Nicholas Ye of The Secret Little Agency is no stranger to change. In fact, as we chat, he shares that since the first time he and fellow founders Mavis Neo, Eunice Tan and Hanyi Lee sat around an Ikea table in a HDB block nearly 17 years ago, they’ve experienced nothing short of a creative revolution over the past two decades in Singapore. Amongst the early adopters to predict and jump on the emerging wave of independent service agencies, The Secret Little Agency, or TSLA as it’s colloquially called, has quietly managed to carve a niche for itself amongst the Lion City’s advertising landscape since its inception. Today, it boasts an impressive portfolio of 70% regional and leading clients, including KFC, Netflix, Unilever, and the Marriott Bonvoy in 15 countries across four continents.
Beyond geographical expansion, TSLA has also diversified its offerings with a 12,000 square feet studio, complete with a cultural-insights agency, brand practice, production house, and experiential agency. Their approach to business has remained unorthodox—relying largely on word-of-mouth referrals and a steadfast focus on networking to secure campaigns and leveraging their reputational success to garner more work. In a cut-throat industry where self-perpetuation often seems to be the way to shine, the agency’s founders have also remained notoriously shy of the limelight, opting instead to let their campaigns speak on their behalf.
Hence why the news of their latest leadership reshuffle warranted an announcement, and one in their own words.
Things are changing at TSLA, and fast. The 100-person (and growing) creative shop reveals that Eunice Tan is stepping into the new role of group CEO, after helming the agency’s strategy department for well over a decade. Nicholas Ye will step up to co-chief creative officer, sharing the role alongside Mavis Neo, with Hanyi Lee as chief creative officer for TSLA’s rebranded design practice, Anak.
Tan who is also managing partner at Anak, as well as head of strategy for Mother in Shanghai, hopes she can continue the legacy of success as chief executive officer and, most importantly, be a leading proponent of fostering a more hopeful and enduring environment for creatives both within and outside the agency.
“I think, honestly, we didn’t plan it [a leadership change]. It’s always been very organic with us, and even this felt quite organic. We didn’t plan it in detail, but I think it became a natural step. Living a creative life remains to be very challenging and it’s not often sustainable in Singapore. The independence affords us the autonomy to think about how we can make living this life sustainable for young people and for young creatives here, and even you know, something that’s attractive for clients as well.”
Tan also emphasises that the struggle for creative sustainability is partially driven by the ongoing constrictions of the local ad marketplace, as clients remain hesitant to the possibility of shifting away from large networks and vendors to exploring newer, fresher, and more innovative ways to stand out in a crowded content market.
“If you’re an intern and you’re telling your parents you want to go to an art school [of which two have closed already] or [you] want to join this industry, you’re going to still kind of be met with this resistance or an eye roll. Two decades on, we’re still having parents have the same discussions on “What is advertising? What do you do?” It’s still so hard to explain, and that’s a big part of what guides so many things in our agency: The way we grow, our HR policies, or how we want to treat clients and how we show up for new business. Our business is predicated on this: Can we help creatives live more sustainable lives?”
Ye and Neo agree, acknowledging that whilst this might seem like a superfluous and somewhat intangible goal on the surface, it’s rooted in a deep desire to legitimise the role of creativity in Singapore more widely, and reward the commitment, dedication, and hard work it takes to survive in our small, but significant and competitive industry.
“Even to say it out loud seems a bit frivolous, right? We talk about creative living quite a bit in our credentials, and clients raise an eyebrow like “Why is this important to me? Why do I care that you, as an agency, can lead creative, sustainable lives? Isn’t that your problem?” But the majority of whether your campaign is successful or not is so dependent on the softer powers that be. And those softer powers are how motivated, inspired, and how richly cultured is a creative or a creative department or the agency you’re working with?” shares Ye.
And now as co-chief creative officer for Ye, the essence of change lies not just in the re-education of clients as to the role of personal fulfilment in creativity and its impact on their work, but also a fundamental shift in valuing Singaporean talent and skills on par with the rest of what the world has to offer.
“We’re talking about Singapore in 2023. We often joke that Singapore is first-world in so many aspects [such as] banking, finance, law, medicine—without a doubt, you wouldn’t think twice about a Singaporean lawyer or Singaporean banker. But a Singaporean ad agency charging on par with let's say, a French or an American or British agency? We still meet [that] somewhat third-world resistance towards the idea that you're giving a global account or your regional account to a Singaporean agency. I think we've tried to change that over the last 16 to 17 years.”
The founders also recount that when they initially walked into pitches, clients were often surprised to see the presence of a Singaporean agency, having never met creators, planners, or strategists from this part of the world—particularly where global accounts were concerned. But with time and continuous effort, the same clients are now approaching TSLA for work they’ve seen delivered successfully for accounts such as DBS or Mandai: The wildlife nature reserve championing global biodiversity.
When asked about how they feel about the future of the agency beyond their new leadership changes, and any strategies behind their growth, the trio (Lee was not present for the interview) cite that they don’t have a pre-conceived agenda in mind like always, and will continue to embrace the waves of what’s to come—including the new age of digital and tech transformation. So long as they can keep to their roots, they believe they can thrive.
“Authenticity is going to be a crazy commodity with AI. I can't emphasise enough the immense value of being real. People cherish your understanding of culture and their DNA, and how that translates into the work,” shares Ye.
“We built each and every one of these businesses from scratch, and accelerated their growth in the height of the pandemic - each are thriving businesses with unique specialisations and talents. Our leadership is 100% Asian and Singaporean, with a fully global mindset.”
“I’m proud of the agency we’ve built together, and the culture we’ve worked hard to create. We’ve nurtured an authentic, creatively-led experience at the agency—a lived experience of what it truly means to be creative. I look forward to the next chapter, as we continue cultivating the next generation of Asian creativity and excellence, for our team, our clients, and our partners.”