ASIAN AGENCIES: THE INDEPENDENTS - For agencies in Asian markets, independence can be a fleeting thing

Lisa Campbell profiles shops in Singapore, Thailand and Japan who are happy to be autonomous.

10am Singapore

In Singapore's boom time during the late 90s, a wealth of independent agencies sprang up. However, since the recent economic downturn, the majority of them have faced closure. One of the survivors is 10am, which has developed a reputation for brave work within a highly conservative climate.

The creative hotshop is increasingly appearing on international pitchlists and winning major slices of business. However, critics question its ability to hang on to big pieces of business, especially with only 16 staff.

But the agency is also capitalising on the current advertising boom in China with a satellite office there. Current clients in Singapore include Sony, Electrolux, Sportiva and Kingyo Sushi.

It was during a routine coffee break in October 2000 that the partners mulled over the idea of starting an agency. It was ten in the morning.

The founders are Lim Sau Hoong and Leow Boon Choo. Sau Hoong's previous roles include the creative director of Ogilvy & Mather, Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai and the executive creative director of BBDO Singapore. Her award-winning campaigns include Guinness and Bank of China.

Boon Choo was previously the broadcast unit manager at J. Walter Thompson and general manager of Ampersand Productions.

"We position ourselves as small and beautiful. The advantages of being an independent agency include the flexibility to react quickly and proactively with our clients in addressing the changes and challenges in their businesses. A case of steering a yacht against a tanker," Sau Hoong says.

The agency has also pickled up a raft of awards including Cannes Lions, D&AD and Clio Awards. But Sau Hoong admits that Singapore's traditional clients can still be wary.

"Some clients are apprehensive about our independence, preferring a network structure instead. But it was never our intention to build an agency solely to be bought. We welcome any like-minded parties to join us but not at the expense of our competitive edge and proposition," she says.

SC Matchbox

Some may question the inclusion of Thailand's SC Matchbox in this feature, as, although the agency is not part of a global network, it is owned by Thailand's prime minister. SC stands for Shin Corporation, also owned by the PM, a conglomerate whose interests include telecoms, real estate, universities and a TV company.

The agency was set up in 1991 by Sonesak Premsuk as a graphics house to service SC's telecoms company AIS. Since then, it has expanded its client base beyond SC providing graphics, advertising and interactive services for nine clients. It rapidly built a reputation for strong print and brand-building work and has won local awards.

Its aim is to expand its client base and improve its TV advertising, hence the appointment last year of Leo Burnett Thailand's former creative director Kaysinee Koonsap.

Since her arrival, the agency has won five new accounts including Instant Noodle, Smooth and Cream and the launch of a new department store for which it is doing everything including naming and positioning the store.

Koonsap has also encouraged the use of more emotional advertising.

The agency, which now has 200 staff, plans to remain independent, particularly after a joint initiative with Dentsu failed to work. SC Matchbox was given some Honda business but had to follow the lead from Japan and wasn't allowed the creative freedom it desired.

The initiative folded after five months.

Koonsap admits that despite the agency now being seen as a creative boutique, there is still work to be done.

"We want to develop an international reputation and not just be famous locally. But that is going to be difficult until we can attract some big name clients. In the meantime, we have to keep pushing the boundaries to fight conservatism."

Tugboat

When Dentsu sent one of its creatives to research European creative agencies, it did not expect him to hand in his notice alongside his research report. But so impressed was Yasumichi Oka with the work and more importantly the working methods of UK and Swedish agencies, that he felt compelled to break away from the Dentsu mothership to launch Tugboat.

With three other Dentsu creatives at the helm, Sijo Kawaguchi, Taku Tada and Tetsuro Aso, Tugboat opened its doors for business in 1999 and, from the outset, placed creativity at its core.

Typically, clients buy in bulk with the advertising space itself more important than the creative product filling it.

"I thought Japanese advertising needed to be more focused on the creative product and I wanted the whole world to recognise the quality of Japanese ideas," Oka says.

Tugboat's clients include Suntory and Fujitsu and the agency has developed a reputation for cutting-edge work which often uses eccentric characters.

Awards include a silver Lion at last year's Cannes for its Mag-Lite print campaign and a gold at Asia's Adfest for its Star Channel "Titanic" spot.

It won a bronze at the 2003 Young Guns for the Digit Brain "I wedding/fight" TV spot and a gold at the New York Festival for Sky PerfecTV! "ronin pitcher".

Some of Oka's TV ads are also in the permanent collection of the Louvre in Paris.

The ten-strong Tugboat sees itself as something of an ideas factory and as well as working with advertisers, it provides creative for other agencies on a project basis.

It wants to work in a similar way with agencies throughout Europe, while retaining its independence. "We position ourselves as creative support for open-minded local agencies around the globe for their local campaign.

I am sure some of the people reading this in the UK think we are from a totally different world so far away. But I want to change that perception about Asia," Oka concludes.

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