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The Independents: Neighbor by Shaun Sho

Neighbor has been around for 14 years.

It is a multi-disciplinary creative agency which aims to work closely with niche clients to help “create unique brand experiences”.

Its clients span the range from retail, entertainment, food and beverage, finance, hospitality and properties to publications, specialised services, telcos,government and non-profit organisations. Some of the brands that have been given NEIGHBOR’s magic touch include the following: Takashimaya, C.K. Tang, Club 21, FJ Benjamin, Sincere Fine Watches, Singapore Airlines and more.

Neighbor was started up by Shaun Sho who first broke into the industry in the 1990’s. Here’s his story.

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

The desire to do something on my own started when I was a freelance graphic designer in 1990, way before I had formal design education and training. The experience of being in an independent operation was exciting and the freedom of creativity was satisfying. I guess this conditioned me and served as a prelude to my future in running a creative studio.

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

I worked for two creative agencies – it was a good experience, especially as Art Director at WORK. But I also got burnt out in my eagerness. I decided to leave employment to do some soul-searching. I felt lost and frustrated because most of the companies in the industry specialised in niche areas: advertising, graphic design, brand consultation, environmental graphics etc.

I have a deep passion in all of them and believe that better solutions can be arrived with the fusion of such knowledge. That eventful year of 1999, I decided to take the jump and started my own studio called Bio – even though I had neither clients nor the capital to pay myself. It was not easy but we managed to become acquainted with our first client – Tangs.

How did you put your first team together?

Work picked up pace in an exponential manner to the point I was not able to cope. It was then I invited an ex-schoolmate to join me and we changed the company’s name to Neighbor. We did not start hiring until about a year later with our first account executive. We had a good run but the partnership did not work out and we parted ways with me taking over the sole ownership of Neighbor and team.

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

Besides the daily running of the business and team management, I used to find it tough that some clients needed a lot of convincing to understand and realise that our proposed creative solutions are true and effective.

It does get mind-bending when they have hired us to come on board but shy away from our ideas and approaches owing to personal preferences, management decisions or budget issues. To us, every assignment is an opportunity to help the clients attain their objectives and business goals. Thankfully it’s not all that prevalent and we have clients who still feel the doctor knows best!

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

When I started out, I was not afraid of failing in my younger days. There was nothing to lose. Over the years, I have discovered that every cloud has a silver lining. This provides me with a more positive outlook as I move on to the next step.

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

There is so much responsibility behind this designation so the stress level is significant. Yet, there is also a deep sense of satisfaction when work comes into fruition successfully whether in terms of a client win or the successful execution of a creative idea. In a manner of speaking, I am working for and with my clients. Working for someone else is imaginable, but the likelihood is low unless Neighbor gets a good offer.

Pluses and minuses of being independent?

The upside of being independent is that creativity is pretty much left unfettered, unlike in bigger agencies where creative work is subject to too much input – it can come out looking heavily altered beyond recognition. With no red tape getting in the way, work gets done much more efficiently; the same goes for ceasing any unhealthy relationships with less than reasonable clients.

The downside is attention has to be divided between business and creativity. Staying preoccupied with the former can distract us from the creative work.

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

Back in the day, business was pretty much non-existent. My first break came when Tangs contacted and appointed us to handle their vendors’ advertisements. After they established confidence in us, they appointed us to handle other areas of work such as loyalty marketing, corporate communications and below-the-line promotions.

This helped jumpstart my business and keep it alive long enough for other business opportunities to come knocking on our door. We are grateful to Tangs and have an unspoken affinity with them. After Neighbor was set up, the client base from Bio was brought over. Our business comes through work-of-mouth, recommendations and sometimes through our website. We believe good work sells.

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

Everything was done by hand in my days as a freelancer in the early 90s as the industry had yet to embrace computers. This honed my skills in craftsmanship and developed my sharp eye for details. Picking up the skill of crafting was critical in my growth. More specifically, it’s about developing principles of good visual communication and applying it to the work, for e.g., how much spacing is necessary, just how much text and images to fit into a piece of work, etc. It was under Theseus Chan, Creative Director of Work, that I learned crafting.

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

As much as a good piece of work speaks for itself, presentation skills are important as well.
Pitching is a lose-lose situation for an agency, so we don’t pitch unless it is an exceptional opportunity. And, always walk the talk and deliver your promises. Honesty builds efficiency and trust.

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

Being industrious is a given and complacency kills. Your client can always take his business somewhere else (or vice versa).

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

Passion is key, always keep the fire burning.

Would you be open to buyout?

We have turned down offers before – one of them came when we won the Silver Pencil award at the The One Show, the Oscars of design, in New York. Coincidentally, this was also the same time our work got featured in D&AD (Design & Art Direction) London’s book on design and advertising excellence. However, the future is uncertain, so circumstances might change.

Five year plan for the agency?

We are designing and developing products to eventually start an online store. We also aim for collaboration with related industries to create category-defying and avant-garde works. As an agency, we are continuing to carve our niche as the top-of-mind creative strategist for retail and lifestyle industries.

First client: Tangs
Founding year: 2001
Founded by: Shaun Sho
Claim to fame: (The piece of work you’re proudest of and why) Takashimaya Department Store Christmas and 10th Anniversary campaigns due to the high profile nature and the ability to reach out to a sizeable audience. The 10th Anniversary campaign, in particular, is one where Takashimaya gave us the carte blanche to communicate their birthday. Adhering to the brief of keeping it Japanese and heritage-accented, we went on a trip to Japan in search of inspiration. At a kimono shop, where silk, satin and age-old techniques came together to create wearable art, we found kimono flowers that came to be the motif underscoring the anniversary campaign. Like a flower of the spring season, Takashimaya blossomed as it entered its 10th year of presence in Singapore.
Clients worked on: Tangs, Takashimaya, Singapore Airlines, Prime Minister’s Office, Nike Timing, Sincere Fine Watches, Raymond Weil, Bloomberg, Eurokars, Paragon, Samsung and many more.

 

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