Whole of government tender: What would a Smart Nation do?

There’s a promotional video by Smart Nation and the Digital Government Office that asks the question “What Makes A Smart Nation?” The short clip provides a simple framework for people to understand the vision of our country, and highlights the importance of technology and digital innovation in creating better communities and economic opportunity.


This initiative to be a Smart Nation has permeated through many industries in Singapore – from transport to retail, to how children learn in schools to how we keep our nation safe. Looking at our own industry of media and marketing, I wonder if it is time that this mission applied to us.

Our industry is at the forefront of consumer technology, and yet many of the procurement processes I see, could do with a Smart Nation makeover.  One of the biggest local tenders of the year is the recent whole-of-government (WOG) media agency tender issued and awarded by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The contract is worth approximately SG$80 million to cover various integrated campaigns and it was awarded to the Gov@Publicis Media consortium led by Starcom Media Worldwide.

The public sector is a significant contributor to local advertising spend as well as pitch action as most government contracts tend to be by year or by campaign. The tender’s limitation on term (one year with maximum two-year renewal) provides opportunity for participating agencies, but it also requires rigorous consideration as awarded control is in the hands of one master media agency.

Being involved in media and marketing pitches for more than two decades, I wonder if the principles of being a Smart Nation can be applied to media and marketing:  How can government agencies mitigate their risks going forward? And as we evolve how we pitch, what are some things government agencies should look out for?

Is there a better way to do things?

This is the absolute first question for any innovator, and in this context the answer is yes -  particularly in the media industry which is plagued by transparency and accountability issues such as adfraud and brand safety.  Beyond commission rates and cost of media, are factors such as quality of talent and reliability of ad technology to manage campaigns and verify inventory considered? And is the client confident that effectiveness has not been compromised by the desire to cut cost?

Does this give us the room to do what we need to do?

Consolidating the number of partners to drive productivity of resources, both within government agencies, as well as reducing pitching, is a positive outcome. It’s a decision based on practicality. Everyone wants more linear delivery and less interruption. True leverage from consolidation, would only translate to better value if the granularity of governance and outcomes are aligned to advertisers’ quest for more clarity, transparency, data protection, audit rights and rebates.

Globally, public sectors advertisers generally trail corporates in enforcing such accountability standards. Now is an opportune time to set the foundation right. With media agencies having better access to data, they are well positioned to play a strategic role beyond mere buying. Each government agency has its own mandate and challenges that demand more than execution capabilities from the media partner.

Do we have better information to make the right decision?

The risk of having a centralised agency is that decisions are made with limited perspective. Cost saving and control is one thing, having a big picture on value is another. Media planning and buying can be aided by machine learning and algorithms, but great ideas and creativity still comes from humans.

What the government needs to ensure is that any remuneration model provides its agency partners to not only apply the right technology to make the right decision, but that technology is run by the right talent.  As the government  has more owned properties to leverage with far wider reach amongst Singaporeans than the private sector does, it is critical that agencies are remunerated to find most optimal channels than by where its paid highest commission.

Beyond media planning and buying, will this consolidated approach also lead to more innovative thinking around how to make sure of the data aggregated by the government on the needs and behaviour of Singaporeans?

Are we certain of what we are dealing with?

The media industry has acknowledged that overall transparency and effectiveness accountability is an issue. The prevalence of ad fraud, inappropriate content and inconsistent measurement standards have only fanned these flames, and have led to marketers questioning whether their agencies (and other third parties) are adding value at different stages of an increasingly complex process.

Media budget scrutiny is increasing, especially in a declining adspend market such as Singapore, and having the right compliance and KPIs put in place, prevents the massive risk of value dilution. In moving to a centralised model, there should be flexibility for each government agency to define terms of accountability and success metrics.

With Singapore’s nationwide drive on transformation and Smart Nation initiatives, we really should consider deploying the same spirit to marketing. Government agencies will not be reaping the outcome of better bang for taxpayer dollar, if we apply a same old same approach to media. With resources free up from pitching, attention can be focused on exploring how we can do better. The tension is that often innovative solutions may not be remunerated by commission of media spent, and arguably should not be.

So are we looking for a unicorn if government agencies are still remunerating media agencies on a percentage of spend?

The writer is Goh Shufen, president of industry association, IAS, co-founder and principal of R3.