This post was done in collaboration with GOVT.
Singapore-based independent agency GOVT was formed by ad men Leon Lai and Aaron Koh with the single mission to create great work that makes people talk.
Fast-forward nine years, the 50-strong team has worked with many of the region’s most notable brands such as Julie’s, Sentosa, OCBC Bank, Tiger Beer, Lazada, and many others. Winning much praise from the creative and marketing community, GOVT won several awards at MARKETING-INTERACTIVE’s Agency of the Year, MARKies and Marketing Events Awards.
But what many may not know is the agency was built on two core pillars – courage and common sense. Both of which, it believes, are vital in the business. Helming the local day to day operations, and keeping these pillars upright at the creative powerhouse, are managing director Alvina Seah, and executive creative director Timothy Chan.
While the pair may not have been present at the birth of the firm, what they bring to GOVT is their understanding and unique blend of knowledge having had their fair share of experience working with large agency networks.
Before joining GOVT two years ago, Seah spent nearly 10 years in Shanghai with the likes of BBDO climbing the ranks from senior account director to managing director. She also spent the early years of her career working with the likes of TBWA\Singapore.
So why did she decide to leave the stability of a network and join the hustle and bustle of the independent agency scene?
“I’ve always been curious about the secret sauce behind independent agencies,” Seah shares candidly.
She reminisces that while there is no doubt there are perks working at a global network, it is the real ability of agility that keeps her hooked to the independent scene.
“While we all talk about being agile, in an independent agency is very real, and it is not always easy,” she explains.
“There is a lot of madness, and sometimes finding methods to the madness leads you down paths that don’t work,” she says.
“But what’s reassuring is the founders of GOVT encourage this mentality, and give us the space to try fast and fail fast. Some days, it’s a bit scary, but I suppose that’s the thrill behind that secret sauce.”
Meanwhile, Chan adds it is that sense of adventure that lured him after spending nearly 11 years with the larger agency networks. He held numerous roles across firms such as DDB, McCann and Iris.
“I was looking for an adventure beyond what I had experienced in the first 11 years of my career. So, the opportunity to be part of a small pirate ship with friends I had known for a few years (and who had already started the shop) was a no-brainer,” he says.
Asked if he holds any regrets, he openly shares: “My only regret is that I didn’t end up taking all that much time off! Seriously though, when I look back at my six years with GOVT, I wish I had done quite a number of things differently, but I have no regrets about joining an independent agency at all. The whole adventure has given me friends, moments and life lessons that I’ll always be grateful for.”
According to Seah and Chan, who both understandably spend a fair bit of their energy making sure the agency is running in the right direction, work goes far beyond the day-to-day, but bleeds into the hunt for incremental improvements that result in a better work environment, end product, and of course, talent.
“Every week, there are new challenges to overcome, new things to think about, new ways to make things better for the collective. And all those things tend to turn our roles into that of an aunt agony, firefighter, client counsel, discipline master, drinking buddy, and more,” Chan says.
Coping with the pandemic
While 2020 was a tough one for many in the ad agency scene in Singapore, the duo shared that they’ve been lucky to emerge from the madness with minor bruises.
“It’d be foolish for us to say that things are good enough and what we have today will carry us through well into the future. But what we want for the agency is to make this a place where everyone feels they belong – employees and clients alike,” Chan adds.
While advertising might be a calling for some, and a stepping stone for others, the pair understand that for all of us it is a job. So at the top of Seah’s radar is to resonate with the newer generation of staff who value different aspects to life than their parents, mentors and superiors.
When it comes to talent, Chan and Seah say they are looking for people who are street-smart and who can each bring a differentiating factor to the table – true to how the agency was built.
“We’re not afraid of people who have differing opinions to ours, so long as we are all working towards the same goal. We don’t just want to bark instructions to people on what to do and how to do it,” Chan says.
To achieve this “mildly utopian goal”, they remain steadfast in their vision of the future which is rooted in the balance of creative excellence and commercial sensibilities. The former, they say, is self-explanatory, but the latter is necessary for ensuring the long-term success of the agency.
That’s why it is now focused on making inroads into selling different capabilities within the agency. To put words into action, at the tail end of 2020, GOVT started setting up a dedicated creative studio to manage the quality of content and have the freedom and agility to support clients’ needs in digitally-driven campaigns.
The creative studio is equipped with motion graphics designers, 3D animators, videographers and editors, as well as a tech producer, so that creative outputs are more diversified, beyond the typical list of deliverables in a brief.
“This encouraged all of us to be more willing to explore different creative solutions, and also makes it more fun to create different types of work,” Chan explains.
He adds that working in GOVT should mean that an individual is liberated to make decisions and have opinions, no matter what level their career is at – and knowing that if things ever go wrong (and they will, occasionally), the team is always there for support.
Chan adds that when the founders started up the agency, bravery was the secret sauce that drove it to where it is today. A plan was made built on prudence and a clear view of how to build an agency brick by brick.
“It’s the same today as we continue building the house. Without bravery, our creative product would be crap. But without common sense, no client would buy it,” he says.
A founders’ tale
“I think for us to say that we started GOVT because we believed that we could create a different type of agency is quite unbelievable,” says Lai, co-founder of GOVT. He adds the company ultimately wanted to put out real work that it would not be ashamed to have its name on.
“That said, I think the real trigger for us to start GOVT was that Aaron and I shared some common beliefs. Practitioners working in advertising seem to have accepted that when you decide to join or stay on in this industry, you are required to work until 2 am. Or having bonuses only comes at management levels. Or subservience is the only way to retain clients. We try to break out of those on-ground sentiments.
“We try to practise what we preach, and not do anything that we wouldn’t want people to do to us.”
Koh says the firm wants to create an environment where egos can be set aside and every opinion should be respected.
“We didn’t want an agency that our people would have to kowtow to our every want and need. Of course, there will never be a level playing field, no matter how you spin it,” he says.
“But everyone has an opinion and they should be comfortable enough to voice it out without the pressure. We wanted people to believe in the things they do on a day to day basis, not because we made them believe it.”
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Tell us how GOVT came around.
Lai: I never had the intention to start up GOVT! My initial itch was to get myself into an F&B business post-my coming back from Melbourne, but before doing so, I popped over to Shanghai to visit my sister who was based there then, as well as my football kaki Aaron. But things don’t always go according to plan in life, and Aaron was pretty much the instigator who spent seven hours convincing me that I had unfinished business in the agency world. That was how GOVT came about and the rest is history, as they say!
Koh: Yes, as a young creative, I would always talk to my peers about what I would do differently if I was a creative director, believing that I could walk in those shoes quicker than I was supposed to! Keyword here being “talk” given that I never really found the guts to do it because I was always busy trying to do the work, win the awards and nail the overseas job most of us dreamt of.
After I achieved all that I was supposed to, I landed myself in Shanghai. A couple of months in, I caught up with Leon for a drink and the rest is history. All that talk turned into action and GOVT was born over 12 glasses of ice lemon tea!
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What were some of the challenges you overcame to get the agency off the ground?
Lai: Well even before the agency went live, we faced challenges. If there’s one thing that we have learnt over the years, it is to follow your heart and ride things out. For example, we initially identified five people whom we would have loved to have as founding partners in GOVT, a few conversations ensued, but at the end of the day, it was still Aaron and myself looking out for each other. That was the first huge obstacle for us, because without the trust we could have pretty much given up even before we even started.
We asked each other: “Are we too ambitious? Do we still believe? Is there something wrong with our plan?” But we decided to just hunker down, and give it a shot. We told ourselves that we were young enough to screw up!
Another challenge we had was scaling up. We started GOVT with just SG$10,000 and worked out of a 400 square-foot HDB shophouse in Everton Park. Bootstrapping is normal with a start-up, but scaling without external investors was a whole new ball game!
From 2013 to 2015, we had a lot of fun rolling up our sleeves and just doing work, but in 2016 we started winning serious accounts such as Häagen-Dazs, MINI Asia, National Gallery, and of course, OCBC Bank.
The accounts gave us many opportunities, and we found ourselves in the position of having to make serious financial decisions. It was like playing poker, and going all-in. At that point we were also married men with young families. So we made the decision to take out bank loans with money we never thought we would ever have, just to inject working capital into the company. Thank God we rode that out as well with sheer belief, tenacity and pure hustling.
Koh: Before we started, I had SG$5,000 in my bank account and I knew I needed to save more money if I wanted to get anything off the ground. I lived near the office in Shanghai, so during lunch hour, I would walk back, eat instant noodles, or whatever was leftover the day before, and head back to work. I knew that was an unhealthy diet of course, but that was my routine and I wasn’t going to the casino to try my luck!
Leon and I talked a lot about the “how” and the “who” to get the ball rolling, but most of the decision making was made on pure gut feel rather than calculative manoeuvres. We gave ourselves two years to see it through, and if it didn’t work out, at least we knew we tried our hardest.
But the hard parts led us to growing the start-up to a point where we were pitching alongside the big boys, and that was the moment we realised that we were doing something right. The big challenge was in improving both the standard of work, and the culture of the agency at the same time because we knew we needed to grow if we ever wanted to be taken seriously.
It was extremely difficult to find the right talent who would believe in us, simply because we weren’t a big enough name in the industry and didn’t have the sexy accounts at that point. But some of them did, and I’m grateful they’re still with us to this day carrying the GOVT flag.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Were there times you just wanted to give up? What kept you going?
Lai: I firmly believe that if an entrepreneur hasn’t ever thought of giving up, then something must be wrong! Start-up life is tremendously hard, and being an SME owner today with over 50 mouths to feed is even harder. You feel this immense sense of responsibility and perpetual baggage on your shoulders.
But when you look around you – your people, partners, clients, vendors – and you see they are willing to support you as long as you don’t give up, then you find that little bit of courage from the depths of your inner self and you just carry on.
Koh: There are many, many times that I’ve doubted myself. I’ve asked myself: Am I good enough to be a leader? Is the work creative enough? What if we fail to pay our people on time? And these were just some of things that went through my mind on a daily basis.
It’s tough to carry that burden as a boss, a colleague, and a friend because a lot of times, there are hard decisions to be made and there sometimes isn’t a clear line drawn between the professional and the personal, and it will affect you both ways.
The passion for the work, keeps me working. We get our hands dirty together as a team and ride out the storm no matter how hard it is. Our people believe that creating work that will be of envy for others is the best part of the job! They know that all the pain and long hours will be worth it when the work is appreciated.
So what’s next?
When asked what their vision for the agency was now that Seah and Chan are in charge, both say there has never been an outright mission or vision for the agency other than to do great work and pass the torch to the deserving new generation entering the agency scene.
“When we first brought Chan and Seah in as part of the 2G leadership, we simply told them to give everybody a chance. We are not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but we try to be decent as human beings,” Lai says. He adds the goal has always been to be the best versions of themselves from a start-up to that of a mid-sized SME.
“Regardless of agency or individual accolades. As owners, we are determined by how we treat our people and clients, not how much billings or success the agency has generated,” he adds.
Koh says that from a creative stand point, it was always about getting people to talk about the work positively, and in turn, feel proud that they did it.
“We never really had a real big vision statement plastered at the entrance of the office or printed on notebooks to give to clients. Everyone sees their vision differently, and as long as there’s harmony and respect for both the work and the people, that’s good enough for us,” he says.
He adds that ultimately, the goal has always been to promote new leadership to foster relationships with clients and partners.
“When Leon and I were still in the thick of things, we were the ones keeping the relationships with clients, being responsible for P&L, and maintaining the morale in the teams. But with us stepping back now, the next generation gets to do it on their own terms.”
Let’s take a look at some of the rising stars
Charisse Cham is currently a senior account manager at GOVT and has been with the agency for more than four years. She arrived after a couple of internship stints in different agencies.
“I saw that GOVT had just won the OCBC account and it turned out that I also had a friend in GOVT at that time so I decided to give it a shot,” she says. But what has kept her there for four years is the supportive bosses and amazing colleagues-turned-friends.
“I have really lucked out,” she says. “I know that no matter how tough the work gets, and it does get tough, there’ll always be people who have my back, that’s what has kept me here.”
Moreover, it is the flat hierarchy and sense of collaboration that keeps Cham enthralled. In a true local sense, she cheekily adds: “We are also really near a lot of great food in Tiong Bahru, and working in the Tan Boon Liat Building among all the furniture shops is an experience in itself!”
Foong Min Mei
Meanwhile, Foong Min Mei, has been with GOVT for nearly three and a half years and currently holds the position of group account director. “I started in a local shop, and then spent most of my agency journey in network and regional roles. It felt almost like a homecoming to be part of an independent again,” she says.
Her mulling over her career growth serendipitously timed with GOVT being on the hunt for a digital lead to kick-start its digital and social agenda.
“Since I have always been passionate in building teams, it was an opportunity to restart personally and professionally,” she says.
“It has been a tough, but rewarding three and a half years, and the people here keep me going. Just like family, we have our fights sometimes, but we always make up and stand by one another. And it helps we all like to have fun together, at work and after.”
When asked what her biggest draw is in working at GOVT, she says: “The grit, tenacity and humility.” The agency prides itself on the belief that nobody is too big, nor too small, with the senior leaders often rolling up their sleeves to get things done, and junior members having the chance to make a point.
“We respect processes, but we also value differentiation. It is an entrepreneurial experience and culture that translates to the way we work, and the dynamism and chemistry amongst everyone in the agency.”
Kevin Joseph works closely with the creative team as associate creative director. Being in the agency for five years, he shares that after eight years with networks he found the prospect of joining a young upstart agency pretty appealing.
“When I first joined, I wondered if it could be the beginning of a cool little story of a small agency that somehow picked up a few wins along the way. As a fan of a good underdog story, I just wanted to be a part of that,” he says.
Five years on, with a few big wins, he adds candidly: “It’s nice to look back, see how far we’ve come and wonder how much further we can go.”
For Joseph, it is the “upstart spirit” which is still very much intact that drives him. He adds that despite the agency’s growth, it still tends to draw people who like an upstart spirit.
“But truth be told, I don’t like to make comparisons. An agency name is just a sign on the door. It’s the people in it that make it a worthwhile place to work.”