The Independents: GOVT

Local agency GOVT started in 2012 with Pernod Ricard as its first client.

Founded by executive creative directors Aaron Koh and Casey Loh and group managing director Leon Lai the agency has since gone on to launch in Kuala Lumpur as well, as of last year. Koh talks to Marketing about birthing the start up and the perks and struggles of being independent.

When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?
In a HK Café, on a cold winter night in Shanghai accompanied by seven ice lemon teas.

Who was the first client you had on board?
We started in Dec 2012 with a project for Zouk during ZoukOut.

What’s different about GOVT?
We stand out a lot more because we spend a lot more time and effort on the quality of work and spend less time getting them through the different tiers of a bigger organisations.  The more flexible you are when it comes to creative ego, the more you work together with the client and not for them – And the more you’re willing to challenge and not say yes all the time. It’s only then the bigger brands begin to know that we’re not as small as they think.

What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?
Applying our own systems of work into one system. Coming from different agency backgrounds from bigger networks, it was a tussle to iron out the details that weren’t visible to us before. A system has to evolve through time and it’s constantly changing for the better. When the agency gets bigger, the smaller system won’t work.

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Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?
Nope, there was nothing to lose to be honest.

How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?
The job satisfaction is my Grand Prix; you fail or succeed solely based on your own experience and judgment. I’d rather not but why not? I could very well be a taxi driver when I’m 60.

Pluses and minuses of being independent?
Greater achievements come with greater pressure.

When you first started out, how did you market your agency? How did you get clients on board?
There was a lot more talking than work done at the beginning. Whether it was through previous contacts, friends, or sometimes, even word of mouth. We were not earning big bucks to market ourselves the way we wanted to, but great work speaks volumes and people heard them. Managing expectations is the key component to gaining trust in a client. Don’t light a match if you don’t know what you’re burning.

What was your first experience in the ad world? How do you think that shaped you?
DDB Singapore was my first ad agency. The truth was, I didn’t know how to do a lot of things but I told everyone I could…then I would check YouTube on how to do it. I was usually the last to leave the building and because of that, it paid off in the long run. Always ask the right questions and point out the wrong answers.

What have you taken away from your years in the ad world and implemented in your current business?
I’m not a veteran creative and I don’t have 20 years of advertising experience. It’s a scary notion to think how could one start an ad agency? But from my fewer years in the ad world, I’ve come to realize that I’ll always talk to my colleagues about why this, why that, how long, too short, and how I didn’t have a choice because my name wasn’t Bill Bernbach or John Hegarty. So after speaking to my current partner Leon Lai. I decided to walk the talk. I implemented my own beliefs in the agency and I’m blessed to have an amazingly dedicated team that looks in the same direction as I do and can only do greater things in GOVT.

What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?
Starting up a business is like buying a car. You’ve bought the insurance, got your loan, paid the road tax and have some cash in the bank for a rainy day. Anyone who has the mindset and financial capabilities could very well do this, but it’s the maintenance that truly matters. You would hit some bumps along the way, repair some blown tires, polishing it to make it look brand new, etc. If you do these well, the road could be as long as you want it to be. These factors mirror every start up whatever the context is and it’s up to perseverance and foresight to see beyond the hiccups and keep the engine on for as long as it goes.

What is one piece of advice you’d give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?
Assumption is the mother of all F*** UPS.

Would you be open to buyout?
Maybe, maybe not.

Five year plan for the agency?
The first three to four year plan, is to build a stable foundation in Singapore. The dream is not to be labeled as just a Singapore boutique agency, but as a global one. Singapore creativity is no different from anywhere else around the world and we need to change that mindset. To walk the talk, we are already looking into expanding across the region within the next five years.

Pictured: The agency's campaign for Airbnb

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First team: Aaron Koh, Leon Lai, Casey Loh
First client: Pernod Ricard Singapore - Absolut Vodka
Founding year: 2012
Founded by: Aaron Koh, Leon Lai, Casey Loh
Claim to fame: Airbnb’s Welcome Home. It is the most talked about campaign we’ve done so far and we’ve received many accolades for it.
Clients worked on: - Absolut Vodka, DBS, Nescafe, Airbnb, F&N, A+E Networks, Lasalle College of the Arts, G.H.Mumm, The Glenlivet, POSB

Read also:
The Independents: Community by Victor Ng
The Independents: The Alchemy Partnership by Alvin Wong