Charles Wigley
Jun 23, 2014

3 keys to powerful advertising in Singapore

Charles Wigley, BBH Chairman, Asia, shares his veteran views on effective communications for an exclusive look into Singapore’s dynamic market for brands.

Charles Wigley
Charles Wigley

Fly into Singapore and you’ll find yourself in one of the most modern, high tech, international cities on earth. But despite the startlingly clean streets, don’t be deceived into thinking this actually is Switzerland in the tropics. At heart it remains a very Asian city. Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian cultural influences all course through it.

So how to create great advertising for the market? Below are three lessons I’ve learnt (or perhaps, given the nature of our business, we’ve learnt) over the years.


I think I began to understand certain aspects of Singaporean media when someone told me to stop complaining about the content and editorial standards of The Straits Times newspaper because, as they said, it wasn't a newspaper—it was a company newsletter.

So much communication in this market is carefully managed, polished and, to an extent, sanitized. Note: This doesn't necessarily make it bad. We are told what to do at every turn, but politely and often quite persuasively.

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As a result the world presented is often a fair distance from people's everyday reality. It’s just too perfect, a little too Truman Show.

Yet scratch the surface and you'll find a life here that is as chaotic, vibrant and colourful as anywhere. And the key to creating great Singaporean advertising is often just to tell it and show it as it really is.

If I look back over the years at our most successful Singaporean work, from the comedienne Irene Ang’s TVC for Singtel, to our annual Mentos National Day promotional films, to our work on NTUC Income and IKEA, it is a healthy dose of reality, and often a lot of fun, that links it all.

It taps into the language that people really use, the language that you find in Stomp and in online conversations. And in the cheeky wit that made Mr Brown such a force as a blogger.

And people like advertising that uses it because it’s just more truthful, more honest—and still quite rare.

2. Emotion

The last 10 years of MediaCorp’s Singapore Viewer’s Choice awards (no scam there, just what the punters actually like and even vote for) will show you another strong trait of successful advertising in the city—one that you’ll see across most Asian markets: powerful human stories and emotion.

I sometimes feel that Western advertising is obsessed about being ‘clever,’ or about abstract concepts and esoteric ideas. The best Asian advertising is often simply about people and their stories. In collective societies, it is what people think and feel that are the most important things. This applies to Singapore as much as anywhere else in the region.

The pinnacle of this to my mind is the ‘Funeral’ ad done by the Ministry of Community Development and shot by the late, great Yasmin Ahmad:

3. Intelligence

There’s often a slight patriarchal strain to conversations at the top end of society in Singapore about what ‘the people’ will get. It’s best under these circumstances to remember—and remind them if necessary—that this is one of the best-educated societies on earth.

I would say the most ‘mass market’ audience we develop work for here is that of NTUC Income Insurance. It is also the client where we do some of our most challenging, even difficult work. Their business has doubled over the last five years.

So truth, emotion and intelligence.

It’s an easy recipe to write down, but a rather harder one to consistently deliver. Also one that you could argue could be applied to many other markets in the region. In fact I would say that if you can create work that works here, it stands a very good chance of working elsewhere.

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