11 Oct 2021

GOVT: An independent with a hustler’s spirit

Singapore-based independent agency GOVT was formed by ad men Leon Lai and Aaron Koh with the single mission to create great work that makes people talk. Fast-forward nine years, the 50-strong team has worked with many of the region’s most notable brands such as Julie’s, Sentosa, OCBC Bank, Tiger Beer, Lazada, and many others. Winning much praise from the creative and marketing community, GOVT won several awards at MARKETING-INTERACTIVE’s Agency of the Year, MARKies and Marketing Events Awards. But what many may not know is the agency was built on two core pillars – courage and common sense. Both of which, it believes, are vital in the business. Helming the local day to day operations, and keeping these pillars upright at the creative powerhouse, are managing director Alvina Seah, and executive creative director Timothy Chan. While the pair may not have been present at the birth of the firm, what they bring to GOVT is their understanding and unique blend of knowledge having had their fair share of experience working with large agency networks. Before joining GOVT two years ago, Seah spent nearly 10 years in Shanghai with the likes of BBDO climbing the ranks from senior account director to managing director. She also spent the early years of her career working with the likes of TBWA\Singapore. So why did she decide to leave the stability of a network and join the hustle and bustle of the independent agency scene? “I’ve always been curious about the secret sauce behind independent agencies,” Seah shares candidly. She reminisces that while there is no doubt there are perks working at a global network, it is the real ability of agility that keeps her hooked to the independent scene. “While we all talk about being agile, in an independent agency is very real, and it is not always easy,” she explains. “There is a lot of madness, and sometimes finding methods to the madness leads you down paths that don’t work,” she says. “But what’s reassuring is the founders of GOVT encourage this mentality, and give us the space to try fast and fail fast. Some days, it’s a bit scary, but I suppose that’s the thrill behind that secret sauce.” Meanwhile, Chan adds it is that sense of adventure that lured him after spending nearly 11 years with the larger agency networks. He held numerous roles across firms such as DDB, McCann and Iris. “I was looking for an adventure beyond what I had experienced in the first 11 years of my career. So, the opportunity to be part of a small pirate ship with friends I had known for a few years (and who had already started the shop) was a no-brainer,” he says. Asked if he holds any regrets, he openly shares: “My only regret is that I didn’t end up taking all that much time off! Seriously though, when I look back at my six years with GOVT, I wish I had done quite a number of things differently, but I have no regrets about joining an independent agency at all. The whole adventure has given me friends, moments and life lessons that I’ll always be grateful for.” According to Seah and Chan, who both understandably spend a fair bit of their energy making sure the agency is running in the right direction, work goes far beyond the day-to-day, but bleeds into the hunt for incremental improvements that result in a better work environment, end product, and of course, talent. “Every week, there are new challenges to overcome, new things to think about, new ways to make things better for the collective. And all those things tend to turn our roles into that of an aunt agony, firefighter, client counsel, discipline master, drinking buddy, and more,” Chan says. Coping with the pandemic While 2020 was a tough one for many in the ad agency scene in Singapore, the duo shared that they’ve been lucky to emerge from the madness with minor bruises. “It’d be foolish for us to say that things are good enough and what we have today will carry us through well into the future. But what we want for the agency is to make this a place where everyone feels they belong – employees and clients alike,” Chan adds. While advertising might be a calling for some, and a stepping stone for others, the pair understand that for all of us it is a job. So at the top of Seah’s radar is to resonate with the newer generation of staff who value different aspects to life than their parents, mentors and superiors. When it comes to talent, Chan and Seah say they are looking for people who are street-smart and who can each bring a differentiating factor to the table – true to how the agency was built. “We’re not afraid of people who have differing opinions to ours, so long as we are all working towards the same goal. We don’t just want to bark instructions to people on what to do and how to do it,” Chan says. To achieve this “mildly utopian goal”, they remain steadfast in their vision of the future which is rooted in the balance of creative excellence and commercial sensibilities. The former, they say, is self-explanatory, but the latter is necessary for ensuring the long-term success of the agency. That’s why it is now focused on making inroads into selling different capabilities within the agency. To put words into action, at the tail end of 2020, GOVT started setting up a dedicated creative studio to manage the quality of content and have the freedom and agility to support clients’ needs in digitally-driven campaigns. The creative studio is equipped with motion graphics designers, 3D animators, videographers and editors, as well as a tech producer, so that creative outputs are more diversified, beyond the typical list of deliverables in a brief. “This encouraged all of us to be more willing to explore different creative solutions, and also makes it more fun to create different types of work,” Chan explains. He adds that working in GOVT should mean that an individual is liberated to make decisions and have opinions, no matter what level their career is at – and knowing that if things ever go wrong (and they will, occasionally), the team is always there for support. Chan adds that when the founders started up the agency, bravery was the secret sauce that drove it to where it is today. A plan was made built on prudence and a clear view of how to build an agency brick by brick. “It’s the same today as we continue building the house. Without bravery, our creative product would be crap. But without common sense, no client would buy it,” he says. A founders’ tale “I think for us to say that we started GOVT because we believed that we could create a different type of agency is quite unbelievable,” says Lai, co-founder of GOVT. He adds the company ultimately wanted to put out real work that it would not be ashamed to have its name on. “That said, I think the real trigger for us to start GOVT was that Aaron and I shared some common beliefs. Practitioners working in advertising seem to have accepted that when you decide to join or stay on in this industry, you are required to work until 2 am. Or having bonuses only comes at management levels. Or subservience is the only way to retain clients. We try to break out of those on-ground sentiments. “We try to practise what we preach, and not do anything that we wouldn’t want people to do to us.” Koh says the firm wants to create an environment where egos can be set aside and every opinion should be respected. “We didn’t want an agency that our people would have to kowtow to our every want and need. Of course, there will never be a level playing field, no matter how you spin it,” he says. “But everyone has an opinion and they should be comfortable enough to voice it out without the pressure. We wanted people to believe in the things they do on a day to day basis, not because we made them believe it.” MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Tell us how GOVT came around. Lai: I never had the intention to start up GOVT! My initial itch was to get myself into an F&B business post-my coming back from Melbourne, but before doing so, I popped over to Shanghai to visit my sister who was based there then, as well as my football kaki Aaron. But things don’t always go according to plan in life, and Aaron was pretty much the instigator who spent seven hours convincing me that I had unfinished business in the agency world. That was how GOVT came about and the rest is history, as they say! Koh: Yes, as a young creative, I would always talk to my peers about what I would do differently if I was a creative director, believing that I could walk in those shoes quicker than I was supposed to! Keyword here being “talk” given that I never really found the guts to do it because I was always busy trying to do the work, win the awards and nail the overseas job most of us dreamt of. After I achieved all that I was supposed to, I landed myself in Shanghai. A couple of months in, I caught up with Leon for a drink and the rest is history. All that talk turned into action and GOVT was born over 12 glasses of ice lemon tea! MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What were some of the challenges you overcame to get the agency off the ground? Lai: Well even before the agency went live, we faced challenges. If there’s one thing that we have learnt over the years, it is to follow your heart and ride things out. For example, we initially identified five people whom we would have loved to have as founding partners in GOVT, a few conversations ensued, but at the end of the day, it was still Aaron and myself looking out for each other. That was the first huge obstacle for us, because without the trust we could have pretty much given up even before we even started. We asked each other: “Are we too ambitious? Do we still believe? Is there something wrong with our plan?” But we decided to just hunker down, and give it a shot. We told ourselves that we were young enough to screw up! Another challenge we had was scaling up. We started GOVT with just SG$10,000 and worked out of a 400 square-foot HDB shophouse in Everton Park. Bootstrapping is normal with a start-up, but scaling without external investors was a whole new ball game! From 2013 to 2015, we had a lot of fun rolling up our sleeves and just doing work, but in 2016 we started winning serious accounts such as Häagen-Dazs, MINI Asia, National Gallery, and of course, OCBC Bank. The accounts gave us many opportunities, and we found ourselves in the position of having to make serious financial decisions. It was like playing poker, and going all-in. At that point we were also married men with young families. So we made the decision to take out bank loans with money we never thought we would ever have, just to inject working capital into the company. Thank God we rode that out as well with sheer belief, tenacity and pure hustling. Koh: Before we started, I had SG$5,000 in my bank account and I knew I needed to save more money if I wanted to get anything off the ground. I lived near the office in Shanghai, so during lunch hour, I would walk back, eat instant noodles, or whatever was leftover the day before, and head back to work. I knew that was an unhealthy diet of course, but that was my routine and I wasn’t going to the casino to try my luck! Leon and I talked a lot about the “how” and the “who” to get the ball rolling, but most of the decision making was made on pure gut feel rather than calculative manoeuvres. We gave ourselves two years to see it through, and if it didn’t work out, at least we knew we tried our hardest. But the hard parts led us to growing the start-up to a point where we were pitching alongside the big boys, and that was the moment we realised that we were doing something right. The big challenge was in improving both the standard of work, and the culture of the agency at the same time because we knew we needed to grow if we ever wanted to be taken seriously. It was extremely difficult to find the right talent who would believe in us, simply because we weren’t a big enough name in the industry and didn’t have the sexy accounts at that point. But some of them did, and I’m grateful they’re still with us to this day carrying the GOVT flag. MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Were there times you just wanted to give up? What kept you going? Lai: I firmly believe that if an entrepreneur hasn’t ever thought of giving up, then something must be wrong! Start-up life is tremendously hard, and being an SME owner today with over 50 mouths to feed is even harder. You feel this immense sense of responsibility and perpetual baggage on your shoulders. But when you look around you – your people, partners, clients, vendors – and you see they are willing to support you as long as you don’t give up, then you find that little bit of courage from the depths of your inner self and you just carry on. Koh: There are many, many times that I’ve doubted myself. I’ve asked myself: Am I good enough to be a leader? Is the work creative enough? What if we fail to pay our people on time? And these were just some of things that went through my mind on a daily basis. It’s tough to carry that burden as a boss, a colleague, and a friend because a lot of times, there are hard decisions to be made and there sometimes isn’t a clear line drawn between the professional and the personal, and it will affect you both ways. The passion for the work, keeps me working. We get our hands dirty together as a team and ride out the storm no matter how hard it is. Our people believe that creating work that will be of envy for others is the best part of the job! They know that all the pain and long hours will be worth it when the work is appreciated. So what’s next? When asked what their vision for the agency was now that Seah and Chan are in charge, both say there has never been an outright mission or vision for the agency other than to do great work and pass the torch to the deserving new generation entering the agency scene. “When we first brought Chan and Seah in as part of the 2G leadership, we simply told them to give everybody a chance. We are not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but we try to be decent as human beings,” Lai says. He adds the goal has always been to be the best versions of themselves from a start-up to that of a mid-sized SME. “Regardless of agency or individual accolades. As owners, we are determined by how we treat our people and clients, not how much billings or success the agency has generated,” he adds. Koh says that from a creative stand point, it was always about getting people to talk about the work positively, and in turn, feel proud that they did it. “We never really had a real big vision statement plastered at the entrance of the office or printed on notebooks to give to clients. Everyone sees their vision differently, and as long as there’s harmony and respect for both the work and the people, that’s good enough for us,” he says. He adds that ultimately, the goal has always been to promote new leadership to foster relationships with clients and partners. “When Leon and I were still in the thick of things, we were the ones keeping the relationships with clients, being responsible for P&L, and maintaining the morale in the teams. But with us stepping back now, the next generation gets to do it on their own terms.”

14 Jul 2021


“Naturally, we’re thrilled to have been chosen as Sentosa’s partner. We have a big task in front of us, as the brand has consistently rolled out great pieces of work over the years. And we can’t wait to get started alongside our partners Section and OLIVER,” said Tim Chan, ECD/Partner of GOVT Singapore in a statement. Alvina Seah, Managing Director of GOVT Singapore, said: “Sentosa has always given Singaporeans that warm sense of familiarity, and it has also never stopped reinventing itself. As a team, we are very proud and humbled to be chosen for such an important brand for Singapore.” “It is definitely an exciting proposition to be onboard and working in a collaborative model with the creative minds of GOVT and one of Asia’s premier destinations. We are humbled and eager to unlock new ways of elevating the Sentosa experience with technology and the diverse expertise at the table,” said CK Tham, Head of Business of Section. “We’re elated to partner with Sentosa, one of the most iconic homegrown brands in Singapore. With Sentosa and our partner agencies, we look forward to building new and more effective ways of working that produces brilliant work with the OLIVER inside agency ecosystem, all brought together by our proprietary marketing technology, Oliver Marketing Gateway (OMG),” said Paul Bonnette, Managing Director, OLIVER and Inside Ideas Group APAC. Under the consortium arrangement, GOVT will undertake the role of Strategic Creative Agency, and Section will take on digital and UI/UX duties, while OLIVER will oversee creative and digital production and connect the entire ecosystem with their proprietary MarTech, OMG. Creative duties were previously handled by BBH Singapore. In a separate appointment UM, the full-service media and marketing solutions agency within Mediabrands, has retained their relationship with the client as media agency of record. As the incumbent on the media business, this win is UM’s second term as media agency of record for SDC.

05 May 2021


After a successful, well-received brand relaunch at the start of the year, Malaysian biscuit brand, Julie’s, has once again teamed up with GOVT Singapore to put their newfound brand of cheeky humour towards this Raya celebrations campaign. The spot takes an inside look at the production of typical Raya ads of the past, where women have been cast in stereotypical roles. In Ini Iklan Raya, Tau?, the women break from script to get us to question if we’re giving them enough credit for the roles they play in our lives, to the comical consternation of the film’s desperate director. With a female as it’s logo, Julie’s felt it was only appropriate to use its platform to give women a little love, with their signature Love Letters range of products. GOVT Singapore, Associate Creative Director, Kevin Joseph, said: “This ad isn’t meant to be a lecture, or an admonishment of any kind. We just wanted to make people chuckle and realise that the women in our lives are more than just caretakers and melodramatic criers. They bring way more to the table than just food. And they deserve our love for it.” The ad features notable names in the Malaysian acting scene such as Fauziah Nawi, Sharifah Shahira, Batrisyia Razak and Amerul Affendy, and was directed by Junad M. Nor. With the exception of Kevin Joseph, GOVT also did its part for female empowerment with an all-female team.

02 Jan 2021


Launching on 1st January 2021, a short film featuring an ensemble of veteran, award-winning and emerging Malaysian cast including Indi Nadarajah, Fabian Loo, Amanda Ang and Bella Rahim will be rolled out on Julie’s YouTube, Social Media and digital platforms. The story-line is fictionalised, comical take inspired by Julie’s actual real-life multi-layered rebranding process, including internal management, employee and stakeholder consultations and navigating insights from actual Julie’s consumers and focus groups. Julie’s Director, Tzy Horng Sai, said: “The rebranding exercise included expertise of its founding members and new generation talent. The process kicked off in 2017 undergoing a vigorous process while the creative collaboration with GOVT started in 2019. “We felt after 35 years, Julie’s needed some rejuvenation. For the longest time, we were kind of just…there. Seen, but not necessarily heard. We wanted to change that. Julie’s will always be Julie’s. We still hold the values that have made us who we are today. But now, we want to shout it out to the world. We want to be bold and thought-provoking, to bring a little optimism to the everyday. It’s a change we believe our loyal fans will be on board with, and one we hope will attract new ones too. Taking a plunge into something new isn’t just something we’ve done, it’s something we hope to inspire others to do too. In partnership with GOVT, we believe these short films capture Julie’s new personality.” GOVT’s Associate Creative Director Kevin Joseph lead Julie’s rebranding filming process, following the team’s award-winning 2019 short-film TRANSLATOR. “To see a heritage brand like Julie’s embrace evolution like this is inspiring. When you’ve been at something for so long, it’s easy to get stuck in the status quo. I’m sure we’ve all been there before, especially in our jobs. In many ways, we’ve poured much of ourselves into the characters in this film. Our hope for anyone watching this, is that they realise that no matter where you are in life, you’re never too old to grow young,” said Joseph. Amid the onslaught of Covid-19, Julie’s had to accelerate its marketing, consumer engagement and product deployment strategies aggressively onto digital platforms. “A lot of the marketers in Asia still rely on physical branding and on-ground promotional activities to engage with customers. We had to hasten our digitisation efforts to best interact with our customers and introduce the brand to new consumers,” said Sai. “Hari Raya, Christmas holidays, Chinese New Year, other festive seasons and celebrations play a big part in the consumption of Julie’s products – when families and friends get together to share and create memories, which was all abruptly halted. We continue to work with retailers on how to best respond to consumers’ changing shopping habits and manoeuvre through new challenges brought on by Covid-19.” “We do believe that our strong family brand identity has brought back fond memories during this challenging year. Julie’s is privileged to have the loyalty of many consumers who have developed an emotional relationship with our brand and our value of sharing. We hope that we are still helping families and friends create warm memories during these trying times,” said Sai.

03 Jun 2020

Advertising agencies ‘adopt’ smaller businesses and come to their marketing aid

To have survived and sustained during the circuit breaker and COVID-19 situation is no easy feat. Over the past two months, there have been numerous lists circulating around layoffs, downsizing and shutdowns. However, there are some businesses lending a hand to those in need through collaborations, of which almost all are free of charge. One such example will be independent creative agency GOVT's newly launched social platform called "Adoptising SG". Through this initiative, GOVT describes itself as not an ad agency. Instead of hunting for clients, Adoptising_SG is an initiative that aims to provide advertising creative services to local small and home businesses who are adapting during this challenging climate. According to GOVT, through the initiative, the team aims to aid 20 small businesses who are in need in the next few months by featuring their products and services. The team will also work to create ads best catered to the business that the local businesses can use, all done without any charges. The Adoptising_SG initiative was launched on Instagram and Facebook on Thursday, and saw many business owners reaching out to the platform expressing their interest to have their small businesses adopted. This started as a passion project by GOVT Singapore's managing director Alvina Seah, who said it was all born from a conversation about the state of small businesses in Singapore now. "Everyone is helping in ways that they can, and we just figured why not take the initiative to help people by doing what we do best," she added. According to Seah, this project does not impact the agency's existing work with clients. She told Marketing that usual work for existing clients is still ongoing, and the leadership team spend the bulk of their time ensuring those things go on as smoothly as they can, and ensure staff stay optimistic and motivated in these challenging times. The first business adopted is a fitness trainer and nutrition coach, Joshua Tay (@joshua_tay_pe). In the coming days, Adoptising_SG also aims to release various "ads" on its platform to attract local businesses in need of its services. Similarly, micro independent agency network Beatnk and TJT Creative Lab have launched a Partners in Pandemic initiative to offer solutions ranging from branding, creative communications, public relations and business and marketing strategies to businesses. As a network of independent agencies, Beatnk has a pool of talent that aims to help businesses address a variety of business problems and challenges that they may face due to this pandemic. As such, the initiative by Beatnk and TJT Creative Labs will assist as a creative communications and strategy aid for businesses during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Designed to help SMEs, local businesses, non-profit organisations/NGOs and governments within SEA, the talents look to provide expertise for free to businesses related to to retail, travel and tourism, waste management, fintech and others. Already on the roster for this project is Beatnk for Singapore and Malaysia, TJT Creative Lab (Thailand/Indonesia/Vietnam), Kulturpop (Malaysia), McGagh Communications (Singapore), Exhibit Lab (Malaysia), ACMF Consultants (SEA), Hot Pictures (Malaysia), REBL (Singapore and Malaysia), Komaci (Malaysia), Roshambo (Malaysia), Square Flair (US), Somnuk Production (Thailand) and Squareteam (Indonesia). Separately, digital agency We! Interactive too jumped at an opportunity to offer Singapore SMEs pay-as-you-wish social and digital marketing assistance, and to build up their eCommerce offering. In light of the recent pandemic, the Singapore government has offered assistance to SMEs during this challenging times through initiatives, such as an expanded SMEs Go Digital programme and an enhanced enterprise finance scheme-SME working capital loan. However, We! said it understands that it takes more than just listing products on online marketplaces for eCommerce to take off. In fact, advertising and marketing efforts are crucial for them to attract and direct people to the online stores, the agency said. Meanwhile, freelance photographer Jeryl Tan has offered his expertise in food photography to F&B businesses. In a Facebook post, Tan said he will provide a free, one-time-off, basic food photography / styling service to restaurants / café / hawker stores offering takeaways or delivery options amid circuit breaker. According to CNA, Tan noticed a 70% drop in projects and jobs during the circuit breaker situation, and has been working on small product shoots to sustain. He also explained that hawkers were moving into social media pages to gain more business, but these owners are not digitally savvy and needed help. Since his Facebook post went live, Tan has garnered 45 interested F&B owners.

21 Apr 2020

Send in the clowns: How to do great work by ‘vibing’ with a new generation of misfits

The Boomers and Gen X may have brought advertising its glorious, Scotch-fuelled Mad Men days, but haven’t you heard… the Millennials and Gen Z are taking over. While they’re at it, they’re also asking for fulfilling lives and ping pong tables. Unfortunately, at GOVT Singapore, since we haven’t figured out how to build the DeLorean, we’ve had to embrace them (and pay these troublemakers, too). So, over the years, we’ve tried to click with them a little more. Here’s what we found. 1. They like lists In our day, we were paid to work as hard as we could towards a vague pot of gold. But with this bunch, treating their goals like a Buzzfeed listicle works better. So, we’re always clear about the step-by-step process in which they can grow and thrive with us. 2. They need a 'purpose' And being ‘the best independent agency in town’ doesn’t cut it. They’re hungry to know what we stand for, why we exist. Beyond a salary, they need a reason to get up every morning. And they need to be reminded of this constantly too. 3. They also need their own purpose within yours In the past, agencies had a few Generals. Everyone else would just follow. But now, Gen Z types are more entrepreneurial, and therefore keen to lead their own skirmishes. So we’re happy to send them on their own little experimental adventures. 4. They're a demanding bunch Flexible hours, the aforementioned ping pong table, more benefits… they don’t seem to be shy about asking for stuff. On the one hand, some may say they’re entitled. But on the other, it shows they don’t shy away from having a POV. And that’s what advertising is about anyway. 5. Very short attention/retention spans The days of long careers in one place are over. The agency is merely a stepping stone to another gig. Which makes keeping people a constant challenge. But instead of lamenting, we throw them challenges worth staying for and keep them sufficiently stimulated. Also, see point two. 6. Alcohol isn't enough An open bar still has its pull, but it’s not quite what it was. They’d rather that we keep our promises, help them experience new things, maintain a culture of having each other’s backs and regular one-on-one chats. Apparently, these are more ‘fleek’ than a beer tap (which we have anyway). 7. You gotta know what they know, but you'll never really know what they know You can’t just walk the talk. You have to TikTok too. They can show us more about popular culture than we’ll ever keep up with. But being open to these cultural nuances also helps us guide our people to use it in our work, and never just for the sake of it. 8. They're the present/future of advertising Whether we like it or not. But we do like them, for many reasons. Our favourite one reminds us of a quote from an obscure ad made at the height of advertising’s golden age: “They have no respect for the status quo.” We can totally vibe with that. Words by Tim Chan, co-founder and director, GOVT Singapore* *Technically, he’s a millennial, too, even though he barely made the cut.