The Secret Little Agency

Your opinion doesn't matter

The ad industry has forgotten that usefulness and empathy should always trump cleverness

Neo, E Tan, Wei, C Tan, Ye, Phillips, Sidah and Lee…‘It’s not about the loudest or most charismatic voice’
Neo, E Tan, Wei, C Tan, Ye, Phillips, Sidah and Lee…‘It’s not about the loudest or most charismatic voice’

You hear it around almost every meeting table: "What do you think?" The four words that invite every agency to display its intellectual prowess laced with cultural references (or even a statistic or two). 

The best in our business are masters at building and satiating anticipation, often with charisma, pomposity and wit. That’s how the game is played, it seems. Go to meetings, dispense gems of sage-like insight, deliver witty one-liners, look credible, be on-trend, make sure everyone nods. 

In Asia, this is often the test of whether your "highly awarded" creative director and strategist are truly worth their hourly rates. Opinions are not only asked for; they are demanded. 

A large part of the ad industry is predicated on forming the right impressions. They elevate perceptions of our worth, help win us new business and put us on a level with the most senior of clients. But before we start pointing fingers at our clients, citing them as the reason for perpetuating this culture of "the smartest, loudest voice wins", we need to take equal ownership here. 

Agencies wear their intellect and cultural voraciousness like a badge of honour (after all, it isn’t that sexy to swap those things with authenticity and a genuine ability to listen). We send clients the message that they should expect their agency to cite Chinese modernist art, quote Murakami and take them out for drinks at a new 20s Prohibition-inspired bar at least once a month. 

But when did we forget to be human? Perhaps we’ve forgotten that it is entirely possible
to be 100 per cent correct yet zero per cent effective. When did we start lording over topics and when did we stop listening to what consumers, staff and collaborators are saying? 

Usefulness trumps smarts
Here’s a newsflash. Usefulness trumps smarts every time. 

We need to seriously start looking at the value we bring to our internals and client meetings. It’s not about the loudest or most charismatic voice, and it shouldn’t be about flagrant displays of cultural currency. 

The best people in our agency are confident of their own smarts and never shy away from debate. But, more importantly, they are humble enough to know when to put their egos away and listen to what’s being said (and left unsaid). The best insights aren’t necessarily the rarest or most fascinating ones. The best insights are simply the most contextual and useful ones, expressed in a way that resonates deeply.

Putting humans at the heart of it all
"Innovation", "technology" and "user experience" have been thrown around as buzz-words in the industry of late. Before we all run out to buy that 3D printer, install Arduino or build a lab, let’s remember one thing: user experience is, at its most basic, about putting humans at the heart of it all.

This isn’t just relegated to product development – it is fundamentally at the core of what we do, how we work and how we think about the work we want to create. It’s not a newfangled concept. The very foundation of what we do every day is based on how we put humans (aka our target audience) at the core of what we are trying to say. 

As Bill Bullard puts it: "Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another world. It requires profound purpose, larger-than-the-self kind of understanding."

In our share-of-voice-obsessed world, there is purity in creating something that people find value in interacting with. It will ultimately result in work that stands the test of time – or any meeting table, for that matter. 

At a glance

Founded 2007 
Principals Chiewling Tan, director of operations; Nicholas Ye, chief executive; Mavis Neo, creative director; Kris Kam, managing director; Hanyi Lee, chief creative officer; Eunice Tan, head of strategy; Julia Wei, general manager; Tracy Phillips, head of programming; Mriz Sidah, design director
Staff 50 
Locations Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai

Declaration of independence

What independence gives us Nothing. To. Lose.
The most important thing I have learned in the past year Exercising empathy creates more meaning than exercising one’s vocal chords.
The most cutting-edge tech we’re using Vanessa – a science and technology research engineer turned experience designer at the agency, whose earnestness and honest sense of wonder create pretty much any prototype conceivable under the sun for our clients (and for our general amusement).

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