Does the 4As have any influence?

In a time where Singapore is attempting to raise the bar for its digital services and make itself a “digital hub”, old agency issues are resurfacing. Woes for both agencies and clients such as wasting of resources, idea theft, purported unethical behaviour in pitches, not excluding those of government clients which dominate the local market come into question.

Granted, the government’s dedicated move in the form of the Economic Development Board stepping in to look at the industry is heartening, a move that was arguably unthinkable. A mere two years back, I spoke with a previous member of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Singapore (4As), who then opined that the organisation had little clout with governing bodies as most of these seemed to regard the profession lightly. (However, the professional could not be reached for more comments for this story.)

While the industry may take awhile to see the effects of these efforts, attention once again comes around to the 4As. Formed in 1958, the organisation’s original purpose was represent the industry’s views and present these at forums, government advisory councils and more, as a voice for agencies.

However, it has been the lament of many an agency that the organisation lacks the influence needed to champion their causes.

“There has been much debate in recent times regarding pitch fees, best pitch practices, government tenders, the value of agencies to marketeers, scam, etc. To which I haven't seen or heard the 4A's presence in such discussions,” says Ara Hampartsoumian, managing partner and regional business development director, BBH Asia Pacific.

Hampartsoumian voices his doubts on how the organisation is representing the industry’s collective voice, and how it is elevating the stature of the community.

“What their current focus seems to be on is mainly the awards circuit,” he adds.

“I understand that most committee members in the 4A's are made up of current directors or senior members from our industry and are very aware of the problems we face as a collective. This puts them in a prime position to help bring us all together and be our voice when issues arise,” he says.

Richard Bleasdale of marketer-agency consultancy The Observatory says the potential for 4As to champion better practices for the industry certainly exists, as its mantra suggests.

“Unfortunately, the 4As have lacked focus and direction in the Singapore market for an extensive part of the last decade,” he says, echoing Hampartsoumian’s comments.

Marketing’s attempts to reach the 4As for comments on the matter were not returned.

However, in an earlier discussion on whether pitch fees should be implemented in Singapore, a spokesperson from the 4As said that in principle it has always been an advocate of agencies charging a pitch fee for their work, "although enforcement is not in its charter."

When asked what it would be doing to have the practice implemented in Singapore, the spokesperson said that it was “considering embarking on dialogues” with the industry locally and regionally.

Stephen Mangham, co-founder of Mangham Gaxiola flips the coin on agencies, saying it is all too easy for them to blame the 4As for lack of clout - but the onus is also on them to give active support, especially from major agencies.

“When I served on the board, I was disappointed to see how few of the leading agencies were represented by their head of office. Without that involvement and support, the 4As will have at best a peripheral influence,” he says.

It seems the organisation is attempting to pick up its pace, however.

According to Bleasdale, the organisation has been gaining momentum with its new secretariat, committee and president in place, and partnerships with the Confederation of Asian Advertising Agencies and The International Advertising Agencies Association.

“However, as it only represents the agency-side of the industry, and primarily only creative and media agencies, we feel it is unlikely to be able to lead or champion a holistic viewpoint for the marketing communications industry,” says Bleasdale.

Rosalynn Tay CEO, Dentsu Singapore says: “The 4As has come a long way. But times have changed and to continue to be relevant and contribute in a meaningful way, it needs to engage with agencies and clients to get them to come to the party. There are many good initiatives in place so I hope that 4As continues with that positive momentum.”

It has often been compared to the Institute of Advertising Professionals (IAS), which represents both agencies and marketers, with a strong focus on education and talent development, with some suggesting the latter is more effective in garnering industry influence.

“Arguably, the IAS is in a stronger position currently, as it represents both agencies and brands,” says Bleasdale. “However, presently its membership base is much too small and too focused on traditional agencies to really be representative of or influential across the whole industry,” he adds.

The IAS’ strong roots in education and training give it an edge, however, he adds.

Is one association enough?

Several markets such as Australia and New Zealand have formed unified groups for the marketing industry. For example, Australia’s Communications Council and New Zealand’s Communication Agencies Association of New Zealand work this way.

Should this be the way forward for Singapore?

“We believe this holistic model would work very well for Singapore. However, whether its membership base should in fact be both agencies and brands is less clear,” says Bleasdale.

“The truth is, in a market this small, we don't need two competing industry organizations. It would be much better to have one strong organization, actively supported by both agencies and advertisers, which can lobby and push for initiatives which promote the health and interests of our industry,” agrees Mangham.

IAS president Goh Shufen disagrees.

“Most markets have the same number of associations as Singapore, if not more. If you look at countries like China and India, they have associations even at city level. So it’s not about the number of associations, it’s really about how each association serves its members meaningfully and contribute to the greater good of the industry,” she says, adding that there would always be a need for an association to champion the specific needs and interests of agencies.