Setting up in Singapore

Craig Watson, Strategy Director at fst, a Buckinghamshire-based creative agency tells us about setting up an office in Singapore, and what he’s learnt along the way.

fst stands for Free Spirited Thinkers. We are an integrated creative agency based in Marlow, Buckinghamshire and we employ 45 people there. Twenty years after we were first established we opened an office in Singapore in March 2011.

As a relative newcomer to Singapore, we are still learning many vital lessons about doing business there, and what the wider Asian region has to offer a company such as ours. But without a doubt being in Asia has been exciting and fascinating for everyone at fst. It gives us much more of an international outlook and understanding, which is useful with some of the global clients we work with.

Year ending 2012, our turnover was around £3.5 million, 10% of which can be attributed to our office in Singapore. We now have five active clients and are continuing to develop our reputation and business network there.

I have to admit before my first trip, I had to look up where Singapore was on the map! Now having been there at least six times, I’ve come to appreciate it as a civilised first world city, where people have a real ‘can-do’ attitude and positive outlook. No wonder then that Singapore is number one in the World Economic Forum’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ ranking and fourth for starting a business. It’s been described to me as ‘Asia-Lite’ which I think sums it up well!

Our decision to open an office in Singapore was taken as a result of one of our long-standing clients, Visa, moving their Central Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific marketing function out there. We felt it was imperative that we had offices close by to service their requirements. We first took a ‘toe-dipping’ approach by renting out Regis office space in the main commercial centre close to Visa’s offices.

fst: Facts and figures

  • fst was set up in 1991 and now employs 45 people in the UK and three in its Singapore office

  • Its work varies from all managed online marketing services to development of brand strategy for leading clients such as Canon Europe, Visa, Rentokil Initial, Visit England, Nine Telecom, Southern Railway and Avis

  • Its clients in Singapore include Visa, Bridgestone, Optitune, Transcendent and Singapore Turf Club.

While this space was quick and easy to find and set up, it wasn’t long before we realised we needed an office that better reflected our brand and culture. We have now moved into a more creative, vibrant area of Singapore called Kampong Glam, which has helped attract new staff and clients. We now have three people working in our Singapore office, with a fourth soon to join.

Our arrival in Singapore was given a boost with the help UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), whose team there helped us organise our launch reception. They found us a great venue and invited some of their key contacts to meet us at the event. This was a great profile building and networking opportunity for us, which lead onto some business leads.

We were first introduced to UKTI about five years previously when a co-director and I did a Passport to Export course. While we weren’t ready back then to look for international business, what we learnt meant we were able to react quicker when opportunity arose, and we knew instinctively to get in touch with UKTI in Singapore to help us launch there.

A learning curve for us has been finding and securing business as it differs a lot from the UK. Obtaining appointments with marketing departments in the region is far easier than in the UK, where the market is far more advanced and saturated. Cost however is something of a barrier. We have to ensure that the people who want to work with us understand that brilliant ideas and high quality creative requires an investment in research and thinking time, which can’t be compared with production lead desktop publishing costs.

We have also found that our strong in-house SEO expertise (search engine optimisation) has helped drive quality business opportunities our way too, and we even get business leads from our UK contacts who know people out there.

Our design knowledge, insight and creative standards are greatly appreciated by many companies in the region. British design is certainly held in high esteem there, though of course we have to tailor our approach to meet the market – what works in the UK won’t necessarily work there. It is also great that the British are so warmly received there.

It is imperative that we run a seamless operation between our two offices. Our staff both here and there need to be communicating constantly, connected through our brand and culture and motivating each other. Over there our team works 11am-7pm so that there’s a cross over with UK time and Skype is invaluable! We also love to visit each other’s offices regularly, so that we can learn from each other both in a business and cultural sense.

What we didn’t realise when we opened the office in Asia was just how impressed our clients in the UK would be by us doing this. It’s a great talking point with both existing clients and new leads in the UK. However, our journey in Asia has just begun!

We’re now looking beyond Singapore – it’s a great gateway to the region but with a population of just 5 million, you have to look to further afield. We’re looking to develop partnerships with other creative agencies across South East Asia – our new head of agency in Singapore will be focusing on extending our networks in the region as we look forward to bringing British creative to the region and capitalising on what it has to offer us!

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Craig’s top tips for setting up a business in Singapore:

  • Research the market for your business as much as you can. The assistance of the UKTI is great, what’s available on the Internet will be useful, but ultimately going out there is of paramount importance to really understand your market.

  • I would suggest registering as a PTE company (equivalent of an Ltd company over here). This sends out the message that you’re there to stay and helps to secure business, especially government contracts.

  • Develop a relevant brand proposition and marketing plan. Use the P’s of marketing; product; place; profit; positioning; profile; price; people; planet; process; promotion; passion to develop your plan.

  • Motion graphics and videos are a great way to tell a story in this region. This is because the people here respond well to visual presentation materials and English isn’t the first language for many. We produced a video of our operations in the UK to share our culture and introduce some of our key personnel and it was very well received.

  • Relationships are important – if you get past the two year mark – people take you more seriously.

  • Be prepared to use your love of football to break the ice there – especially if you’re a Manchester United or Liverpool fan (doesn’t work quite so well if you’re a Spurs fan!)

Sectors: Creative & Media
Countries: Singapore
Topics: Getting Started
Export Action Plan