Merdeka Day reflections: Independent agency heads share their proudest moments

Independent agencies are all too familiar with the times when they were shunned by clients for bigger, well-known networks agencies. Despite this, they remained tenacious and continued to overcome challenges thrown their way, proving time and again that they have gusto.

As Merdeka Day draws close, A+M takes a look at some of the agencies in Malaysia which have prided themselves to be uniquely Malaysian and independent.

Shaun Tay, co-owner and CEO, FCB Group

Tay describes FCB's journey of being an independent agency with a single word - validation.

In a conversation with A+M, he said FCB's journey differs from other local agencies as it started out "already on the back foot" as at that point "the agency was at its lowest point". Previously a network-owned agency, Tay along with chief creative officer Ong Shi-Ping and chief financial officer Liew Kok Heng  decided to change the tides in 2017, buying out the agency.

"We were still in recovery mode after losing our four biggest legacy clients the previous year, which amounted to 80% of the agency’s business. We had just completed a morale shattering restructuring exercise. We hadn’t been creatively relevant, progressive nor desirable for the longest time. Also, we had a reputation as a ‘retirement home’ and the industry had pretty much wrote us off," Tay said. He added:

In the face of such adversity, you really only have two choices: give up or keep fighting. We chose to fight.

While Tay admits his experience as CEO is limited, what he prides himself on is in being able to turn things around, and more importantly, working with a willing and dedicated team with "incredible latent potential".

To propel itself forward, FCB saw the need to create a new belief and behaviour for the agency. "We couldn’t succeed if we had to play catch-up shackled to rules of a game where the odds were stacked against us. We had to play it our way - agile, hands-on and with a devil may care attitude," he said.

According to Tay, being independent means more than "ownership status". It's how the agency behaves and what it will do to control its own destiny, such as operating without fear, hesitation and restriction. This includes turning down business opportunities that would have led to "work that [the agency] wouldn't have been proud of", Tay explains.

"For example, we chose not to re-pitch for Perodua as the relationship wasn’t a right fit," he explained. Having overcome "near impossible odds" to emerge emboldened and reinvigorated, Tay says the agency is fuelled by a renewed sense of optimism.

Now, it aims to channel its "Merdeka energy" to help Malaysian brands unleash their potential beyond the country, as well as assist international clients in showcasing effective, localised creativity. The agency is also eager to demonstrate that Malaysia is a viable regional hub for managing brands in the Southeast Asian region.

"The Malaysian ad industry is ready to move forward but it’s the entrepreneurial types, the bold risk takers and those with serious ‘skin in the game’ who will really make it happen," Tay added.

Prashant Kumar, senior partner, Entropia

For Kumar, being independent means not having to seek permission to do the right things, not having to pander to unproductive demands on one’s time, and being able to focus resources on where it matters. Kumar was formerly president of IPG Mediabrands in Asia world markets and CEO of IPG Mediabrands Malaysia. He joined the company in its Beta phase, bringing with him a slew of colleagues from his IPG days. Officially, the agency launched in Malaysia in July 2016.

During his move, Kumar said Entropia was started from a white sheet and seeks to reconceive what the marketing of the future could be like, by playing with different models, skills mix, structures and processes. Interestingly, Entropia is a word that joins Entropy and Utopia – is meant to denote the movement from disorder to order.

Two years on, he says, "It’s been a wonderful journey by any measure. However, being independent is not [enough]. Knowing what to do with your freedom is, and towards that there are many other factors that make us who we are today."

Entropia has in these two years, bagged several well-known accounts such as Etika, Axiata Group and YTL Communications. While Entropia is now involved in campaigns for multiple markets, Kumar believes the agency represents "world-class excellence" born in Malaysia wherever it goes.

"We believe we have had an audacious journey and our model is one made in future. We hope our success inspires many others to follow, thus moving the industry forward," he added.

Sandeep Joseph, CEO, Ampersand Advisory (pictured right)

"The market tells us that we, as independents, are creative, faster and more insightful than big global networks," Joseph said. He added that there is a lot of potential for the agency as big global networks are struggling with digital disruption, talent shortages, reducing remuneration and savvier clients who are splitting their businesses amongst many agencies.

Last February, Joseph left his role at Zenith Malaysia as head of strategy and digital, to start up Ampersand Advisory in partnership with Foetus Group's Tan Sri Vincent Lee and Trapper Media Group's Sivanathan Krishnan. The agency's philosophy is inclusiveness, mutual respect, effectiveness for clients and to have fun while making a significant difference to clients.

"Being local means hiring local, being more relevant in localised solutions, understanding the Malaysian psyche more deeply and not flying in overseas mat salleh for pitches who never surface afterwards," Joseph said.

We don’t overpromise and we only make promises we can keep. Sincerity, self-respect and being real is key.

He added that being local doesn't mean the agency will not be advanced. In fact, it has partnered with Unscrambl and Absoludata to boost its data and analytics solutions to clients. Ampersand Advisory wants to create a culture of smart agencies that are world consultancies, Joseph said.

"We are bringing a more data-driven, smarter and more analytical approach to the art and science of advertising. And we’re about business results, not media or creative solutions for their own sake," he added.


Casey Loh, chief creative (pictured left) and Syed Nasir business chief (pictured right), The Clan

"Some might call our journey an adventure, a race, a scrappy scuffle, a gathering, a farewell, a long and winding road down the bright horizon. But to us it’s really been about self-discovery," Loh told A+M. Now known as The Clan, the agency was formerly known as GOVT Kuala Lumpur and following its split with GOVT Singapore in July 2017, it decided on a new name.

In a conversation with A+M, the duo said the agency has a clear vision of where it wants to be at the end of the day, and its ready to take on the challenges along the way. He said:

Today, our journey is really defined by the people that are with us now as we march on, one step at a time.

For Loh, to be independent is to be truly, absolutely, completely accountable for the agency's actions. "We don’t have the legacy of a founder’s name on our doors and we don’t have the strength of a dozen other sibling agencies to hold hands with when it gets dark. So, whether we’re doing well or not, we know it’s all us," he said. For employees at The Clan, this can be both scary and empowering.

While Syed does not believe The Clan alone can drive the industry forward, it hopes to create a sense of camaraderie through collaboration with different people and empower its employees to be more well-rounded in their approach. "Through the connections we make, we hope to make a difference," he said.

Peter de Krester, CEO, GO Communications and director of GO Group

When asked about GO Communications' journey as an independent agency, de Krester said, "[It's] like a trip to Disneyland with all the thrills and spills you might expect!"

"Truth be told I can’t imagine doing anything else. As an independent agency you face the typical challenges of most entrepreneurial businesses and I’m happy to say that after 14 years in Malaysia, GO is going great guns! As they say, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," he said.

De Krester constantly reminds his team that the communications business is "supremely unique to any other". If one is good, he or she will create their own job scope advising clients on what they should do and how they should do it, and de Krester said not many jobs allow individuals to do that. So far, the agency has been involved in a campaign that brought the world's largest water slide to Malaysia, bantered with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey on the social media platform, and mingled with global entrepreneurs including Richard Branson and US President Donald Trump.

"We’re super proud to be a local independent agency and Malaysia has become home for me. After 14 years, we believe that having longevity on the ground with strong local knowledge of the climate and industry provides an advantage when executing bespoke in-market campaigns for our clients," de Krester explained.

Interestingly, de Krester was born on 31 August (Merdeka Day) and he told A+M that perhaps there was "a calling" for him to live and work in Malaysia. As a local independent, he said there nothing is more pleasing than accelerating top talent (appropriately) within the company and watching them fly to the moon.

As a local independent, we move with flexibility and fluidity allowing for quick decisions with regards to clients and colleagues

A good way to drive the Malaysian PR industry forward would be to continue breaking the shackles in creating extraordinary campaigns for clients, while developing Malaysian talent. De Krester said this can go a long way to contributing to a healthier local industry.

Larry Lim, CEO, SearchGuru

Like many other agencies, the initial journey as a local independent was not smooth sailing for SearchGuru. Lim said it was tough when the agency first started out in 2012, because enterprise clients preferred taking the safer route of working with renowned network agencies, rather than risk collaborating with an independent.

SearchGuru's tipping point, however, came when AirAsia's former group head of digital Mitsuru Kikunaga gave the agency an opportunity to prove its capability. The agency went on to manage the airline's paid search campaigns in 15 countries. Today, it works with a wide range of enterprise clients across Asia, including Maxis, Sunway, Mercedes and L'Oreal.

"Our clients have also been very understanding about us being an independent and have made exceptions, such as paying directly for their media spend, rather than making us pay for them like they do with the networks. When you're managing a media spend of RM200 million a year, this helps a lot with the cash flow," Lim said.

He added that independent agencies are no less capable than the networks. "We are definitely more agile and nimble, and have the flexibility to experiment and shape the agency the way we want. There's hardly any office politics, there's no need to cover the losses for elsewhere, and there's no hierarchy or layers upon layers of approvals," Lim explained.

Being independent also allows the agency to focus on what matters most - its employees - instead of profits. This is one of the reasons why none of SearchGuru's employees have left since the agency launched.

Being local gives us an advantage over foreign agencies in terms of local knowledge, culture and language.

Over the years, Lim has seen numerous global agencies struggle in Malaysia, despite being big names in their home country. He added that the agency has began offering Human Resources Development Fund-claimable trainings to upskill and build more local talents in the Malaysian ad industry. Also, it plans to accelerate the shift from traditional to branding-based online marketing through awareness campaigns and education.

Ryan Ong, managing partner, Kingdom Digital

Having turned 11 this year, Kingdom Digital's journey has been filled with challenges but also immense gratifications. It started as a production house, and evolved into one of the reputable social and digital agencies in Malaysia.

Ong said there are pros and cons to being an independent agency. While the agency is more nimble and adaptable in terms of company structure and work processes, it is often being compared with the established and well-known agency networks that also have more resources.

Nevertheless, Kingdom Digital is honoured to have been given the opportunity to work with some of the biggest brands from diverse sectors such as Maxis, Sime Darby Property, LANEIGE, Prudential and Nissan, to name a few.

Nothing beats local knowledge – an understanding of local audience, culture, and competitive landscape.

"This is advantageous for global brands looking to make an entry into the market or to grow their presence locally. Besides, being independent means we are agile and can be fleet of foot for clients, adapting quickly to the changes in consumer behaviour which dictates marketing and advertising approach," he said.

Ong added that the agency is committed to producing more groundbreaking creatives and innovative campaigns that will be showcased internationally and win global recognition.

Syahar Khalid, head, The Studio by CtrlShift

As an independent outfit, Syahar said the agency is blessed with the freedom to pursue exciting opportunities and its technology DNA. "We started 'doing programmatic' in the region circa 2010, before it was on anyone else's radar," he proudly told A+M. This means the agency is able to offer truly unique solutions to the challenges faced by brands today, he added.

There’s a sense of pride attached to being a local independent agency that has cultivated a reputation in the market for deep expertise.

Because of this, the agency is able to consistently attract the best talent - individuals who want to make a difference in this space, Syahar said.

"Being independent also allows us to be agnostic, which is key in a rapidly evolving industry. This agility enables us to leverage our diverse team's capabilities to design solutions that maximise available technical capabilities," he added. The best path forward for the Malaysian advertising industry, Syahar believes, is to collectively continue to embrace change and innovate the way the agency thinks and executes. Not to mention, always striving to deliver great work with results that matter.

"To do that, we need to focus on cultivating deeper expertise in our practitioners, inspiring new blood to join our ranks and ensuring that the passion for the art and science of advertising burns bright for all," he said.

"We are ultimately a talent-driven sector, and at The Studio by CtrlShift, we are proud of the fact that our people are driven by their passion for crafting nuanced solutions that result in tangible business outcomes and doing so in a transparent manner," Syahar added.

Vajirudeen Ali, managing director, Content Nation

"As with all new beginnings, our journey has had it’s ups and downs. The toughest part has been convincing larger companies to work with smaller agencies as well as attracting talent. The best part has been the agility to shift with industry changes and client needs," Ali told A+M.

He added that it prides itself as being a Malaysian-born agency that can hold its own to international standards. Being a local agency, Ali believes Content Nation is better able to understand local needs, way of doing things and sentiments. This knowledge has allowed it to craft better content that reaches its target audience.

Ali said there is no need to reinvent the wheel to move the Malaysian advertising industry forward. In fact, Content Nation is constantly looking at creatives and marketing methods being successfully delivered worldwide and thinking of how to localise them to suit Malaysians.

As Malaysia has a high penetration of digital and social usage, this allows the agency to constantly customise and deliver unique messages to specific audiences and garner higher conversion rates for its clients.

"Data is also playing, and will continue to play, a massive role in how the industry moves forward. Having said that, what will truly be the measure of the industry success will ultimately be how well we understand our audience and deliver the right content for them," Ali said.

Ashvin Anamalai, chief strategist, Be Strategic

"Being an independent agency comes with it’s challenges, but I personally feel that we have come out triumphant from our early teething stages," Anamalai said. He added that Be Strategic prides itself as a standalone agency, setting itself apart from competitors via a dynamic, carefully put together team, with each individual having their own distinct skill set.

As such, the team is able to counsel, advise and propose ideas while working hand in hand with clients and delivering end results to meet their expectations. "This is the work ethos that we embody and will continue to do so. There is a certain flexibility in the way independent agencies operate which ultimately helps us keep up with the rapid evolution of brand-agency relationships," he added.

A smaller but leaner team is crucial for the agency to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and trends. As an independent agency, this has allowed Be Strategic to move with the tide and constantly reinvent itself. especially in being more agile and innovative when required, Anamalai said.

"We work harder, play harder and work in unison to achieve our goals and vision. Competition is ever present, its healthy and it keeps us at the top of our game," he added.

According to him, there has been a trend shift away from the traditional methodology of advertising, PR and marketing. While still being an important component of brand building, the way forward seems to be more content-centric by nature. Consumers want to be able to believe and experience brand presence rather than be told what product or service they want or need. As such, digital touch-points are crucial to the ever expanding nature of this business, Anamalai told A+M.

"In line with this, we should be constantly keyed in on keeping abreast and evolving with the changes and catering to the needs of these consumers. That's how we can and will continue to drive the industry forward," he explained.

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)