Opinion

Q&A with Imagination Southeast Asia boss Andrew Au

Andrew AuAndrew Au left Hong Kong creative agency Fluid earlier this year to join Imagination, an experiential marketing agency, where he is Southeast Asia managing director based in Singapore.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, Au talks about why he joined the little-known agency, the job offers he considered before joining, and his ambitions for the year ahead.

Why Imagination? To be honest, I hadn’t heard of them before you joined.

Neither had I. We have extremely low awareness in Asia. I’ve stopped asking people if they’ve heard of us, because they haven’t. This presents us with a good opportunity to describe who we are.

I think our shyness comes from our founder Gary Withers, who is extremely private. He’s very old school – I don’t think he owns a computer. Another reason we’ve kept a low profile is because of the nature of our clients. We haven’t needed to shout about ourselves. [Withers founded the agency in 1968 with Ford UK and Europe as the founding client. Ford remains one of Imagination’s biggest clients].

Who else had you been talking to before you got the job at Imagination? 

I spoke to the likes of Google, Twitter and LinkedIn, and some of the bigger agencies. I gravitated towards WPP. There’s a gentlemanly old boy network feel to agencies like Ogilvy that also exists at The Economist [Au was formerly APAC marketing manager for The Economist before he joined Fluid] and I naturally felt an affinity towards them.

When I went to the global headquarters at Imagination in London, I remembered I’d been there six years ago. The Economist had gathered people there for a global marketing conference. The Economist had picked it because it was an iconic building. It’s made of two buildings in what was very derelict part of London. It’s a beautiful building on Store Street. Going to Imagination was like going full circle for me.

What do you notice as the biggest differences between the Hong Kong and Singapore markets?

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Singapore almost a full year. The last year has been a whirlwind and I’m still getting my bearings but I would say that Singapore seems to be a really dynamic and vibrant marketing communications hub. Everyone (big network as well as some really impressive smaller independents) is here duking it out in this tiny city that is of high strategic value. And of course the air is cleaner and Singapore is generally more conducive to family living.

So, what does Imagination do?

We’re a creative agency in the experience space; we’re about creating shared experiences between brands and their customers. Experiences are distinct and memorable and they transcend other more passive forms of communications.

What work is Imagination known for?

Shell, which is one of our biggest clients in Southeast Asia.

Watch a video of Shell’s ‘Eco-marathon’ campaign:

And GE…

GE’s eco-magination innovation centres:

And we created an app for Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations as part of a wider marketing campaign the City of Sydney.

How many people does the agency have working for it in this region? 

In APAC, about 300.

What are you plans for Imagination?

Singapore, being a dense hub of regional company headquarters, is a no brainer in terms of expanding the business. Shell is a great client to have, but we’re looking to diversify. But we can’t go after anyone. We need to ensure it’s the right fit. The pitch process is as much for an agency as it is for the client.

Some of the work we do is tech or digital, it’s not events at all. The work we’ve done for GE about designing innovation. We know events well, but there’s a danger you get pigeonholed as an event vendor, so you’re not brought to the table for other work such as strategy and creative. We need to break out of that and have upfront discussions to explain our story, and that we’re a creative solutions provider.

Being independent, and having protected that independence, allows us to do the work that we do. I’ve been told that Sorrell has approached our founder on numerous occasions, but he always says, ‘I don’t want to sell’. There’s the danger that the culture gets eroded, you become part of a big machine and your company becomes bottom-line driven.

What do you want to achieve for the agency in the year ahead?

To familiarise myself with the culture of Imagination and then to ensure I have the right pieces in place to achieve my objectives. Business development will of course be a key area of focus for me in the months to come. The more time I spend at Imagination the more I think it is ludicrous how little is known about us. From how long we’ve been around to our global footprint, to our capabilities to our client list, it’s almost criminal that we’re not better known across the region.

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