BBH and NTUC Income on keeping the spark alive in a decade-long marriage

In a year that has seen some long-term brand and agency partnerships come to an end, and some experiment with new partnership models, partnerships which have withstood the test of time are becoming endangered.

In a year that has seen some long-term brand and agency partnerships come to an end, and some experiment with new partnership models, partnerships which have withstood the test of time are becoming endangered.

One of these partnerships belongs to Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) and its Singapore-based client, NTUC Income. The creative agency and the insurer celebrated a decade of working together this year, releasing a ‘Kopi table book’ (Kopi is colloquially known as coffee) to commemorate the occasion.

The book features all the major campaigns that have been created by BBH for Income and includes iconic work like ‘Essentials’, the first campaign for the brand that was recognized for its portrayal of Singaporean life, along with other campaigns.

From the client’s perspective, its relationship with BBH is best described as an adventurous couple who have been married for 10 years, constantly looking to take on something challenging together, Marcus Chew, the chief marketing officer at NTUC Income tells The Drum.

“The relationship has a strong foundation with many great achievements but we are still constantly adjusting to each other's style with the changing environment so that we continue to stay as a cool couple,” he says, adding that campaigns like ‘Start Retiring’, ‘Back to School’, ‘Times Have Changed’, ‘People First’ and ‘The Best Gift’ are his favorite.

On reflection, Charles Wigley, chairman at BBH, says the partnership has been productive because the agency’s work has been driven by “mutual challenge and ambition” even though the agency worked with two different teams on the client-side over the past decade.

“This relationship has lasted this long not because of habit or ease, or some kind of ‘yes man’ servitude, but because of real mutual challenge and ambition. Maybe it has been made easier because Income has a mission to serve the people of Singapore rather than just deliver the next quarter results to the financial markets” Wigley tells The Drum.

Explaining why the ‘Kopi table book’ was produced, Wigley says BBH wanted to celebrate 10 years of good work with a memento that could be shared with all the talented people who have committed significant chunks of their career to understand and build the brand.

“Sometimes our industry just forgets about what it has done and does not celebrate its people enough. That's what we set out to do. And then for the idea about what should we make, we wanted to put a mixture of work in there,” says Wigley.

“We thought should we do a book which led to 'why don't we do a coffee table book?' and then, of course, it became the Kopi shop book. It just kind of spun from there. We were privileged that we could involve Aik Beng Chia, who is one of Singapore’s best-known street photographers and also works at BBH. He took some great shots around town and played an important role in bringing this vision to life. It all came together quite nicely in the end.”

Looking back at some of the lessons and highlights both parties encountered over the years, Chew says for Income, there are many ways to achieve the same desired outcome but that it needed to always be open to challenges and build on each other's perspective. For Wigley, he remarks that whatever BBH has done with Income and whatever medium it has been, there has always been quite a strong sense of purpose.

“I used to work very closely on the account in the early years. I think one of the big highlights for me is when Orchard Road got flooded. We got an ad out that afternoon after literally ringing up the client and saying, "Obviously this is what's going on. Why don't you do a quick ad and get it in the paper immediately?" Wigley recalls.

“We got a huge response at the time from the public and that was really gratifying. I think we did another one shortly afterward, which again I remember was actually a line that Steve Elrick (then ECD) texted me that said ‘Get Rich Slow’ and I immediately showed the then client (Tan Suee Chieh) at lunch. He bought it on the spot. It was a lovely line, which kind of turned so many things on its head.”

Chew adds that the key to sustaining a decade-long relationship are results, consistency in people, trust and respect of each other capabilities. “It is also important for us to progress together on our digital journey as it changes the way we work as we gain maturity digitally,” he says.

Agreeing, Wigley says agencies must consistently deliver because ultimately clients come to agencies for solutions to their problems. He adds agencies also need to be culturally aligned with clients to really make a difference.

“I think as an agency we are always culturally aligned with ambitious people, people who want to make a difference. One of our key lines is, "The power of difference is to make a difference”, he says. “I think we're very poor as an agency when it comes to kind of box-ticking or business as usual, or clients with no real ambition beyond maybe slightly incremental or just doing something because they have always done it.”

“We work well culturally with people that want to do things, and with the first team of people that worked on the account, they really wanted to modernize the brand and differentiate it. In recent years with Marcus, we have had a client who really genuinely wants to make famous work and wants that work to cut through in Singapore and be talked about here.”

“On our side, we had a few people that have done quite long stints on the account, and the current creative directors have been on it for quite a few years. I have obviously been on it quite a few years. Thomas Wagner, who's the planning director, he's been on it nearly five years now.”

For agencies looking at sustaining a long-term relationship with brands, Wigley says there is no secret formula because it is just hard work and urges agencies to remember what they stand for.

That is because he observes agencies talking a game, but not necessarily deliberating new ways to work with the clients because ultimately for them, money comes first. His advice? Be very clear with yourselves about what you're there to deliver, what your culture is about and who are the types of clients you work best with.

“We don't work brilliantly with every type of client out there. Ultimately, you have got to accept that is fine,” he says. “If you try to you end up with a culture that's really quite fragmented, it will operate on one way with one client and another way with another. I think we've been good at building a cohesive, strategic and creative culture at BBH.”

Looking ahead, BBH wants to keep creating work for Income that genuinely becomes part of the culture and is genuinely talked about. That is because, as Wigley points out, the brutal truth about the industry is 99% of consumers really do not care at all about what agencies do and they are not interested in advertising at all.

Therefore, the challenge is to give people content that they genuinely get value out of, whether that is real entertainment, prompts them to think or is utility they can use that helps them in their lives. It must be some kind of value exchange between the advertiser and the consumers.

“I think we forget that with the digital channels available to us, we assume that somehow they are interested,” says Wigley. “They are our families, our parents, our partners and they don't care."

Otherwise, Wigley asserts agencies are just "bludgeoning people over the head" with messages to try and hope that they remember it. “Ultimately, I guess our goal is you want to do better and better work. The better work you have, the more it is naturally loved by people and they will spread the message themselves.”

It is unclear if Chew's quip about being BBH and Income being a married couple was taken seriously by the agency, but its latest work for Income on its 10th anniversary with the client is centred around a wedding. It features the groom 'scolding' his parents for being worse off than his peers when he was younger, before praising them for planning for their retirement, which is the best gift they could give to their children.

The video for the campaign has been watched by over 5.1 million people and shared by over 90,000 people across various channels, including Facebook and YouTube. It even caught the attention of the mainstream press in Singapore.

As Wigley puts it, doing better work that resonates with the public naturally gets you the attention.

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