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Cheil Singapore wants to restore its creative rep, but can it attract the right talent?

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By Sam Bradley, Senior Reporter

June 2, 2022 | 7 min read

Cheil Singapore’s new leadership is eager to bolster its creative reputation among the city’s agency scene. They explain their master plan to The Drum, and why the agency’s close relationship with its largest client is a double-edged sword.

anand vathiyar

Anand Vathiyar took on leadership of Cheil Singapore in February 2020 / Cheil

Cheil is one of the world’s largest agency networks. But it’s primarily known for its close relationship with Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung, which is also its parent company. Its Singaporean managing director Anand Vathiyar wants to turn it into a career destination for ambitious creatives – but he’s got a few obstacles in his way.

The agency, in the estimation of executive creative director Mahesan Mottayan, hasn’t had much in the way of a reputation for strong creative in recent years. Given the clients and capabilities it has access to, it’s a missed opportunity; the mission, he says, is not just to “restore our creative reputation ... but build a creative reputation at all. That’s how low the bar was.”

Reputation building

The plan, put simply, is to use its non-Samsung briefs to produce more eye-catching, talked-about work that leads to new clients and the chance to create even more eye-catching work. It’s seen some success already, Vathiyar says – the agency was given the brief to run global social creative for local brand Tiger Balm off the back of its previous work on Samsung in the same theater. It also recently was added to the procurement framework of the Singaporean government – a chance to make lucrative and high-profile work for one of the city-state’s largest and most active advertisers.

Here, the Samsung connection can help – the agency has access to much consumer data from the smartphone giant, which Vathiyar describes as “second only to the Singaporean government” in quality. Insights derived from that resource could be put to use on other client accounts, he says: “We could unlock that for our other clients.”

The agency has to be selective in its client roster, though, because Samsung’s sprawling electronics empire presents “very little wiggle room” given the chance of conflict of interest – a factor that has obstructed the team in the past, Vathiyar states.

Singapore is a major market for cutting-edge phones, he notes, and Samsung is a market leader by sheer sales worldwide – though it lacks the cultural cachet of its main Californian rival. His team would like to produce more work building its brand, rather than focusing solely on hardware, and think there’s plenty of headroom to do so.

Mottayan argues that “the bar is so, so low for humor,” and ads that utilize the emotional connections create love to play with. Vathiyar agrees, adding that the “telco mentality” can hold advertisers in the space back. There’s an impression, he says, that “smartphone ads basically mean a music video with some beautiful young people dancing around, and somewhere there’s a phone in there.”

Persuading Samsung to do more exciting work is an ongoing process, says director of client services Cecilia Lim. “Samsung has deep pockets,” she notes, but time is often a scarce resource. And as Cheil begins to set the bar higher with the quality of its work, “we’ll be expected to meet that bar, but for the same budget.”

Recruitment offers

That might be easier said than done. Since Vathiyar stepped into his role, the agency has almost entirely renewed its creative team through focused recruitment of experienced and fresh minds. “It’s almost an entirely new department,” says Mottayan. “We’ve got a mix of experience and hungry junior creatives.”

But bringing fresh blood into the agency has been tough. Vathiyar says “people are always going to be attracted to established names,” and there are plenty of those in the city.

Competition for top creatives in Singapore is “really strong,” says Lim, and wage inflation in the talent market hasn’t helped. “It has been difficult,” says Mottayan. Furthermore, Cheil’s repuation – one they’re still trying to build – means the agency hasn’t been seen as much of a career destination in the past. More adventurous and daring work will do plenty to improve that impression, but Mottayan says Samsung itself can prove a pull. “At other agencies, junior creatives will be told they’ll get the chance to work on big clients, but often won’t end up working on those accounts. Here, they’ll actually work on one of the biggest advertisers anywhere. [Samsung] is a mega account ... and everybody here gets a fair crack,” he says.

While there’s opportunity, Lim notes it comes with its own cost. Though she says Samsung aren’t “uniquely different” to work with as a client, there’s no hiding the pressure that comes with reliance on a single, large advertiser. She dubs it the “Samsung stress,” catering to the needs of a “very demanding” client that is used to lightning-fast turnarounds and tends not to wait for a discussion over the creative merits of a given activation.

Vathiyar is concerned that demanding clients and a desire for more control over their working lives mean younger recruits aren’t attracted to agencies such as Cheil. He believes it will soon become a “hygiene factor” for Singaporean workers.

The three of them each bear mixed feelings about remote working. Mahesan says: “Creatives have a unique problem – their strength is in sparring with each other, and you can’t do that unless you’re face to face.” He doesn’t deny its advantages “on balance,” especially for young parents or those grappling with the personal cost of a commute.

Whether Vathiyar and Mottayan approve of remote working or not, the managing director concedes they’ll likely have to give ground in order to gain it. “Soft perks matter in recruitment,” he says.

Businesses in general in Asia Pacific have not prioritized junior staff in the past, says Vathiyar. “They’ve not invested in junior talent, they’ve not trained junior talent and they don’t work to bring junior talent into the fold.”

If Cheil Singapore is to change its creative reputation through new faces, it will have to change that too.

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