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The Secret Little Agency founder Nicholas Ye: ‘You either like our work or you hate it’

Ahead of the agency's 10-year anniversary and as part of Mumbrella Asia's ongoing series on Singapore's independent agencies, TSLA's Nicholas Ye talks to Eleanor Dickinson about 'poking' the government, keeping Asian brands authentic and why you cannot 'cheat' creativity

The Secret Little Agency is one of the most exciting interesting  creative agencies on the Singaporean scene, but its name perhaps doesn’t quite fit anymore given the ambitious plans for international expansion on the near horizon.

Founded in 2007 by Nicholas Ye, a then 19-year-old college student – whose early copywriting career at BBH Singapore had been unceremoniously cut short by the duty call of Singapore’s National Service – TSLA started small.

And although the agency began with Ye in an apartment boasting just Transitions Optical as the only client, over the next decade TSLA grew to become a company with more than 60 staff in Singapore and Shanghai. The agency has gone on to work with some of the most influential government bodies and brands in Singapore, including the Economic Development Board (which the agency helped rebrand), Netflix, and Nestle.

And just last week – after Mumbrella Asia and Ye sat down – the agency announced its global ambitions by signing a joint venture with international independent agency Mother.

As TSLA prepares to celebrate its first decade in Singapore, Ye opens up about the agency’s early days and looks at what lies ahead for Asia’s independent scene.

When you first started TSLA, did you ever imagine you would still be here a decade onwards?

“You don’t think so much about time when you’re having fun, and it’s been fun. When we realised we would be celebrating 10 years, the feeling was more: ‘Where did all this time go?’ It doesn’t really feel like a long time. I look at some of our old work and to me it still feels new and very fresh. Like if we could do it all over again, we wouldn’t do anything different.”

Nicholas Ye: ‘You cannot cheat creativity with AI’

Before you set up TSLA, you interned at TBWA and you were a copywriter for BBH. How did those experiences help you when you decided to go solo?

“At the pre-Publicis BBH, there was a lot of purity in the craft. Nobody really talks about it, but it was different. They were – and still are – a very principled agency. And being valued-driven is very important. That really rubbed off on me. At TBWA at the time, the CEO was Johan Fourie and I was literally sharing his office because there was nowhere to put the intern. But then I had to do National Service. The creative director then, Marcus Rebeschini, who’s now at Y&R, said: ‘Can we stop you from going into the army?’ But of course, you can’t exactly stop it.”

So what led you to then decide to found your own agency – at such a young age – rather than return to one of the networks you had previously worked for?

“I founded TSLA during college. And really it came from a desire to poke the country and see how far we could go; at what point would we get into trouble. I feel the agency is more of a canvass for expression; you realise that Singaporeans are very sporting and have a sense of humour.

“They’re smart, but yet even today a lot of the briefs we get tend to undermine that. The Singaporean public is a lot more creative than the Singaporean institution. That’s why our media sucks and the things that govern us tend to limit us creatively. A lot of the campaigns we have done were probably better received by the public and the client than the regulatory bodies and the police. The people can take it, but the powers can’t – that’s what we learned a lot in the first few years.”

When you first started was the general creative scene tame compared to today?

“No; the reasons clients call TSLA today are the same as they were back then. You know you’re not going to get vanilla TV, radio or print. There’s an expectation of boundary-pushing. We would mess with the format or go out of the rate-card. We had a private joke that we use media formats that aren’t formats until we use them. We used fields, patches of grass, overhead bridges; and when we did, they became regulated and had to be something you buy. We were doing content and blogger marketing quite early on: it didn’t feel very revolutionary; just quite natural.”

What campaigns are you most proud of? And when did you feel like you had really pushed too far?

“The work we do for the Singaporean government is some I’m really proud of because it’s quiet and highly influential. We’ve been working with them for seven years; and a lot of the work shares the value that we have. It’s behind the scenes, but it’s serving a national cause. We’re promoting things like engineering instead of selling shampoo or fast food; it’s to create jobs, defend our GDP and ensure a steady flow of investment into Singapore. And creating a good impression of our country is something I quite enjoy.

“In terms of pushy stuff, we did stuff for Philips and the Discovery Channel that got us into trouble with the police. And the reason is that we don’t have adequate laws to regulate creative expression, so you end up using political laws; national security laws. We were almost charged with rioting and being a public nuisance. Broadly speaking, they freak out. And then we [the Singaporean public] freak out. If you have a client that wants to culturally push things and an agency that is going to do it – plus an audience that’s ready for it – a lot of the time there is a missing link: is this the place to do this?”

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What have the biggest challenges been for you when growing as an agency over the last decade?

“Keeping it fun. Really. Keeping it fun and light, and real. That’s very obvious and broad I know. It’s coming into the agency every day for the same reason I did 10 years ago: and that’s hard. Stakes are a lot larger now; clients are larger; everything is visible and scrutinised. I think the most challenging thing is keeping yourself motivated, your team and your clients as well. The one thing that has changed in the last five years is that now there is a really good team who do what I would do – and I’m a control freak – but better. And I can breath a bit of sigh of relief. I’m very proud that the team can carry on the vision because if you make an agency about just one person, it can only grow to a certain size. But TSLA functions now regardless of whether I function.”

Asia – and Singapore especially – often seems to be labelled as poorly performing on a creative level when compared with the rest of the world? Do you think that’s unfair?

“Well I have very specific views on creativity in the East versus that in the West. Or maybe it’s just a contrast. I think in many cases we are more creative – or as creative – but we’re generally not great at articulating or expressing. We’re not obvious. One of the reasons I started the agency was because I saw a lot of brands working with agencies in this part of the world and they didn’t really understand the context of Asia – and it shows. In this day and age, you need authenticity and you can’t buy it. AI cannot make it. The genesis of how things start is important today because there is so much out there and you need to stand out. So how your beer is really made matters a lot more in Asia.

“Back when I started, there were a lot of agencies from the West that were expressing Asian values and opinions that were not intrinsically Asian. And 95 per cent of Asians will just let it go. It’s acceptable if you want to just get by, but if you want to move the needle from good to great, it suddenly doesn’t become enough. You have to tell stories in ways your audience understands, but doesn’t pander – which you often see when an Asian brand is taken outside of Asia.

“Messages and values change. And it’s only in the last 40 years – we’re a 60-year-old country – that you’ve seen Singaporean brands really grow out, which is when it becomes challenging. So do you keep its voice authentic or do you pander? And when you change it, is it still that brand? These are a lot of existential questions: do you as a bank or an airline matter outside of Singapore? There are no right or wrong answers, but it’s worth keeping in mind when you’re a marketer. The very least you can ask is do you know what it means to be Singaporean?”

You mentioned earlier that the independent agency competition is better now. Is that because there are more agencies or because the standard of work has improved?

“The work is definitely better. And the larger agencies – though they will never admit it – will try to emulate start-up culture. Like why do you have layers and layers of people who get in the way of work? On the independent scene, we have seen some successes and we have seen some people who have tried to do something different. There’s always a desire to reinvent the agency model or use technology to cheat – to programmatically do things. But you can’t cheat creativity; some agencies have it and some don’t. It’s fleeting because we’re in the talent business and the chemistry business: and that mixture isn’t something you can always replicate. For us that means some clients like us, some hate us. But it makes for a certain kind of work. And I think our work is very polarising: you either like it or you hate it.”

Social media obviously makes that reaction quite apparent, and you mentioned earlier that agencies face a lot more public scrutiny today. Does that add more pressure on you for a campaign to succeed?

“If campaign permeates culture –even slightly – you can tell, and no amount of Facebook comments or likes can change whether or not you can know and feel inside you something seismic has moved. If a piece of art or culture or work is talked about, it’s because people like it, not because it has a million likes. A lot of that can be faked too or be unreal; it doesn’t get to the root of whether something is moving or emotionally connects: makes you laugh or cry. I do think social media has helped us to express ourselves. And all good work has to have that social layer, so that you share it; not necessarily via Facebook or Instagram. Nobody really talks about the platform people share the most on: Whatsapp. If I was a marketer, that would be a lot more important to me: you really know it’s permeating when it’s gone into a Whatsapp chat.”

Looking ahead, do you imagine this time 10 years down the line you will still be independent? Do you get a lot of offers from networks? Or would you ever consider being acquired by a consultancy?

“Being independent is important to us because it means we can do the right thing and not the expected thing. We can pick our battles, pick up talent and clients. We can put creativity first on the agenda. And we’re in this climate now where the global commercial drive to merge and consolidate seems stronger than ever. Consultancies for a long time have almost been hoarding good thinkers, but I think you can sense their impatience.

“They’re realising you cannot just think, you need to be able to act. And that’s why there is this queue-up to buy agencies: you don’t just want to be able to think, you want to be able to act. We’ve been working with big investment consultants, and their usefulness stops at the end of those recommendation slides. But, when it comes to applying that thinking to the real world, that’s what agencies are very good at.

‘The thing we all forget though is creativity. And that’s the one thing I think consultancies will never get. There’s no way to institutionalise it; there’s no AI programme for it. It’s intangible and at times frustrating, but the most profitable brands out there are the most creative or innovative. But it’s the dream right? You want to have all this expertise or this end-to-end model, but it has to have creativity. I think that structure is waiting to happen; nobody has cracked it yet.

“There aren’t agencies queuing up to buy us. When you are fiercely independent, it cuts a certain kind of figure in the market. Our plan is to remain independent, but grow global. It’s not about a physical growth, but about influence and being able to help our clients be themselves in markets outside of Singapore.”

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