The Singapore ad industry may be growing but, in many ways, it is a
victim of its own success. As it matures, shops based in Singapore risk
being undercut by their regional competitors. Richard Cook reports
Advertising agencies in Singapore have long enjoyed the best of both
worlds - highly educated, ad-literate consumers that provide a willing
audience for top-notch creative work and an economy that has been on a
steady - and at times spectacular - upwards curve for the best part of
20 years. The economy of Singapore is now highly developed, with the
world’s highest level of direct inward investment and an annual growth
rate of around 9 per cent.
Partly because the island state enjoyed spectacular growth just when the
West was experiencing a recession, it attracted an unusually large
number of expat advertising creatives and executives. The creative
reputation enjoyed by the likes of Batey, Saatchi and Saatchi, Ogilvy
and Mather and the Ball Partnership in Singapore outstrips anything else
in the region.
It is little surprise then that Bartle Bogle Hegarty has narrowed its
choice of a first South-east Asian office down to Singapore and Hong
Kong, or that the media independent, CIA Medianetwork, chose Singapore
as the venue for its first joint venture in the region, with Batey, last
Singapore is unusual among South-east Asian nations because TV is not
the dominant advertising medium. That distinction falls to an unusually
well-resourced newspaper industry.
The English language paper, the Straits Times, has a circulation of
368,000 and a readership of more than 1.1 million, comfortably making it
the best-selling daily.
Its owner, the Government monopoly, Singapore Press Holdings, also
controls a string of Chinese language dailies. These are led by Lian He
Zao Bao, which has a circulation of around 210,000 and is read by more
than 700,000 people.
The Sunday stable is led by the English language title, the Sunday
Times, which sells around 400,000 copies and claims a readership of more
than a third of Singapore’s three million population. Consequently, it
publishes the stiffest ad ratecard in Singapore.
Together, these strong titles have helped newspapers to capture a 50 per
cent share of total adspend. Real estate, retail and entertainment are
the three largest product areas.
There are just three terrestrial TV stations: Channel 5, Channel 8 and
the relative newcomer, Channel 12, which launched in 1984.
There are three broadcast subscription channels, and low cable
penetration of around 4 per cent. TV represents about 35 per cent of
total spend, although its share is growing faster than that of
‘The media options in Singapore are quite straightforward,’ Anthony
Young, the Saatchi and Saatchi regional media director, says. ‘And
because most of the press is owned by one company, and most of the TV by
another, there is more inter-media competition than in other markets.’
Outdoor represents just 3 per cent of total adspend.
Radio stations are led by the Chinese language station, 93.3FM, and take
more than 5 per cent of total ad revenue.
Singapore is not known as the Switzerland of South-east Asia for
nothing. The streets are clean, the trains run on time and the level of
information technology support is practically unparalleled anywhere in
the world. Even the taxis can be ordered via a state-of-the-art
satellite-based phone booking system.
Corporations that were once based in Hong Kong are starting to transfer
their offices to Singapore in advance of its handover to the Chinese in
1997. With its significant Chinese and Malay population, Singapore is
increasingly seen as a useful base from which to target the faster
growing South-east Asian markets such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and
for dealing with mainland China.
Local people are starting to dominate even the international agencies
and account for roughly half of the top management and top creative
posts. The workforce is generally educated to a higher standard than in
the UK, and agencies are all connected to the latest online research
‘The infrastructure is better than New York and London by far,’ Neil
French, Ogilvy and Mather’s regional creative chief, says. ‘Standards of
TV production are high and the standard of printing, and colour
printing, especially, is far in advance of anything in the West, which
helps explain the success of newspapers here.’
Singapore is, in many ways, a victim of its own success. Its per capita
GDP is by far the highest in the region, but the growth in advertising -
which has doubled over the past five years - is beginning to slow.
Singapore is starting to assume some of the characteristics of a mature
‘The real pressure on agencies in the future is going to come from
direct marketing and below the line,’ Young says. ‘And because Singapore
is surrounded by countries at an earlier stage in their development, it
can seem relatively expensive to a multinational client planning a
regional campaign. Certainly, in media terms, its cost per thousand is
high in relation to the rest of Asia and already we can see that
Singapore is having to compete for media budgets with Malaysia. The
Malaysian consumer is not as rich but it is much cheaper to buy
campaigns there, and there is five times the population.’
Another potential problem for advertisers and their agencies are the
tight Government controls on the content of ads. Leo Burnett had an ad
for Milo pulled in a celebrated case simply because it featured a boy
answering his father back. And the Government morals board takes an
extremely dim view of the most veiled references to sex and drugs.
‘When I worked there I had work pulled simply because the authorities
thought that it was poking fun at the US,’ Marc Shaffner, a creative
director at McCann-Erickson in New York who spent four years at McCanns’
Singapore office, says. ‘I think that can tend to inhibit creativity.
Another potential creative problem now is that there is currently a
trend to use endorsements from famous Asian personalities in
commercials. Local comedies are, for the first time, outperforming
imports in terms of ratings - so there is excellent recognition but it
can make for dull advertising.’