BEIJING — Zeno is forming a joint venture with ex-BCW China CEO Qu Hong, as the independent PR firm rethinks its approach to the critical Chinese PR market.

The move, which comes one month after Qu Hong announced his departure from BCW, sees the creation of Zeno China Consulting, which will operate independently from Zeno Group's existing 15-person operation in the country.

Qu will serve as founder and CEO of Zeno China Consulting and joins the firm's global leadership team, although neither party would disclose how much equity they each own in the joint venture. Headquartered in Beijing, Zeno China Consulting will focus its efforts on strategic communications, marketing and business consulting at a C-suite level — an integrated offering that Qu believes is often lacking from international agency efforts in the country.

The new initiative, which upends the traditional agency approach of acquiring or starting their own businesses in China, comes as the country's PR market struggles to recover from the prolonged slowdown of the Covid-19 era.

"I still believe the China economy will continue to grow but on its own distinct path, and in a very different way to past decades," Qu told PRovoke Media. "Many new sectors and new brands are emerging — I don’t think the traditional ways will match this. My observation is that the C-suite level needs more holistic solutions for how they address their own business results, across PR, branding, business consulting, public affairs and crisis management expertise — this is not being addressed by current agency models."

Qu added that the joint ownership structure offers a more innovative solution to China's changing PR market, at a time when international businesses are under increasing pressure in the country. "We can combine local experience with a global network, rather than just a branch of the global network," said Qu. "We can run bigger risks and try newer things. This is much easier for a new company."

Zeno China's existing agency operation will remain led by president Ruby Fu, who will also serve as a senior advisor to Zeno China Consulting. While Zeno China has recorded healthy growth in recent years, Zeno global CEO Barby Siegel noted that the firm required a different approach to build a substantial business in a country where the biggest international PR firms weigh in at upwards of $25m in fee income.

"To be a global agency, you need to have strength and scale in China," said Siegel. "Keeping with the Zeno brand and how we think about and approach things, the idea of building a different kind of model felt like the right way to go for us. It's certainly an embodiment of our drive to be different, disruptive and fearless."

Zeno Asia-Pacific president Paul Mottram admitted that there will be some overlap between Zeno China and Zeno China Consulting, but that the latter will focus more on a C-suite client base, particularly Chinese companies and senior Chinese decision-makers at MNCs. Zeno China, he added, will work with its new sibling to develop campaigns across social media, PR, digital, advertising and public affairs.

Qu's pedigree as an agency leader is likely to prove critical to the new ownership structure's ability to succeed. He spent six years with BCW, including the past three as China CEO, after previously holding senior public policy roles at Weber Shandwick, Edelman and China's Ministry of Commerce.

"China is a very different place than it was even just a few years ago," said Mottram. "Qu Hong has a vision for a different kind of agency that is developed in and developed for China."

Qu noted that Zeno China Consulting will aim to recruit a more diversified talent pool, alongside more "flexible performance-based incentives." While many domestic Chinese agencies provide a range of marketing communications services, Qu believes that an overarching strategic communications mindset is often missing. "The most important thing to bring us together is the courage," he said. "This is definitely not going to be easy —innovation in today’s context will be a big challenge."