Craig Watson, Chief Strategy Officer at fst, a Buckinghamshire-based creative agency, tells us about setting up an office in Singapore, and what he’s learnt along the way…
Established in 1991, fst are an integrated creative agency based in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, employing around 40 people. After twenty years in business we opened an office in Singapore, March 2011.
Launching in Singapore
Our decision to open an office in Singapore was a result of one of our long-standing clients, Visa, relocating their CEMEA/APAC marketing function away from London. As a roster approved agency, we felt it was imperative that we had offices close by to service their requirements. We first took a ‘toe-dipping’ approach by employing the part-time services of a local agent (who quickly became full-time) and renting out a Regis office space in the main commercial centre close to Visa’s offices.
While this space was cost effective, quick and easy to set up, it wasn’t long before we realised we needed an office that better reflected our brand and culture. After renting an office for four years in the bohemian Kampong Glam district, we relocated to Duxton Road. This is a cool, lively area, surrounded by hipster cafes and bars.
Our arrival in Singapore was given a boost with the help of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI, now Department for International Trade, or DIT), whose team there helped us organise our launch reception. They found us a great venue and invited some of their key contacts to meet us at the event. This was a great profile building and networking opportunity for us, which lead onto business leads.
Our first involvement with UKTI was some years before, when a business partner and I attended a ‘Passport to Export’ training course. Whilst we weren’t quite ready then to open an export office, what we learnt at the time meant we were able to react quicker when opportunities arose, and we knew instinctively to get in touch with UKTI in Singapore to help us launch there.
Working in Singapore
A learning curve for us has been finding and securing new business, as it differs somewhat from our experience in the UK. It’s easy to organise meetings and start discussions with prospects, but cost is ultimately something of a barrier. There are offshore resources close to Singapore that are markedly less expensive than UK rates. We therefore have to ensure that the people who want to work with us understand that brilliant ideas and high-quality creative requires an investment in research and thinking time, which can’t be compared with production lead desktop publishing costs. We need to agree costs before spending too much speculative time that will not be recouped. We have had significantly more success securing work from large corporates, who use Singapore as a regional hub, than we have working with national SMEs.
Our design knowledge, insight, and creative standards are greatly appreciated by many companies in the region. In general, British design, professionalism, and ways of working are held in high esteem, although our approach and messaging needs adapted here to meet local market needs. What works in the UK won’t necessarily work in Singapore.
It is imperative that we run a seamless operation between our two offices. Our UK and Singapore employees need to maintain daily communication for the relationship to work and flourish. In Singapore, our team start and finish later than we do in the UK, so there’s some cross-over in our different time zones between our morning and their evening. Skype is invaluable. We also love to visit each other’s offices regularly, so that we can learn from each other both in a business and cultural sense. Today’s technology and flexible working practices make life so much easier than it would have been even just two decades ago.
Our positive experience in Singapore has led to us opening our second international office in August 2016 in Miami, USA.
Craig’s Top Tips for Setting up a Business in Singapore:
- Before you set up your business in Singapore research is vital. UKABC can help with this, but you also need to go there and live and breathe it for yourself to begin to properly understand it. In general, Singaporeans are optimistic, approachable and friendly. There are many locals who will eagerly help you to better understand and discover Singapore.
- Local understanding and experience are vital. Find a partner, employee or agent that is a native Singaporean, or someone who has lived there for several years, to ensure all aspects of your brand are effective and appropriate.
- Singaporeans work strictly to the rules. Ensure your business is fully compliant by understanding local employment and business law.
- I would suggest registering as a PTE company (equivalent of an Ltd company over here). This sends out the message that you’re there to stay and helps to secure business, especially government contracts.
- Motion graphics and videos are a great way to tell a story in this region. People here respond well to visual presentation materials and English isn’t the first language for many. We produced a video of our operations in the UK to share our culture and introduce some of our key personnel and it was very well received.
- The English Premier League is hugely popular in Singapore. If you like football, it’s a great ice-breaker – especially if you’re a Manchester United fan (doesn’t work quite so well if you’re a Spurs fan like me).