Emily Tan
Sep 19, 2014

How VLT Malaysia became SEA’s independent agency of the year

KUALA LUMPUR - Around two years ago, VLT, then known as the digital marketing half of Integricity had just split from its web-hosting partners and was searching for a new identity.

(L-R) Four of the five partners: Warren Tan, Eugene Lim, Jason Voon and Andrew Tan
(L-R) Four of the five partners: Warren Tan, Eugene Lim, Jason Voon and Andrew Tan

The combined Integricity was the result of a decision made 11 years ago by founders Warren Tan and Alex Lam to combine Tan’s web hosting & design agency with Lam’s web hosting & development company

“At the time, it made sense," said Tan, who’s now CEO of VLT. "Web hosting required economies of scale for two small companies to be friendly competitors didn’t make sense. He brought the development and I brought in design and together we grew our companies for many years from that point onwards.”

But over time, the two firms grew increasingly disparate and started to pull in different directions. The more independent of each other the two companies got, the less sense it made to stay together. “As we’d been running separately for some time we finally made the call to de-merge in late 2012.”

Then just a team of 20, the first plan on the cards for Warren was to build size and scale. “Not size for size sake but to achieve what we wanted, to be a digital-led creative agency and a full-service design technology and innovation agency, we needed the expertise.”

The risk of rapidly building up an agency was offset by the growing demand for digital talent and agencies in the market. “Our clients were ready so we took a bet and it worked out,” he continued.

What really jump-started the agency’s growth however was the decision to merge with fellow independent digital shop, BPC Solutions, led by Adrian Lim, now director of client services at VLT. “The merger happened in mid-2013 and we grew to more than 40 people in size,” said Tan.

But the merger was much easier to talk about than achieve, said Tan. The new entity faced two major problems, first it had to integrate two different cultures and second, it needed a new name.

Branding VLT & merging BPC

“We tried democratising the name choice but that was such a mistake. It was pure chaos,” said Tan ruefully. “So we resorted to the super creative solution of using our surnames, Tan,Lim [for Eugene Lim, now COO] and Voon [for Jason Voon, now the agency’s director of strategy], and arranged and rearranged it.”

Deciding that TLV belonged more to the Tel Aviv Airport than the agency, they settled on VLT whichmade them think of a velociraptor. Which is how both the agency’s name and logo were born.

“Velociraptors are small, but they’re fierce, smart and quick. Plus its roots are Asian. It made a lot of sense,” said Tan. “What sealed it was when our art director came up with the origami velociraptor and we all fell in love with it.”

Today, anyone who joins the agency gets a chance to create a personalised velociraptor for their name cards.

The other problem was more challenging. “Working together really wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. With the benefit of hindsight, if we were to do this again, we would be more cautious—filled with fear and trembling,” said Tan.

Since then the three founding partners have brought on two more partners: BPC's Adrian Lim and director of innovation, Andrew Tan. Andrew was instrumental in introducing a new facet of VLT’s operations—VLT Labs.

Working with startups

“I met Andrew when he was running the Social Innovation Camp and he borrowed our office space. We had been wanting to work with startups because often they are courageous and adventurous in the work they let us do. But we hadn’t been able to do much with startups because of our approach,” said Tan. “Basically we tossed them our standard agency rate card and they’d be horror struck at the prices.”

After Andrew joined, the partners sat down and worked out a structure for VLT Labs, a startup incubator that would exchange services for equity, gaining the agency skin in the game. “If our work didn’t work, the startup would tank and we’d get nothing,” added Tan.

Today, VLT Lab has several successful startup stories under its belt. These include online virtual assistant service, Malaysia-based Supahands and artisanal eyewear online store, Scarlett of Soho that operates out of London.

But, like much of this accelerated growth process, learning to work with startups was an uphill challenge for VLT. “Despite our new fee-model, we quickly learnt, to our horror, that standard agency practices fail miserably with startups. By the time we get around to solving a problem and call the founders, they’d say, ‘Hey Warren, sorry, but we stayed up late one night and we fixed it’. We’ve had to learn to think differently and learn to be far more agile,” said Tan.

The agency developers too have had to learn new techniques. Most marketing campaigns, he explained, use ‘throwaway code’ designed for campaigns that would just run once with clients not caring about quality and scaleability. Startups, he said, can’t afford to do this, they may need to scale at any point and do it fast.

“That’s why rockstar developers don’t want to work with agencies. They want to work with Google or a proper engineering team where you’re not the last guy in the value chain,” he said. VLT Labs, he hopes, will be able to attract great developers who would normally opt not to join an agency.

The partners at VLT seem to have endless plans for Labs. They aim to make it a co-working space, a virtual office with a community environment that would appeal to startups which they up to launch next January. They also use the Lab umbrella to organise Transit 2.0, a gathering of many industries which VLT hopes will one day will be Malaysia’s answer to SXSW (South by South West).

Agency work

Despite their preoccupation with VLT Labs, Tan and partners haven’t neglected the agency side of their business. Earlier this year, VLT was appointed agency of record for LG Malaysia. “Which is quite cool for a digital shop,” said Tan. “We’ve started to tread on the toes of the giants these days, but we’re quite realistic about our capabilities. We’re not about to run out and pitch for DiGi's [a Malaysian telco] overall creative account by ourselves.”

Another piece of work Tan is happy about is our relationship with Astro. The broadcaster has been working with the agency for seven years (from the days it was still Integricity). The work the agency did to promote and drive awareness for a local entertainment awards show, Anugerah MeleTOP Era, helped propel it to become Malaysia’s top rated awards show garnering more than 1.2 million votes.

At the start of the year, the agency was named Southeast Asia's specialist agency of the year and independent agency of the year in Campaign Asia-Pacific's annual rankings

For now, the agency is working at firming up its offering and to continue working with both clients and other agencies. “We’re trying to earn our position. We want to collaborate with other agencies but increasingly having us lead strategy is making sense to clients.”

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