hover Camera, there’s been a marked shift with Chinese startups pursuing similar global ambitions that for some in the tech industry saw was coming from a mile away. And it’s this that Francis has since capitalized on by founding Eleven International.

In fact, in 2017 Francis reflected on Snapchat’s purported acquisition of Zero Zero Robotics through a Pingwest interview. Mulling on this acquisition, he saw it as a turning point that almost foresaw that Hover Camera wasn’t just one of a kind. It was just one example of something bigger at the time. “As more and more Chinese companies have sought to expand internationally, their collective experience—some successful, some not—has led to a new appreciation for the value of branding,” Pingwest wrote.

But what the story and Francis foretold was the impending ripple effect that a new generation of savvy international marketers operating from China would ignite. After all, they were the ones helming the next wave of globally recognized startups, from China.

“More and more companies are internally structured in a way that helps their employees succeed on the marketing front—we’re starting to see those companies pop up, like musical.ly,” Francis mused in the interview with Pingwest. “But people don’t realize it’s actually a Chinese app, either.”

And in hindsight, with TikTok on everyone’s minds today, it’s safe to say that the prediction wasn’t far off.

Getting to this point though takes a level of trust and understanding that offers a level of reliability that’s hard to come by.

“Eleven International comes from an in-house experience in PR in tech companies in China and they’re able to understand the scope of work and fast pace of Chinese companies better,” a marketing executive from one of the BAT/TMD companies explained. “They have a proven record of experience in PR and very reliable. So I know it’s in good hands when I work with Eleven International.”

Chinese, but with western characteristics

The well reported reality of dealing with both sides of the table is that Chinese tech companies often will work long hours, as Francis had admitted in a Wall Street Journal interview. Or as it’s common within tech companies in China, the dynamicity is very high to maintain first-mover advantage. This may lead to overnight policy changes that require quick adaptability.

For many Western agencies, keeping up with the pace can be a tough pill to swallow. But bridging the gap is where cross-border agencies like Eleven International seems to thrive.

There’s the apparent demand from startups in China that seek partners that offer a high degree of flexibility, can understand China’s work culture and nuances, and also able work with the Chinese work culture—a combination that China’s overseas marketers often find challenging.

Eleven International on the other hand, according to its clients, has seemingly adapted to their demands. In fact their clients cite that they can sometimes seem to work at all hours and has come to trust the agency’s ability to understand their needs despite cultural sensitives.

“Eleven International’s consistency and cultural sensitivity which, as you’d imagine, is quite a difficult thing to find. When you deal with different cultures, what’s paramount is fit, broad cultural awareness, and the ability to translate more than just concepts,” says Olivia Stockwell, Nreal’s head of marketing. “That sensitivity, you might refer to as a cultural consideration and understanding is what really puts Eleven International over the top for us.”

It’s a model that’s helped Nreal to make a sudden splash onto the augmented reality (AR) scene in 2018 and one of the reasons that the company continues its relationship with Eleven International. In fact, the Beijing-based AR startup Nreal has rapidly established a name for itself globally and now often compared to Magic Leap and Microsoft Hololens. And according to Olivia, Nreal continues to retain the agency.

It’s evident that with the Internet, the barrier to build a global brand no longer exists. The global market is now anyone’s game. With the right people or partners of trusted confidants that increasingly look closer to home, there isn’t much in their way. Eleven International might be one example, but it won’t be the only one helping overlooked startups rise above the noise to suddenly explode onto the international stage.