Changemakers: Louis Houdart

Globe-trotting Parisian entrepreneur who launched China’s first native branding agency

By Nick Mickshik 09 May 2019

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Photo by

Weihao Zhang

As CEO of the first made-in-China branding agency, Louis Houdart EMBAG2012 knows how to tell a story. Essentially, he helps clients, especially native Chinese companies, “find their soul”; an exercise that excites him just as much today as when he launched Creative Capital China in Shanghai in 2011. It quickly grew to become one of the leading independent branding agencies in China, adding offices in Paris, Shenzhen, New York and Jakarta and boasting an extensive client portfolio that includes LVMH group, Chanel, L’Oréal group and leading Chinese brands such as Aimer and Goodbaby.

Still expanding fast (it is doubling in size every year), it’s no wonder that international retail communication specialists Altavia group bought the agency in January, with Houdart retaining his role as Creative Capital General Manager and becoming Altavia Chief Strategy Officer for Asia – “a new and fun challenge,” as he puts it.

This phenomenal success is down to Houdart’s ability to work with clients who are world leading when it comes to manufacturing products, but who don’t get the concept of branding. His job is to fashion narratives around the products to appeal to the contemporary, fashion-conscious Chinese consumer.

The secret of his success? “If you do what you love and love what you do, it isn’t work – it’s love.” Now in his early 40s, the Parisian looks astonishingly fresh-faced – more like an intern than the CEO of a multi-award-winning, international branding agency. Before founding Creative Capital, he studied and worked in London, Barcelona, Singapore and New York, gaining an MBA from Columbia Business School and London Business School in 2012 and a masters degree in branding from SDA Bocconi in Milan, then launched his entrepreneurial career in Shanghai, where he created, built and sold a leading floristry chain.

The love is in the story. When Lancôme asked Creative Capital to help them talk to Chinese consumers, Houdart eschewed visual cultural clichés such as the Eiffel Tower and instead offered VIP customers “a piece of Paris history, something unique … a genuine vintage Paris postcard sourced from a Paris flea market”. The simple, impactful idea is typical of his preference for realness before razzmatazz.

His own story bears some telling. In his first job in China, he interned as a brand manager for a small wine importer with offices in Shanghai and Beijing.

A Frenchman working for an American and a New Zealander, trying to import wine into China? Visions of huge cultural barriers to entry spring to mind, but Houdart is quick to play them down. Rather than focus on difference, he looked to integrate as quickly as possible, rapidly becoming fluent in Mandarin and finding common ground between Chinese and French culture – a shared passion for high-quality food and wine, family values and an emphasis on forging strong personal relationships in business dealings. Clients often invite him to discuss business over Sunday lunch. “It doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “It’s just going over to friends for lunch.”

On top of a formidable travel schedule (10 days a month in China, split between Shanghai and Shenzhen, the rest “on the road”), he also finds time to be Foreign Trade Advisor to the French Government and Vice President and Executive Board Member of the French Chamber of Commerce in China.

This ability to fuse cultures is reflected in his apartment in an historic, Art-Deco-style building by Suzhou Creek: he has changed the layout, but has been careful to retain much of its classic Shanghainese feel. Its location also testifies to Houdart’s ability to live effortlessly in different worlds:

“The area is very quiet, but it’s also very close to all the action.”

Beyond the evident passion for his work (he “lives and breathes branding”), he has the capacity to “look above the handlebars,” as the French say; to retain a sense of perspective on business dealings and not lose sight of what’s really important. What’s really important to Houdart is loyalty – to clients, friends, family and employees – and remaining grounded. He walks everywhere or takes local transport and prizes the company of people he likes, almost above those he respects.

Asked for his thoughts about the future for young people and entrepreneurship in China, he is typically positive: “The Chinese have a great talent for adaptation.”

It is clearly a talent he shares. After talking with him, you come away with the feeling that anything is possible.

‘If you do what you love and love what you do, it isn’t work – it’s love’

His own story bears some telling. In his first job in China, he interned as a brand manager for a small wine importer with offices in Shanghai and Beijing.

A Frenchman working for an American and a New Zealander, trying to import wine into China? Visions of huge cultural barriers to entry spring to mind, but Houdart is quick to play them down. Rather than focus on difference, he looked to integrate as quickly as possible, rapidly becoming fluent in Mandarin and finding common ground between Chinese and French culture – a shared passion for high-quality food and wine, family values and an emphasis on forging strong personal relationships in business dealings. Clients often invite him to discuss business over Sunday lunch. “It doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “It’s just going over to friends for lunch.”

On top of a formidable travel schedule (10 days a month in China, split between Shanghai and Shenzhen, the rest “on the road”), he also finds time to be Foreign Trade Advisor to the French Government and Vice President and Executive Board Member of the French Chamber of Commerce in China.

This ability to fuse cultures is reflected in his apartment in an historic, Art-Deco-style building by Suzhou Creek: he has changed the layout, but has been careful to retain much of its classic Shanghainese feel. Its location also testifies to Houdart’s ability to live effortlessly in different worlds:

“The area is very quiet, but it’s also very close to all the action.”

Beyond the evident passion for his work (he “lives and breathes branding”), he has the capacity to “look above the handlebars,” as the French say; to retain a sense of perspective on business dealings and not lose sight of what’s really important. What’s really important to Houdart is loyalty – to clients, friends, family and employees – and remaining grounded. He walks everywhere or takes local transport and prizes the company of people he likes, almost above those he respects.

Asked for his thoughts about the future for young people and entrepreneurship in China, he is typically positive: “The Chinese have a great talent for adaptation.”

It is clearly a talent he shares. After talking with him, you come away with the feeling that anything is possible.

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