One of the key themes in advertising over the past couple of decades has been the rapid shift away from the dominance of traditional centres, such as London and New York. The Asian market place is not only hugely significant in terms of its spend, but increasingly as a hub for exciting creative work.

108th Street spoke recently to Alice Farebrother, a former Associate Creative Director at Yahoo and agency creative in Singapore, to get her perspective on advertising in Asia.

Alice Farebrother

108St:

Alice, you’ve been based in both London and Singapore and have spent the past few years creating communications for the Asian market. How would you describe the differences in creative culture?

AF:

Well, my background has been quite varied, so I’m not really comparing apples with apples. Here I’ve taken more of a digital slant, which of course is more reflective of the way the industry has been going in general in the years I’ve been in Asia. I would say that Singapore is less rigid and traditional (you won’t find any 100-year-old agencies here) which creates more opportunities for people to diversify. There is also less of a focus on TV, perhaps because there aren’t as many TVCs created specifically for this market, as in, say, the UK.

108St:

One perception is that creative in Asia is still too dominated by the ex-pat community and perhaps outposts of big agencies, such as JWT and Ogilvy. Do you think this is fair?

AF:

While there are undoubtedly a lot of expats in top agency creative roles (primarily from the UK and Australia), there are also lots of Singaporeans and Asians in general, which is a good thing. Singapore is a city state with roughly the population of London, Sydney or New York. Those cities all draw in creative talent from outside their borders, and in fact from all over the world, so it’s only natural that Singapore does too.

There are quite a lot of local start-ups giving the big boys a run for their money. Agencies like TSLA (The Secret Little Agency – Campaign Asia’s Agency of the Year 2014 and this year named among the world’s leading independent agencies by Campaign UK) and Arcade. And in fact, the agency I first joined in Singapore (BLUE) started with five people in a shophouse in 1999, grew, went global, was bought by WPP and then joined several other WPP Digital shops to form POSSIBLE – which I believe is one of the world’s largest digital ad agencies.

As in all major cities, sometimes the smaller shops that don’t have the restraints of a big network can be more nimble and innovative when it comes to embracing new ideas and technology.

108St:

Can creative in Asia ever match the output of historic centres of advertising like London and New York? There’s an argument that in places like China and India, people just don’t quite ‘get’ creative work. Certainly the perception might be that a lot of the clients are unsophisticated. So the amount of money spent on advertising and digital keeps going up, up, up, but the quality is lacking. But are people just judging the creative work through ‘western’ eyes perhaps? Or not taking notice of stuff that’s genuinely very creative, but falling below the radar? 

AF:

This is a tricky one. First of all, advertising does, of course, have to be tailored to the market. And we also perhaps need to ask ourselves: does it really matter if a campaign falls flat through the eyes of a London creative, but really connects with an audience, enhances a brand and flogs truckloads of ‘stuff’ in, say, China? There are certainly language considerations to be made, even in a country like Singapore, where there are four official languages and you can’t rely on everyone getting a play on words in English, for example. I’m reminded of a Cadbury campaign a few years ago that used Singlish and therefore wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.

Something like the Marmite neglect campaign is very British, for example, and I can’t see that working here. But Thailand has a reputation for some clever, conceptual TV ads, and Yahoo Taiwan also ran this brilliantly bonkers campaign last year.

108St:

You went to the Spikes Asia event last year. What did you make of it and work you saw?

AF:

Spikes is a sister Lions Festival to Cannes just for APAC, but a lot of the campaigns picking up gongs had also risen to the top of the global pile at Cannes. Spikes is open to all of Asia Pacific, which includes Australia and New Zealand, but I would say that they are separate and very different markets, so let’s just talk about Asia for now. The big winner at Spikes was the Ayrton Senna work for Honda. A very clever and original piece of work that’s very modern in the way it spans advertising, content, entertainment and tech. The other pieces that stood out for me were those based on a real market insight, like these solar powered backpacks and Unilever’s Kan Khajura station. Again, they’re not ads per se, but they create brand preference by providing a really useful solution.

108St:

What, for you, are the outstanding examples of creativity in Asia over the past couple of years? 

AF:

Aside from the Spikes examples above, BBH Singapore created a really nice online video for IKEA’s autumn catalogue launch in 2014. The timing was perfect with the iPhone 6 launch, and it just really tapped into the zeitgeist. Clever, carefully crafted and culturally relevant. Lovely.

108St:

Should young creatives in the UK and Europe set their sights on working in Singapore, Hong Kong, India and China? Is that the future?

AF:

Well, everyone has their own drivers, but I would say that working in any other market that’s different to home is going to open your eyes to different experiences and perspectives. And of course, travel itself is always going to give you a bit more creative fodder. I moved here with my boyfriend (now my husband) because his company was opening an office in Singapore. We put ourselves forward because we love travelling and had both previously enjoyed south-east Asia. We thought it would be a good career move too, but that was secondary, and I think if it’s your primary motive but you’re a bit of a homebody, then you might not end up being happy. But if you like travelling and experiencing other cultures, then go for it!

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