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By Charlotte McEleny | Asia Editor

September 8, 2017 | 8 min read

We find out why creative businesses are choosing to set up base in Singapore, and about the challenges being mounted by Asia’s other creative hubs.

The Asia Pacific market promises the advertising and media industry some of the strongest growth projections globally. On a country-by-country basis however, few provide the scale for truly localized offerings. The hub model is therefore the primary tool for networks, brands, suppliers and even publishers to make the region work for them and to create relevance out of small local teams while scaling this up by using core markets as headquarters.

We speak to leaders of creative businesses in Singapore about how they plot their businesses in Asia Pacific, and how this might change.

Why choose Singapore?

Tobias Wilson, chief executive, APD Singapore

We didn’t choose the Singapore hub, the Singapore hub chose us. In short, the place made it almost impossible not to set up here. Apart from the financial incentives (which anyone can do), proximity is a huge reason to hub out of Singapore. Also, if you need to attract regional talent then you need to go beyond the money... I’m talking about things like safety, convenience, cleanliness and infrastructure. Singapore simply can’t be beaten in those areas.

Valerie Cheng, chief creative officer, Havas Southeast Asia

Being one of the most modern cities in the world, with amazing support from the government through the Economic Development Board of Singapore and initiatives like Smart Nation, which is a government mandate to be a smart city by 2020, many major brands such as GSK and P&G have located their regional and global teams here. It is therefore necessary for our regional and global teams to be based where our clients are.

Caspar Schlickum, chief executive for Asia Pacific, Wunderman

It wasn’t necessarily a ‘choice’ we made. After extensive analysis of the alternatives, it happened organically over the years. But it’s a logical place to be. Many of our regional clients are here and there is a depth and breadth of talent that is hard to find elsewhere. And, of course, geographically it is easy to get to the rest of the region. Having said that, we wouldn’t be closed to the idea of having people with regional responsibilities based in other parts of the region. We just happen not to right now.

Singapore lion

How does having a ‘hub’ office in Singapore help or hinder creativity?

Valerie Cheng, chief creative officer, Havas Southeast Asia

For many brands, Asia is the growth opportunity, and talent that is constantly exposed to such diverse cultures is more likely to create more considerate and inclusive ideas that will work in key markets around Singapore. Also, with more international talent from various countries in one place, unexpected seeds of ideas emerge, thus lending itself to fresher approaches and executions.

Tobias Wilson, chief executive, APD Singapore

My two business partners, who I’ve worked with here for nearly 10 years, are two of the absolute best creative minds in the business. Sadly, however, they’re the exception and not the rule. The art and culture scene is definitely growing and there are some amazing creatives here, but if you looked at a metric such as ‘creatives per capita’ against a place like Thailand, it wouldn’t be pretty. It’s changing though, and that’s awesome.

Katie Ewer, strategy director for Asia Pacific, JKR

It’s too easy to sit behind a desk and moan about Singapore’s lack of creative talent or characterize its efficiency as sterility. The whole industry needs to spend less time at our desks. We need to get out there and find creativity in unexpected places. All agencies have a responsibility to foster and be part of a creative culture in Singapore. The industry is what we make it.

Caspar Schlickum, chief executive for Asia Pacific, Wunderman

I think creativity is largely local. There is no such thing as a ‘regional’ consumer to the brands we work with, including the regional ones that are ultimately trying to engage with people in local markets. In my view, regional hubs exist for one reason only: to help the markets be as good as they can be. Creative is no different.

What is the future of Singapore as a regional hub?

John Hadfield, chief executive, BBH Asia Pacific

For Singapore to continue to be an Asian, even global, hub, it needs to provide the conditions for continued industry growth: continued client-side demand for world-class strategy, creativity and origination, and the availability of fantastic talent and associated creative services. There are, of course, pressures on all of these factors. Also, Singapore is acting as a global ‘petri dish’ through its publicly stated objective to be the world’s first smart city. And the most exciting thing is the emergence of a new generation of creative talent that are pursuing their passions, rather than conforming to generational norms.

Valerie Cheng, chief creative officer, Havas Southeast Asia

While most countries have a rich history that gives a strong identity, Singapore is extremely young in comparison, with no historical ‘baggage’ to hold it back. In fact, if there were an image of Singapore, I would liken it to a highly successful startup company. The pace and energy to constantly move forward is reflected in people’s work ethic and mindset. It has a ‘never-good-enough’ approach to life and business that naturally forces it to progress. If the government and company leaders continue to champion new thinking and provide the right training for its people, it will remain a perfect place for businesses to call home.

Caspar Schlickum, chief executive for Asia Pacific, Wunderman

In many ways Singapore is going through a difficult time, but, for all the reasons already mentioned, it is still the best place to base a regional business in Asia Pacific. Singapore has always been very business-friendly, with a very open and welcoming outlook to the world. As China opens up there is some threat that Singapore may be under pressure, especially given the sheer scale of the Chinese market.

Shufen Goh, principal, R3

I see a future where creativity and technology merge. Singapore has a strong foundation in STEM education and should be able to leverage that to its advantage. Primary-school kids are learning to code and AI and machine learning is already being used. We need people who know how to apply them to drive creativity at scale.

Singapore boats

What other markets are challenging the city’s hub status, in Particular when it comes to creativity?

Valerie Cheng, chief creative officer, Havas Southeast Asia

As it proves to be the beacon of innovation with the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and WeChat, China could be the one to watch if it gets a few other factors in place. Japan and Australia meanwhile have always been lighthouses for creativity. If global businesses start to base themselves in Australia, it will be a tough competitor to match with the quality of creative thinking and production capability it has. We are also seeing interesting work from Thailand and the Philippines, but with their strong local heritage and their choice of first language being more native, it makes for amazing locally relevant work that does not travel beyond its shores.

Shufen Goh, principal, R3

We believe China to be the most creative market – not in terms of awards won or creativity judged in the traditional sense, but the sheer creativity in its approach to solving and circumventing problems and riding on opportunities, ethically or not. But it’s in an ecosystem of its own. Small can be powerful in today’s world, where speed and agility sometimes matter more than scale. Singapore should be thinking about unseating London or New York as hubs, and not just other Asian threats.

Tobias Wilson, chief executive, APD Singapore

Thailand has some phenomenal creatives and just a really cool approach to creativity. As far as challenging as a hub, I can’t see anyone in the near future coming close to Singapore. When design and dental graduates here get the same applause and encouragement from their families, we’ll know we’ve made it.

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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