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Agency Profile: BBH Asia-Pacific, Singapore

Posted on July 20, 2009 and read 11,262 times

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rafikcreditpic Agency Profile: BBH Asia Pacific, SingaporeRafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

So much for Japanese efficiency.

Portfolio Night was mere days away, and here I was, trying to figure out why the schedule for my Japan Airlines connecting flight from Tokyo to Singapore was changed while I was en route to Tokyo. This left me stranded at Narita International Airport, waiting on a non-existent flight to Singapore. The airline did put me up in a hotel for the evening, but it was so far away from downtown Tokyo that I couldn’t even enjoy the city before trudging back to the airport.

Luckily my spirits changed once I finally got to Singapore and met with the people from BBH Asia-Pacific, the agency who spearheaded the seven-agency attack on Portfolio Night 7 in that city. I had been communicating with them for months via phone and email, and was great to get a chance to see their office space and find out how they work firsthand.

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The Singapore office was opened in 1996 and is the second offspring of John Hegarty’s old shop.  After starting up using Simon Sherwood’s (Simon is now BBH’s Global CEO) apartment as its humble base of operations, the agency has now moved into an old warehouse right by the Singapore River where 88 people come in to work every morning. The Singapore office is actually the larger of two locations which make up BBH Asia-Pacific. The other office is in Tokyo (which I would’ve loved to have checked out had the airport been closer to civilization.)

BBH has clients most creatives would salivate to do work for. If you manage to land yourself a position there, you’ll be making ads for global brands like Axe, Levi’s, Chupa Chups, Johnny Walker and Sprite. Some regional accounts like Singapore Tourism complete their rather impressive client list. The latest addition to said list was the regional Surf account, which I am told they celebrated winning in style at one of Singapore’s trendiest nightspots. The bar bill for the night was akin to sitting all day at the Carlton Terrace at Cannes. It’s a big account to win.

One of the greatest things about BBH is that you will be given a lot of creative responsibility very early on.  You won’t be asked to design 50¢ off coupons or rely on scam work to beef up your book. You’ll be doing real work, for real clients, from day one. The agency’s always had a very strong anti-scam policy, which they’re extremely severe on. Their first and foremost raison d’être is to help their clients’ business grow and to shift units. To engage consumers, and to come up with big ideas that can be expressed across all media to move brands forward. So one thing you will not do there is make ads for the sole sake of impressing a jury at next summer’s award show. How many of you are going to Cannes this year?! I ask…

“Well, we budgeted for a handful of people to go, but we won a couple of accounts recently and got busy. So we’re all staying grounded!”


How do you get your foot in the door then? BBH are picky about who they hire, notoriously so. Their particularly rigorous process makes getting into most governments secret units seem like a piece of cake. Regional ECD Steve Elrick recalls his own interview some ten years ago:

”For the final interview I went there and met The Names On The Door.  I’d been told “okay, you’ve got two hours with John Bartle, then two hours with Nigel Bogle and then two hours with John Hegarty”. All in one day. It’s a pretty scary process.

We’re (BBH) criticised sometimes for being a bit too rigorous about our hiring process, but I think it was part of the attraction for me. You really get to see the integrity these guys have – it’s their business, it’s their reputation and they won’t open the door to just anyone. So make it through and it’s a bit of an achievement in its own right”

There are four creative directors in the Singapore office. Ashidiq Ghazali, Peter Callaghan, and digital super CDs Noel Yeo and Shawn Loo help Steve stir the good ship towards creative nirvana.

The department itself has 30 odd people who all work in an open space. The agency has added a few new faces recently so the office is starting to get a bit crowded. You’ll find the junior art director sitting literally inches away from the creative director. And while working in an open office clearly facilitates interaction and collaboration between employees, there are a few drawbacks:

“You can’t really stroll in at 10 or 11 since it’s easy for John (Hadfield, the MD) to keep track of who’s late. He’s pretty strict about that, so most people come in around 9. We all leave early though, you’ll rarely find anybody here after 6pm.”

The team does quite a bit of traveling so being familiar with one another’s personal hygiene helps. New Zealand has become a second home for many of them, as that’s where all the shoots for Axe, Sprite and Surf take place. When I was around, half the team was shooting there. Creatives will also go on loan spells to the Tokyo or Shanghai offices to work on different clients in a different environment and mix things up a bit. Steve Elrick makes a point of being as supportive as he can to his teams with such delicacies, but I hear he puts on his evil face when dealing with the account people.

One could argue all day about the advantages Vs disadvantages of working for a so called smaller network, but how’s this for a selling point: Two years ago the whole network – yes, the whole network, that’s six agencies (before BBH India opened) – went on a week long team building exercise to Miami. So the art director from Sao Paulo could finally hang out with the copywriter from Tokyo, and the planner from New York could compare his English accent with the London folk. The only rule they had to follow was that they weren’t allowed to leave the resort and had to stay amongst BBH people.

Seriously, the whole f*&%ing network went.

The company’s strong belief in being environmentally responsible has seen the birth of a new specie: the green sheep. “We think human ingenuity is the best weapon in the fight against global warming”.  For instance, last Christmas they built a tree out of used plastic bottles in the office to draw attention to the amount of waste they generated. They then made every single employee pledge to reduce his personal consumption, and hung the pledges onto the wall.

More recently, the agency made headlines with their Papercut tree saving app. After looking at the mountains of uncollected paper in the office, they thought of something to make everybody think twice before printing a document. They created an application that plays a chainsaw sound each time you hit print and installed it on all computers. And since they’re such a great, loving and sharing bunch, they decided to give away their application to the world.

You can download Papercut and read more about its sister project the iSaw – which gives you an nice insight into what Shawn and Noel get up to when the Singapore Tourism website doesn’t keep them busy enough – here. It’s not all about the big clients. Often, smaller projects done for the right causes are just as important to our industry that can be guilty of self-centeredness at times, to put it mildly.

BBH’s iconic logo is ever present in and around the agency. The huge sheep painted on one of the outside walls makes it hard to miss for passers by.  It originated from the very first print ad the agency sold to Levi’s in 1982 for the launch of their black pair of jeans. The copy – which has since become BBH’s mantra – simply read “When the world Zigs, Zag”.  That association has given birth to one of the most intimate and admired client/agency relationships of our era. Rumour has it that as a final step in the pledge of allegiance, all the global board members get the BBH sheep tattooed somewhere on their body by John Hegarty himself.  The tricky part being that no two people can have it tattooed on the same spot. Sadly, I couldn’t confirm that rumour while I was there. When the subject came up, urgent meetings started popping up and my visit had to be cut short.

Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS




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