Over the past 18 months, The Mill has been stowing away in the offices of BBH Singapore. We caught up with CEO Robin Shenfield to talk about his experiences of establishing the company in the Asia Pacific market and what he’s learned so far about production and post in the region.
LBB> How long has The Mill been in Singapore?
RS> We are in Singapore, but we are there as a joint venture with BBH. It is a co-owned business, based in their building, which solely works for BBH. It’s a small team of people, and conceptually it was really about the fact that Singapore is BBH’s longest established Asian office. They have a lot of presence there, in Shanghai and Mumbai, and a bit of a smaller one in Japan.
I think that people don’t really make commercials in Singapore – it’s a tiny country. Creatives, producers and crews are scattered around all over the region in places like Thailand, Mainland China and Hong Kong. I think it was BBH’s desire to bring that work back to Singapore and execute it under their roof because the production community in the region is very freelance. I think that there are obviously issues of costs, control and management of having people across the region that are finishing up projects.
LBB> I guess it’s also about making sure that you have a certain standard of quality…
RS> Yes, very much so. In typical BBH fashion, they are driven by the desire to always push quality up. So, A it’s control and B it’s quality.
BBH is one of our longest established clients and they needed some help so we were happy to provide it. I guess for us it was a signal to the advertising community in this region that we had taken a little tiny step into their market place. And, naturally, it stimulated other conversations with other people; for example I got to talk at AdFest in Thailand, in March. Essentially we are servicing our client. We provide the sources, BBH provide the work. We co-own and co-manage the activity. It was a foot in the door really.
Singapore is the regional HQ for lots of brands, such as P&G and Unilever. In the last couple of years, Ogilvy & Mather have moved their regional HQ from Hong Kong in Singapore to service clients like Unilever more effectively. It has also got a government that is very pro-active in supporting and promoting inward media investments, so the economic development abroad is useful to anybody that is wanting to set up a new business there.
LBB> Are you still working exclusively with BBH or are you working for other agencies as well?
RS> At the moment that is all we’re doing, but as I said, it’s been the catalyst for more conversations. We haven’t made a plan or decision to do anything more yet.
LBB> How do you see the industry as a whole within the region? What have you seen from the industry while The Mill has been there?
RS> It is definitely an industry that is growing quickly. Despite its size, it is quite a fragmented industry – some of the ways things are made reflect a sprawling cottage industry at the moment. The dynamic between advertiser, agency, production company and VFX company is not as settled as it is in the UK and the US. It’s a bit more wild, a bit more uncontrolled, a bit more random and things happen very quickly. I think that’s a characteristic of all these market places; we think we turn around amazingly complex work in the US and the UK, but the speed at which things are done in all of the emerging markets is blindingly quick.
We’re kind of ‘under the umbrella’ at BBH, so we’re a little bit protected from client relationships. Without doubt, it’s a tough market to operate in, as sheltered as we are. It’s an exciting market, but it’s also a tricky market. A lot of people are trying to work out how to operate effectively, make money and produce great work there.
LBB> So it’s not in its infancy anymore, but it’s kind of in its teething stage?
RS> There was a moment a couple of years ago when some people got a little hyper-excited about China and there was a feeling that the train might be leaving the station; I think the train is still revving up. It’s an immature marketplace, but clearly an exciting one.
One of my clients a few years ago said to me, if you take China as a whole, it’s got a very promiscuous attitude to brands. Agencies in the west develop brand loyalty, whereas in China it seems to be one brand this week and another the next. There is a rush of brands to the market and the challenge for agencies to develop loyalty to brands is immense in that marketplace. It makes it all very exciting.
LBB> Are you seeing more competitors coming to this region?
RS> I can’t think of many examples, other than Smoke & Mirrors and Hogarth. In terms of independent creative and VFX companies, I can’t think of any. There are a number of established ones across the region, for example VHQ, which I think have just bought Black Magic post house in Singapore. Maybe there is a bit of consolidation going on, but the same token, there are VFX companies in Sydney that are going into administration. It’s a volatile marketplace. We are there in a small way, working with a friendly client. It has stimulated conversation and thought, but we are not rushing in. We’re taking stock and learning things all the time.
LBB> What is it bringing to The Mill as a whole? What are you drawing from it as an experience?
RS> It’s a very small part of our business. We literally have a handful of people in Singapore at the moment. Economically, it’s not a material part of our business yet. It’s an outpost with a good friend to gain experience and learn about the market. Might there be an opportunity to stand alone or do something more substantial? What does the market want? It’s thought provoking and stimulating and a source of insight at the moment.
LBB> Where do you see the next five to 10 years for Singapore’s industry?
RS> In a way, I think that Singapore and Malaysia are both vying for more investment in media. I get the feeling that it’s quite a big priority. Shepperton have an association with a company in Malaysia to build studios – I think there is a new studio to be built in Singapore to start doing a bit more production.
A lot of agency people live there, it’s got good schools, there are some people in the film VFX area there – there’s a big pool of talent in the CGI and VFX section there. All the main agencies have a presence there and some big brands have their regional HQ there. I am very happy that we’re in Singapore. This was a kind of tentative step taken by The Mill, made less than 18 months ago. It’s gone well – it’s meeting our and BBH’s objectives.
As I say, it stimulates other conversations. The fact that you have made an effort to be in that marketplace inevitably brings interest from other people from the whole region.
But I do think that the essential requirement of BBH has been met. They wanted to have a unit within their Singapore office that they could bring back local work to as well as servicing other leads at their other offices, particularly Shanghai. I think it has been pretty successful. But we’re not about to push the button on another plan, however it is always on our agenda, it’s always in our thoughts, we are always collecting data and having conversations. At some point those pieces of the jigsaw will probably piece together and we will end up doing something else here; but not this month.