Small agency guns for the top

GOVT's Leon Lai (left) and Aaron Koh (right)
GOVT's Leon Lai (left) and Aaron Koh (right)PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
GOVT's Leon Lai and Aaron Koh have done work for companies such as Airbnb Singapore.
GOVT's Leon Lai and Aaron Koh have done work for companies such as Airbnb Singapore.PHOTO: GOVT

Standing tall among the big boys of advertising is a small firm with a commanding name.

But the three men behind GOVT are not posturing. In the 21/2 years since they started their advertising agency, they have landed accounts with big brands such as Nestle Singapore and Airbnb Singapore and Malaysia.

Within 17 months, the agency was selected as Singapore's Local Hero at the 2014 Agency of the Year Awards, organised by Marketing Magazine, the longest-running publication for advertising and marketing professionals in the Asia Pacific.

The award recognises the company as the best local and independent agency in the creative category.

GOVT also opened a branch in Kuala Lumpur last year and now have 30 staff in the two offices.

It is a long way from GOVT's early days when Mr Leon Lai, 31, the group's managing director; Mr Aaron Koh, 32, executive creative director for the Singapore office; and Mr Casey Loh, 37, executive creative director for their Malaysian office, started out on their own - with just $10,000. All of them are married.

Mr Lai says they called themselves GOVT, hoping to "do good work for our clients and our employees - just like how a government should be".

Among them, they have worked for the who's who of the creative world, including Ogilvy RedCard Singapore, DDB and Publicis KL.

Even then, they still had to get up on their soapbox to prove that they had enough creative chops.

Mr Lai, who co-founded his own agency, Riot, which operated from 2009 until 2011 and had accounts with Singtel and L'Oreal, says: "The biggest challenge from day one has always been convincing clients to take a leap of faith together with us. After all, we were and still are the new kids on the block."

Still, they have convinced the likes of French beverage company Pernod Ricard and Tourism Malaysia - GOVT does work for their Malaysian market - to take them on.

Mr Koh says: "These days, the bigger brands don't always think the bigger agencies are the only solution.

"Also, the more flexible you are when it comes to creative ego, the more you work together with the client and not for them, and the more you're willing to challenge and not say yes all the time. Then only would the bigger brands begin to know that we're not as small as they think.

"What matters is big thinking, not small talk."

Already, they are looking to expand globally, with up to 10 offices. And they have a dream list of clients, in particular Singaporean brands such as Tiger Beer, Singtel and Singapore Tourism Board.

Mr Lai says: "After all, we are a true-blue Singapore agency and we believe we have the hunger and talent to do great work for our home brands.

"We hope that a Singapore agency can be given the opportunity to have a shot at our Singaporean brands."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2015, with the headline 'Small agency guns for the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe