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The Independents: TSLA

One cannot think of the success of the independents agency scene in Singapore without thinking of TSLA. TSLA, or The Secret Little Agency, has been around for nine years now working with major local and international clients.  Marketing sat down with Nicholas Ye, founder of the agency to hear his story.

When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?

When I was 19. I was thinking “Holy crap. This place (Singapore) is dull. That was 2007.”

Economically we were amazing as a country. That didn’t seem to translate culturally into art, fashion, music design and advertising which we were content to import wholesale from the west. The advertising industry then, seemed perpetually occupied trying to scam each other (and the world!) with more fake work that no one needed. Meanwhile, our brightest creative talent didn’t have the futures to match their ambitions in Asia and many didn’t want to return home.

So instead of complaining about how broken everything was, we started TSLA.

Which year did you first start up? Who was the first client you had on board?

We started in 2007. One of our first clients was Transitions Optical who is still a client of ours today.

What makes your agency stand out

Our combined force of will. When we get behind something, someone, an idea, product or service…there is an unmistakable surge of passion and courage that is just infectious and transformative in its ability to move the needle from good to great.

We go to great lengths to assimilate creativity into the blood stream, sales force, marketing team of every client we work with so that creativity becomes a necessity for success, instead of a nice-to-have.

What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?

Three years ago, we made a difficult decision to break up the classic union of art director and copywriter, and instead filled the creative department with more diverse skillsets that included engineers, architects, experience designers and technologists. It was a difficult decision and an expensive experiment that ate into our bottom line for 2 whole quarters and represented a huge fiscal risk with no immediate upside.

On the inside, the creative team suddenly had new skills and services at its disposal. Experience designers and prototypers who worked effortlessly in CAD and Rhino, were working alongside our integrated producers to prototype the machines we were proposing.

UX designers found new allies with our planners, charting new user profiles and journeys for our client And eventually, two quarters later the investment returned itself three-fold with our evolved creative department retaining our creative incumbency on EDB. That was two tough quarters which we overcame by keeping our eye on the work and not on the bottom line.

It’s tough to make decisions that change the core of how you know business to be done knowing that it could put the rice bowls of the people you value at risk.

Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?

We look for two traits in every person that joins TSLA and in our clients.

1) Be Human

2) Be Fearless

The latter is harder to achieve because you get more scared with age. You get more scared with experience. You get more scared when life just piles on the bills and pressures. And when you’re scared, you can’t be awesome. We stay fearless by surrounding ourselves with people who make our worlds and our futures brighter. It is a certain optimism that a rare few have.

How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?

Starting something and being your own boss are 2 different things. I am technically my own boss, yet if the people closest to me chose not to cooperate, I would be absolutely helpless. We are always working for someone.

In this industry, it is typically clients, who also have bosses, so yes, I could work for someone so long as that person has a compelling vision and an ambition that is larger than mine; or that helps me get to my own ambitions faster.

Pluses and minuses of being independent

We think of independence much more in spirit and ethos then in the technical sense. There are many independents that operate like slow, lumbering hulks, and many global agencies who still feel, fresh, agile and independent in spirit.

A big plus of being independent that we can mess with our model at great speed, and reiterate toward greatness whenever we like.

A minus? We have to work harder to find new, world-class talent. Many here in Asia, don’t squint hard enough. They see our independence as a minus, and you get written off fast.

When you first started out, how did you market your agency? How did you get clients on board?

We did very few pieces of highly-visible work, that mattered. That was the only marketing for the agency when TSLA first started. No website. No cards. No proper office even. We got clients on board because they saw how much we did with how little and started imagining the possibilities. 9 years on, that still hasn’t changed.

What was your first experience in the ad world? How do you think that shaped you? 

My first three months as an intern at TBWA saw me being moved three times. First sharing a room with an amazing art and copy team (Marcus Rebeschini & Robert Kleman), then to the studio where I met my 1st partner in crime and lastly into the CEO’s office (it was Johan Fourie’s office) for a week to help with an internal communications project.

I went on to join a newly founded BBH Singapore, and got to experience that same direct interaction with the talented team there. That exposure to diverse ends of the agency and to senior level management really left a deep impression on me. What to do, what not to do. How to do it better. It all came crashing together in my 18 year old head.

What have you taken away from your years in the ad world and implemented in your current business?

Life is much bigger than advertising. We can never be too absorbed by the bubble of this industry, because the best creations are always inspired by a well lived life. Our best work is in itself, a response to culture. You can’t respond or create culture if you’re not cultured.

That it pays handsomely to put the work, before the money. Our work is the ultimate return of investment to the agency, because successful work, makes successful clients who will eventually have more than enough to pay you back when they’re doing well. All structures, functions and talent within TSLA exist to prioritise work before any and everything else.

“Spend your time talking about ideas. Not people.” was something I read awhile ago, and has stuck with me since. So we try to find people who like talking about ideas not people, to work with us at TSLA. Life’s too short for politics and for people who politic.

What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?

Be clear of the value you offer. Know what makes you unique and make certain to make this known in everything that you do. There’s too much noise in the market now. Too much grey and no black.

What is one piece of advice you’d give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?

Go out and break things. Ignore the haters and trolls. When it feels crazy, and everyone is telling you are delusional and that you are surely going to fail – that is exactly when you need to step out and do it.

Would you be open to buyout?

Yes – but never in spirit.

Five year plan for the agency?

Our focus these next few months (not even years) is on accelerating TSLA’s ambition to influence the world from Asia by increasing our global creative footprint. This will see us expanding into China and soon into the west. Watch this space?

First team/Founders: Mavis Neo, Nicholas Ye
First client:           Transitions Optical
Founding year:   2007
Claim to fame: The Department of Appropriate Behaviour for Fox International Channels, FX; TSLA is Marketing Magazine’s, Creative Agency of the Year 2015.
Clients worked on: Economic Development Board, Unilever, Nike, Evian, Netflix, Gobear, Singapore Tourism Board

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