Matthew Miller
Apr 7, 2022

Independents, unlimited: Agency leaders see only upsides

The heads of thriving independent agencies around APAC explain why it's a fine time to be in charge of their own destiny, and why they wouldn't have it any other way.

L-R, top: Varuni Amunugama Fernando, Triad; Tony Bradbourne, Special; Nicholas Ye, TSLA. L-R, bottom: Bryan Tilson, Wieden Kennedy Shanghai; Marc Wesseling, UltraSuperNew; Luke Janich, Red2 Digital
L-R, top: Varuni Amunugama Fernando, Triad; Tony Bradbourne, Special; Nicholas Ye, TSLA. L-R, bottom: Bryan Tilson, Wieden Kennedy Shanghai; Marc Wesseling, UltraSuperNew; Luke Janich, Red2 Digital

The pendulum is swinging, according to Nicholas Ye, founder of Singapore's The Secret Little Agency (TSLA). A few years ago, the verbiage on the websites and press releases of big agency networks was all about digital prowess and execution across multiple continents. But today, he senses a shift, back toward the primacy of the creative idea that can change a company's fortunes. 

Bryan Tilson, who heads up Wieden Kennedy Shanghai, agrees. "I think that as the world gets more complex, modern brands are more than ever ideas-led," he says.

As a result, clients are more willing to buy real creativity. And they're less fixated on big network names, an attitude shift the pandemic has only accelerated.

In the past, 'indie' always meant an agency that was small, edgy, and lacking in some way, says Tony Bradbourne, the founder, CEO and CCO of New Zealand-based Special. “There was always an inference that by calling someone an independent, an indie—that meant smaller, and somehow not mainstream, and somehow lesser.” 

The pandemic has been "a great leveler", he says, narrowing the focus of many clients down to the creative people presenting the ideas and the ideas themselves.

It's not how flash your offices in Madison Avenue or Charlotte Street in London are. It's how good your ideas are.
—Tony Bradbourne, Special

"These kinds of global events can be good for independent agencies that have good bones," Ye says. If they're already in a good shape then, they can react quickly and pick up both clients and talent that other agencies are dropping.

"In fact, any good, tight-knit, well-run agency could do that—never mind whether they were indie or not," Ye observes, adding that some big networks had been reorganising prior to the pandemic in ways that emulate some of the strong aspects of indies, such as having a unitary P&L. "They were already kind of tight and agile and ready for anything," he says. "But the ones that were either mid-transition, or still so fat and ancient, clearly were bleeding right through the pandemic, and it wasn't good for them.”

Bradbourne points to Special's success, as well as other agencies punching above their weight, such as Uncommon in the UK, as evidence that there's "been a bit of a swing” that sees more clients putting independents at the top of their consideration list. 

The investments that major consulting companies like Accenture and Deloitte have made in recent years in creative agencies, such as Droga5, The Monkeys and Taproot, are another factor in the shift, Ye says. These companies' investments of millions of dollars in "whole groups of people whose lifeblood is entirely creativity" underline the ROI of great ideas.

Now what we’re seeing is that the Weidens and Mothers are getting paid a premium because there is an undeniable value being put on the positive difference creativity makes to the bottom line.
—Nicholas Ye, TSLA

Sources for this article were reluctant to speak directly about any shortcomings they may perceive in agencies owned by holding companies. But reading between the lines of their comments, it's not hard to see the belief that being beholden to quarterly earnings tends to lead to short-term thinking at the expense of creativity.

"Creativity is a competitive advantage for brands," Tilson says. "And independence is a competitive advantage for agencies that supply that creativity." It affords, he says, a high level of focus on great work, helping to create a culture that both attracts creative people and lets them achieve their best. "There's never been a better time to be a creative person with a point of view, a creative company with a point of view, and especially an independent creative company with a point of view," he adds.

It's also an exciting time to be an independent agency because there's more openness among clients to experiment with new players and new setups, says Luke Janich, CEO of Vietnam's Red2 Digital. "The rise of project-based clients over traditional retainers means that brands seem more open-minded than ever to explore new agencies, new specialisms, and new ways of working," he says. "You can see evidence of this whenever a brand calls a pitch. It's now commonplace to see small indies competing with the big networks, which was unthinkable only a few years ago."

Janich's comment alludes to another factor shifting the competitive landscape: Some of Asia's indies are well grown up: "Many, like us, now offer a breadth and depth of specialisms—from SEO and performance marketing to ecommerce and content and media, and all under one roof."

In 15 years, Bradbourne's Special has grown far beyond the level many indies never exceed—the prototypical hotshop founded by a couple of creatives with a small client list and a small staff. "We've always wanted to take a brand from innovation and product development through to shelf, through to screen, through to everything," he says. "And to better do that, we need to be able to be part media company—because lots of our best ideas have been amazing misuses or innovations in media—part design company, part comms agency, part strategic partner, part digital hotshop." 

TSLA has also achieved a scale that belies the "Little" in its name. “Our competitors used to say we were 'boutique' and 'local'," says TSLA's Ye. "These are terms that were very carefully chosen to put us in our place, right? But after a while, you can't deny that we're probably only smaller than maybe three MNCs in Singapore.” 

In any case, clients these days are chiefly concerned not with size or name, but only with the question, 'How useful are you?', according to Ye. "Are you going to make my life easier? Can you offer me something I can't think of on my own?” 

Building to last

Independence is not just about creative competitive advantage, says Varuni Amunugama Fernando, joint MD of Sri Lanka's Triad, the South Asia Independent Agency of the Year in 2021. While that's crucially important, independence for her also means building something that provides opportunity and is set up to last.

Launched as a three-person agency in 1993, Triad is now a privately held holding company with more than 100 people and subsidiaries involved in digital, PR, media, photography, TV production, prepress and printing services, event management and more. 

All of that was made possible by the freedom to reinvest profits according to opportunities in a developing market. “All the funds we were generating, we didn’t draw it out as dividends," she says. "We plowed it back in to build these subsidiaries." 

The company has declined offers of acquisition over the years, because they would mean losing that control.

We have 100% freedom to plow back all that we earn, share it with the staff, and do any kind of innovation that we want.
—Varuni Amunugama Fernando, Triad

Independence has also meant maintaining a locally rooted culture, which pays off in long-term relationships with clients, many of whom have grown alongside Triad through the decades. 

"They feel that there is more of an open house, where they can come into our workplace, work as part of the team," she says. "Our systems are very open, fluid and friendly, which is structured according to our own Sri Lankan way of doing things. So that has worked to make the clients and the brands very, very comfortable in working with us.” 

For times when Triad needs to reach beyond Sri Lanka's borders for clients such as SriLankan Airlines and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, it has joined The Network One. This worldwide network of more than 1,600 independents provides ready access to talent on the ground around the world.

Independence also means flexibility to adapt, Fernando says, citing as examples Triad's expansion into the various services it offers as well as the addition of a younger partner partway through the agency's evolution, who brought in new perspectives.

Other independents echo the importance of flexibility and the ability to adapt. "We always compare ourselves more to a speedboat," says Marc Wesseling, founder and director of UltraSuperNew. "We're not an oil tanker. We can maneuver very quickly.” This played a key role during the pandemic. The agency, which has offices in Tokyo, Singapore, and Taipei, plus a studio in Sri Lanka, was able to protect all its employees' jobs. Freedom also allows UltraSuperNew to host gallery space for young creators, which keeps it in touch with youth culture, which in turn translates to an ability to impact young consumers in its work.

Nurturing young talent is also a source of genuine pride for Triad's Fernando. Because most work in Sri Lanka is done in the two official languages, Sinhala and Tamil, and because the agency operates internally in those languages, English proficiency isn't a barrier. “We welcome kids from all over the country and from different social segments, because what we want is for them to bring their experiences and homegrown ideas from their own different cultures and different social segments, and boost those experiences in their creative communications," she says. 

This also pays off in pitches, where Triad commonly brings to the table concepts that stand out because they're so rooted in local culture, she adds. It also offers employees more satisfaction and opportunity to flourish than they would get translating ideas developed at a global level in an MNC agency. 

“I'm most happy because I see the continuation," Fernando says. "I see the longevity of what we've started. What tends to happen with most independent agencies is when the founders age, you become irrelevant and then over time you die. The founders’ spirit—that ceases to exist. Taking timely decisions and bringing in new talent and new thinking, and accepting that change, has really helped us. And we believe that's going to keep the spirit of our agency alive way after we are gone. That’s a very heartening thought.” 

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