The Independents: Asylum by Chris Lee

A respected name in Singapore’s creative scene, Asylum has a list of accolades to its credit.

The agency was founded by established creative Chris Lee. Prior to founding Asylum, Lee headed the design division in Bartle Bogle Hegarty Asia Pacific, and Ogilvy & Mather Singapore. Lee's name is well-known in the local creative scene, with Lee also being the founding president of the The Design Society, (a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting creativity in Singapore) and having numerous awards to his name.

Last year, the agency was involved in re-branding the Singapore National Gallery branding, which the public poked fun of. Lee answered coolly, responding to the idea that the design looked like a young child drew it, Lee said: “To say that a young child could have drawn this is actually a compliment. I think we can learn a lot from a young child’s purity.”

He takes Marketing behind the scenes of his creative independent shop:

When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?
I don't think there was a precise moment, I was contemplating a move to New York when an opportunity came. The idea of starting out on my own was just as exciting because I knew I could shape my own destiny.

Which year did you first start up? Who was the first client you had on board?
June 1999, My first client was my ex-agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. They sent all their clients who needed design to our door so we are forever grateful to them.

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What makes your agency stand out?
Our ability to marry art and commerce with the aim of exceeding at both. We have also evolved as an agency from doing print and branding to specialising in spacial communications.

What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?
I think the day to day running of the agency is tough enough, you don't need a major crisis. There are client relationships, project constraints, managing expectations, staff issues etc… We get better at choosing suitable clients as we mature as an agency.

Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?
I think I am always paranoid about failing. That pushes me to do better each time. I drink lots of wine!

How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?
It's great. I'm not sure if it's for everyone but the perks outweighs the stress for me. The obvious answer (about working for someone again) would be no but I'm not so sure - Maybe one day when my priorities change. Like if I went into teaching for a change.

Pluses and Minuses of being independent
When you are independent you get to decide your own fate. You do not have to adhere to anyone's agenda except yours. Whether to take on a project or not it’s entirely up to you, if you fail to achieve what you set out in the project there are also no excuses. I guess the benefit is that you do not have to deal with internal politics and all the other bullshit.

When you first started out, how did you market your agency? How did you get clients on board?
We were very fortunate to have BBH's backing when we started. Jobs were already flowing through the door so we just concentrated on making great work and hoped that word of mouth would bring us new clients. Winning awards also added our profile significantly.

What was your first experience in the ad world? How do you think that shaped you?
My start in advertising gave me a grounded foundation of what the business world is like. I learned the rules and then eventually how to break them. I am an ideas driven designer and I got that training from my days at BBH.

What have you taken away from your years in the ad world and implemented in your current business?
There are many things that I've learned, mostly what not to do! ha..
1) No time sheets
2) No pitch unless it's something extraordinary
3) Creatives are best suited to sell the work
4) Don't grow too large
5) Contribute to the community

What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?
You have to be different from everyone else.

What is one piece of advice you’d give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?
Do it only when you are hungry enough. Only then will you not take failure as an answer.

Would you be open to buyout?
I’d never say never. It has to be the right partner because we want to do bigger and more exciting projects globally.

Five year plan for the agency
We will continue to grow in terms of global projects and we want to be the first agency you think of when you want a branded environment.

Pictured: projects by Asylum

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First client: BBH
Founding year: 1999
Founded by: Chris Lee
Claim to fame: Numerous
Clients worked on: Johnnie Walker, Nike, H&M, Johnson & Johnson, Pontiac Land, W hotels, and more.