Small ad agencies make big splash

Many creatives from major advertising agencies are striking out on their own and beating the giants for contracts and awards

K3 Communications’ Mr Nicholas Leong and Mr Goh Wee Kim and their ads for SIM University (above). -- PHOTO: K3 COMMUNICATIONS
K3 Communications’ Mr Nicholas Leong and Mr Goh Wee Kim and their ads for SIM University (above). -- PHOTO: K3 COMMUNICATIONS
K3 Communications’ Mr Nicholas Leong (above left) and Mr Goh Wee Kim and their ads for SIM University. -- PHOTO: K3 COMMUNICATIONS
Blak Labs’ co-founders Ms Elsa Peck, Ms Koh Hwee Peng, Mr Nick Tan, Mr Justin Lim and Mr Charlie Blower and their River Safari advertisement (above). -- PHOTO: BLAK LABS
Blak Labs’ co-founders (above from left) Ms Elsa Peck, Ms Koh Hwee Peng, Mr Nick Tan, Mr Justin Lim and Mr Charlie Blower and their River Safari advertisement. -- PHOTO: STEFFI KOH

Multi-award-winning local creative director Goh Wee Kim told himself that he would helm his own advertising agency by the age of 45.

Last year, after 22 years in various multinational advertising agencies, he met this personal target by setting up K3 Communications.

"I knew I was ready and needed to come out," says Mr Goh, now 46, who has been ranked among Singapore and Asia's top 20 creatives by trade magazines such as Campaign Brief Asia. "I wanted more say and control. I wanted to be able to speak to clients directly, without any messages being passed down wrongly, which does happen in a large agency where the multi-layered processes can overwhelm the work."

In the last decade, many local creatives from major agencies have taken the same plunge, and for similar reasons. Mr Alvin Wong, one of the executive partners behind The Alchemy Partnership which was set up in 2004, says it has been "a crazy wave, especially in the past two years", with many creatives in senior management striking out on their own.

Many desire a sense of ownership, he says.

"Why do you want to work for someone else, when you can build your own creative legacy?" he adds.

Many of these small agencies have gone head- to-head with larger, multinational competitors, pitching at the same presentations and, in some cases, pricing themselves higher than their rivals.

Industry players estimate that out of about 300 advertising agencies here, more than 250 of them are small to mid-sized.

To judge by the clientele of several of these small agencies, David has taken on Goliath and won. They are giving the big boys a run for their money, and bagging local and global accolades while they are at it.

Blak Labs, for example, which was set up here in 2010 by Englishman and Singapore permanent resident Charlie Blower together with four Singaporean partners, counts Maybank, wildlife park River Safari, and Gardens by the Bay among its clients.

Mr Blower, 52, says he is especially proud to have won the Gardens by the Bay contract in 2011. "A lot of agencies tendered for this, including multinational ones. But ultimately, we were chosen as the agency to help promote the people's garden."

Ms Michelle Lim, deputy director of marketing communications for Gardens by the Bay, describes Blak Labs as an agency that is resourceful and able to "think out of the box".

"Blak Labs has proven time and again that it is capable of producing creative work that is able to cut the advertising clutter and help sell the business," she says, adding that the agency has also helped enhance the Gardens' brand and image.

Blak Labs has since retained the account and Mr Blower attributes this to the company's reliability in delivering results. For example, Gardens by the Bay's target of 100,000 visitors in the first three months was exceeded threefold within its first month.

Small agencies have become a force to be reckoned with, says Mr Goh, who is married with two children aged 10 and 14.

He adds: "In the past, people saw small agencies as a temptation. They were tempted to try but didn't regard us as serious players. But the tide is turning - clients are starting to sit up and take serious notice of us."

Within its first year, his agency K3 Communications gained clients such as SIM University and leatherware boutique Braun Buffel.

K3's earliest days were not without uncertainty, though, and Mr Goh needed to get used to a new, bare-bones working environment.

He says: "When I was in a multinational agency, I just had to supervise others. But now, I have to do everything myself. I have no receptionist, no juniors to help me."

His partner Nicholas Leong, 44, declares: "Some people would not be willing to let go of the trappings of having an eco-system supporting them, but we did. It's humbling, but not in a bad way."

Mr Blower, too, recalls how he started out by "borrowing a few tables" from managing director Anand Vathiyar, 47, at another small agency, Up & Up.

"We called ourselves Blak Labs because it is an experiment to see how far we can go. It has been satisfying thus far," he says.

Satisfaction, in some cases, is derived from awards.

Up & Up's TV commercial for the Ministry of Education in 2011 won Television Campaign of the Year at the Singapore Advertising Hall of Fame Awards.

The Alchemy Partnership's advertising campaign for Soo Kee Jewellery won the same category in 2005.

The prizes, which have been given by the Institute of Advertising, Singapore, for 15 years, are considered the Oscars of the local advertising industry.

Ms Goh Shufen, president of the institute and co-founder of R3, a marketing management consultancy, says the awards are the only prizes here that recognise the talent behind the year's best work.

"Over the years, these awards have recognised a number of industry legends, such as Ian Batey and Tham Khai Meng," she says, referring respectively to the ad man behind the iconic Singapore Girl campaign for Singapore Airlines and the worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy.

Local players such as The Secret Little Agency have made their mark overseas, winning awards from trade publications including Campaign (both the United Kingdom and Asia-Pacific editions) and Marketing Magazine.

As agencies crowd the scene, however, competition has been heating up.

Mr Anand says big agencies would pitch for only big-ticket clients in the past, but are now competing for any slice of the pie. "It is as though as long as there's a business up for grabs, they go for it," he says.

Ms Goh says this is a result of an advertising market that is expected to stagnate. "It will get more competitive. Few agencies can afford to cherry-pick opportunities, even the large agencies," she says. "Big or small agencies need to listen more to what their clients want and apply creativity to their own business model."

Perhaps anticipating such challenges ahead, some of the small advertising agencies have banded together with other independent local design, interactive and branding agencies to form an Independent Agency Network.

Says Mr Wong, whose agency is one of the nine in this network: "We found that the big boys were always hanging out together and celebrating their achievements among themselves. So we thought we'd do the same among ourselves."

The group has made it possible for small firms to help one another by working together on projects.

"Yes, we're competitors at pitch meetings," says Mr Wong. "But at the end of the day, we'll still have a beer, and exchange handshakes and success stories with one another, to keep us going."

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