The Secret Little Agency, Founded In Singapore, Expands to Shanghai

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Singapore's The Secret Little Agency opened an outpost in Shanghai
Singapore's The Secret Little Agency opened an outpost in Shanghai Credit: TSLA
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In Asia, independent shop The Secret Little Agency is actually quite well-known, and it's getting more so.

The Singapore-based creative agency works for Netflix and Heineken Co.'s Tiger beer across Southeast Asia, and has 62 people on staff now. It has a small presence in Hong Kong, and just expanded to mainland China, opening a small office in Shanghai, with seven people there.

There's a lot that's unusual about the shop, founded in 2007. The management team is 80% Asian women. It's set its sights on China, an unusual, huge and challenging target for Singapore agencies – more typical areas of expansion would be into smaller Southeast Asia markets. And the Secret Little Agency is staying independent as it expands.

As for its quirky agency name, "We never wanted to be the big famous agency, we wanted the work to speak for us," said Nicholas Ye, the CEO. "We wanted to be small in spirit so we can be agile, fast and sharp."

The agency works across all media and platforms, so work can range from cookbooks to social campaigns to TV commercials. For Netflix, it temporarily turned a Singapore restaurant into the cafeteria from "Orange Is the New Black," serving prison food with a gourmet touch (and getting a lot of global headlines in the process). It used a talent contest for undiscovered artists, music videos and events to promote Tiger beer in Southeast Asia, especially in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, two "dark markets" where traditional alcohol advertising is mostly prohibited.

The first work from the new Shanghai office is a campaign for hair removal chain Strip. To promote Brazilian waxing, which is uncommon in China, the agency created a quirky campaign urging Chinese women to question local taboos over the practice. (It also wrapped the shops in fake, hot pink fur.) The goal of all its work is to generate headlines and blog items. "How to earn media instead of paying for it, that's the main mantra," Mr. Ye said.

The founders say they have a unique creative perspective, as an agency founded by Asians. "We are interested in the betterment of Asian or Chinese or Singaporean culture," Mr. Ye said. "It's not good enough for the work to just be commercial, it has to push or pull the culture in some way."

The China challenge

Singapore is Southeast Asia's advertising hub, a competitive agency market with strong independent shops as well as international networks like BBH and TBWA. The Secret Little Agency, often referred to as TSLA, launched nine years ago, when founders Mr. Ye and Creative Director Mavis Neo were in their early 20s. Mr. Ye had interned at TBWA and worked as a junior copywriter at BBH. Ms. Neo was an art director at Bates, working on Apple and Heineken.

The agency got attention internationally for a campaign for the Economic Development Board of Singapore, which was looking for a way to create buzz among top executives at business conferences. To make professional networking a little more fun, it created a coffee machine that only worked if two people stood in front of it. (That effort won a silver for B-to-B work in Ad Age's Small Agency Awards last year.)

The agency "has established a strong 'local hero' reputation in Singapore," said Richard Bleasdale, Asia Pacific managing partner at management consultancy The Observatory International. He describes the agency as: "fiercely independent. Taking on the big boys. And developing a good track record for creative campaigns which produce healthy results."

China, with 1.37 billion people, is a tough challenge for any new entrant, especially now that economic growth there has slowed. International agencies like Ogilvy and BBDO are powerhouses on the mainland, local agency players have become strong competition, and some well-known international creative shops are still breaking in. CP&B, for example, just opened an office in Beijing.

Mr. Bleasdale says that TSLA will need a loyal client in China as they grow, and local agency talent who are "daring enough to join TSLA and help strengthen their local market understanding," he said. "Traditionally in China, neither of these two commodities are plentiful."

Mr. Ye of The Secret Little Agency says he's mindful of the challenges of China, especially given the slowing economy there. But he believes the agency's media agnostic outlook, scrappiness and ability to create buzz while keeping media costs down will work to its advantage in China: "That's what we're built on, being able to be that agency that can innovate and be small and fast and hyper creative."