Feature

Shaking the hand that feeds: behind the Singapore creative industry's unique relationship with the government

The Singapore government works hand in hand with agencies in the city to promote and enhance creativity, proving that sometimes it pays to shake the hand that feeds.

Singapore is often framed to the outside world as clinical and authoritarian. It is, after all, the place that banned chewing gum. But a look beneath this veneer proves that creativity is something the Singapore government is actively looking to nurture.

From agencies such as the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) to the Economic Development Board of Singapore (EDB), much headway has been made to attract creative shops to the island republic.

Government overtures to the industry have been quite overt, from attractive grants to working together to setting up centers of excellence.

For Ogilvy, a stalwart in Singapore since the 1950s, some of the attraction comes from outside government measures. Chris Riley, group chairman of the agency’s Singapore office, tells The Drum that its strategic gateway makes it attractive.

“In addition to servicing a growing international client base, the decision to locate a business in Singapore owes a lot to its strategic location as a gateway to the rest of Asia, as well as the promise of strong economic growth and the myriad opportunities expected to come along with that.”

He adds: “Decades later, our Singapore office has indeed evolved to become a top 10 global office in the Ogilvy network, and a creative powerhouse in its own right.”

Tripti Lochan, the chief executive officer for Southeast Asia and India at VML, credits government policies and agencies for their transparency.

“Committed to making regulatory regimes more business-friendly, government agencies in Singapore continue to regularly review regulations and policies, and remain transparent in administering them,” she says.

“The country is also rated as the most politically stable country in Asia – something that is crucial for drawing foreign investment.”

Incentivizing the industry

Government agencies IMDA and EDB have been clear in their intent to attract and retain creative shops, offering grants, tax relief and other goodies.

For IMDA, such moves are necessary for Singapore’s competitive edge in the region, according to Angeline Poh, the agency’s assistant chief executive for industry development.

“Powered by some of the most innovative agencies and best creative minds in the business, Singapore’s advertising sector continues to win global and regional projects,” Poh says.

“Looking ahead, we are bullish about the growth potential of agencies that are able to leverage on the country’s trusted infrastructure, growing tech sector and creative ecosystem to ride the digital wave to take their businesses to the next level.”

The aim is also for the industry’s success to translate into more job opportunities as it begins to mature.

“Our aim is to see more agencies succeed in the new and increasingly digitized landscape, as this will continue to make the industry one that provides good jobs and attractive career pathways for Singaporeans,” Poh adds.

IMDA also hosts a number of workshops and events, and has established Pixel Studios and Pixel Labs to enable networking, learning and collaboration within the industry, she adds.

For the EDB, investment is key in protecting Singapore as a hub – a role for which it has rightly earned its stripes.

Kelvin Wong, assistant managing director at the EDB, explains: “Singapore is the hub for marketing in Asia Pacific, where we employ 15,000 in marketing – the largest number when compared with other major cities in Asia such as Shanghai and Bangkok.

“In the past three years, advertising firms in Singapore won about 65% of regional advertising accounts in Asia Pacific. Singapore’s continued ability to grow capabilities for marketing and foster an ecosystem that pushes the boundaries of innovation will be critical for our hub role.”

A pleasure, not a chore

For the agencies, the experience of working with the Singapore government is devoid of the usual hangups people might associate with the civil service, such as being slow or bureaucratic.

Ogilvy’s Riley says the agency has worked with EDB on several initiatives over the years, the latest being a three-year partnership to “advance Singapore’s modern marketing capabilities”.

He adds: “Indirectly, via our membership of the IAS (Institute of Advertising Singapore), we are also in discussions with IMDA around ways to promote the marketing profession in Singapore to target those emerging organizations and talent.”

The motivations for Ogilvy to set up a center of excellence in collaboration with the government range from monetary to simply keeping up with the times.

“The driving factors around setting up the original center of excellence revolved around Singapore’s continued evolution as a leading business hub in Asia and the Smart Nation agenda that has been put in place,” says Riley.

For perspective, the Singapore government called for a record S$2.82bn worth of technology tenders in 2016, and launched the Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 Plan (RIE2020) in January of this year. The plan will grant S$19bn over the next five years to support Singapore’s R&D efforts, innovation drive and technology adoption.

VML has been working closely with the EDB for the past 12 months, ahead of an announcement earlier this year that the two were also partnering to launch a center of excellence in Singapore.

“Our role has been to define the vision for the center of excellence and detail how we would bring this vision to life, something that has only been made possible with the help of a grant from the EDB,” Lochan explains.

For VML, it is all about assimilating global standards and best practices.

“We want to help our client partners achieve true digital transformation through the next three years, something that we are well on our way to doing. In fact, we are already working with major clients such as Ford, HSBC and Kellogg’s.”

Meanwhile, Zenith Singapore has the proverbial cake with the EDB as a client, as well as working with the government agencies. Managing director Helen Lee says the agency works closely with Google and government bodies through initiatives such as Digitize and Squared, both of which are aimed at training and developing young professionals for the digital media sector.

Is Singapore creative?

After all has been said and done by both the government and agencies, is Singapore a creative city?

The relentless push to stay ahead has helped Singapore on its journey to being a creative city, according to Lee, who says the arts scene has been rapidly catching up over the past five years.

“The city’s commitment to developing a creative ecosystem has also been evidenced with the designation of Unesco Creative City of Design,” she adds.

“These are promising developments for the media industry as we constantly seek to marry arts and science to add value for our many stakeholders.”

Singapore is slowly breaking away from its pragmatism around creativity, according to VML’s Lochan.

“In the past, Singaporeans were more traditional; creativity was not a preferred choice but rather something you pursued if you ‘failed’ to make it in the mainstream. The government is doing its best to push creativity by welcoming cultural, social and political diversity, which are the basic tenets of a society that allows freedom to nurture creativity.

“There is much work being done to develop the key industries that drive creativity as well as spur innovation, most prominently from startups. Hence, while it might take a little more time for Singaporeans to completely break away from the traditional mindset, I have no doubt we are getting there. The time is right, opportunities are rife, and change will definitely follow to make Singapore even more creative than ever before.”

This feature is from the Singapore installment of The Drum's Creative Cities series, which is sponsored by The Trade Desk and published alongside our September issue of the magazine. Become a member of The Drum+ to get your hands on a copy.

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