30 years of advertising in Singapore is a tall order and yet allows you to recall moments that stand out in your mind. I arrived back In Singapore from the UK when the advertising agencies of note and the hallmark of great advertising and were Batey Ads and “The Singapore Girl” and Leo Burnett, and its work for STB and the Singapore Convention Bureau. The Creative Circle Awards started in the early 80’s (Linda played an active part in organising the awards from the very first year – editor) and the spirit and passion for great advertising was pure and exuberant without the politics and manipulation of scam advertising that was to follow in the 2000’s.
Neil French arrived on the scene a few years later, for a freelance job for O&M and produced Singapore’s first all copy ad “Clean up Singapore”, written for a sewage disposal company. It caused such a furor for its outrageous headline in a country that prided itself on being clean that it was talked about in parliament and reproduced in The Straits Times, it marked the beginning of a new era in advertising in Singapore, as Neil took up a permanent post with Ogilvy’s a few months later and the period of Camelot in advertising began. Suddenly, it seemed like every agency in town had become infected with a new zeal for advertising, outstanding advertising, and the desire was not just to have it recognised in Singapore, but to have Singapore recognised globally. Film work, voice overs, illustration, photography and typography – everyone challenged themselves to push ideas and craft to an international level and working with craft professionals from all over the world. Directors from the UK, USA, Australia and soon after South Africa were regularly seen working on Singapore films and the same was true of print and radio.
One of the reasons I believe we were able to achieve so much in a short time was the fact that most clients at that time were from large trading companies, who were the distributors and marketers of the brands. By nature I feel they were very entrepreneurial in culture and the fact they were spending other people’s money may have made them more willing to take risks. It was also a time when agencies still had a lot of respect. Media was still part of the agency and the concept of the “planner” unknown, save for the very few agencies that had a research team. The agency was very much the client’s marketing partner and it was not unusual for them to actually write the marketing plan for the client. The Account Director was a heavy weight, in charge of the total client’s marketing budget and the agency offered full communications services from Advertising, PR, DM, Promotions, Events and media planning and buying and as such was able to truly take a holistic view ( not a word used back then) as to what the brand needed to succeed.
The late 90’s saw the exit of media and with that the gradual erosion of the agency’s power base with the client, as basically 80% of the money left with it and the agency’s could not juggle revenues as well as before. About this time, the principals woke up to the growth potential of Asia and started setting up in droves and with their arrival came a exodus of account servicing who saw more opportunity client side with less stress. Unfortunately, they often hired the least strong account servicing who in turn became less than strong marketers and we moved into a very safe era of advertising with little risk taking. There were still some strong clients who believed in advertising like Robert Kwan of McDonald’s, Lexus, Citibank, The Navy, British Airways to name a few.
The late 90’s and 2000’s was a fairly low period for advertising as a business, as the Gunn Report heralded the first International measurement tool for global agencies and agency creative departments were pressured to win awards at all costs. Enter the era of the scam ads. And the growth of specialist agencies from web design to direct marketing and the traditional agency was being squeezed to death. Internationally agency’s were also slow to realise the impact of digital and were caught off guard. Many believed that it was no different than the advent for television, but in truth no one could have foreseen the deluge of different channels that the digital era would bring and the complexity that came with it as unlike television, the digital era is the most dynamic, social global phenomena we have ever known and creatively one of the most inventive.
Article contributed in 2013