Q&A: inside Singapore’s secret little agency

Balancing sustainability with humour, and the power of quiet storytelling

The Little Secret Agency (TLSA) entered Singapore’s creative scene in 2009, founded by then 19-year-old college student, Nicholas Ye. Almost two decades later, the agency’s real address and contact number remain unlisted, and one hundred per cent of its business results from word-of-mouth.

Eunice Tan

TLSA now spans across four continents, and is the only creative agency in Singapore to be named both Independent and Creative Agency of the Year multiple times in the last ten years. MediaCat Magazine’s Editor-at-large, Natasha Randhawa, chats to Group CEO, Eunice Tan on relevancy, and how to solve business problems and offer social solutions simultaneously.

Eunice, it’s a pleasure to chat. The Little Secret Agency aren’t ones for small talk. As your website puts it: ‘We are discovered mainly by our work, something that’s been said about us in the news, and not much else.’ How do you cultivate a culture that encourages confidence and avant-garde creativity, whilst resonating with audiences and Singaporean values around heritage and tradition?

Singapore is known for many things — a reputable banking and financial hub, a trusted and stable economy, a strong legal infrastructure. Unlike other cities, creativity might not be the first thing that necessarily comes to mind when the world thinks about Singapore. At the agency, we talk about allowing people to live sustainable creative lives. Living a sustainable creative life should not be a sacrifice, but it should be fulfilling and rewarding in and of itself. I grew up in a generation where parents encouraged their children to be bankers, lawyers, doctors, engineers. And saying that I wanted to be creative seemed frivolous, and irresponsible. So we say to our folks, that whilst it might not be a predictable life, but for those of us who know, it’s certainly a meaningful life. 

The Secret Little Agency aims to create a safe haven for everyone to create and practise creativity fearlessly, frequently and with a group of like-minded individuals who also share the same values. This means creating safe spaces for young talent all over Asia to discover themselves, come into their own creative identities. It also means having an environment that truly rewards and recognises this way of life, through how we think about growth-planning, how we retain and acknowledge people in the agency. When we take care of these fundamentals, people can then feel free to be vulnerable, to experiment, try new things and live the highest expressions of their creative lives. 

In 2017, TLSA became part of the Mother Shanghai family, and now boasts its own cultural insights agency (Junk), experiential agency (PPURPOSE), production entity (Secret Studios) and multi-disciplinary brand practice (Anak). This multidisciplinary approach offers a wealth of expertise under one roof. Does the cross-pollination of ideas often result in unusual solutions? 

We created these entities because as an independent agency, we were frustrated with different barriers we faced in the journey towards putting out the best work of our careers. So we thought, let’s create these entities from scratch, from the ground-up with a vision to champion Asia. 

A great example of this is the Asian Creators Index (ACI). Over the years, our production arm amassed a significant rolodex of Asian crafts people, designers and creatives.

In our work, we realised that not enough of the world was tapping onto these talented individuals, and that their work needed to be seen and represented more. Some of them don’t even know how to represent themselves, especially if they are decades old crafts people (e.g. paper crafts, wood workers). So we decided to create the ACI as a platform to celebrate and champion Asian craft and creativity.

Anak created the identity and design of the ACI platform. And in 2023, we launched an art auction (with the help of our experiential capabilities from PPURPOSE), where we auctioned off pieces from the artists featured on ACI, with proceeds going towards a book prize that would benefit underprivileged students who want to pursue studies in design. Subsequently, ACI was invited to be part of the inaugural SXSW in Sydney, where we held a panel alongside some of the most exciting creators from the region, and spoke about the importance of representation in visual culture. 

Let’s get into some of the agency’s latest work. Sustainability is often a tricky subject to pull off tonally and many brands often end up sounding insincere. For coffee brand Bettr’s rebrand, Anak encourages consumers to ‘Scr*w perfect, make impact’. What inspired the decision to centre humour? Do you think the visual language around green marketing requires a refresh overall?

I think the focus was more around having a point of view towards the culture and business of sustainability (more so than humour). And in that point of view, we wanted to embody an authentic representation of what it truly takes to run a sustainable social enterprise. In our discovery, we realised that the truth is, it’s messy work. Because social enterprises deal with humans. And humans are imperfect, messy creatures — and that’s okay. So we decided to make that central to the brand idea. The tone of voice then naturally took on that lens. Above all, we wanted it to be real, and to not take ourselves too seriously. And that was the inspiration behind the brand tone of voice — humour then naturally lends itself to it all. 

Asia’s ageing population is growing; a fifth of Singaporeans are aged 65 or over. TLSA teamed up with The Agency of Integrated Care (AIC) to challenge stereotypes around ageing and ‘Break the Silver Ceiling’. The campaign features several senior celebrities running a relay to spell out the words ‘Boomer is OK’, and ends with a TikTok challenge and walkathon. Why did you choose these specific elements? Can you elaborate on the importance of creating opportunities for physical connection and shared experiences in raising awareness about social issues?

It was important for us to make this a physical experience because a big agenda for the Singapore Government was around healthy, and active ageing. There is a big push towards encouraging seniors to keep active.

We wanted to then use this to also dispel misconceptions that seniors lead sedentary lives, and to show that like any other generation, seniors are capable of doing whatever they want: be it parkour or bodybuilding. We decided to utilise Strava art as an expression of that, tracing out the words ‘Boomer Is OK’ on Strava, to help make this point visceral for audiences. 

The campaign also included collaboration from Singaporean streetwear designer Mr Sabotage, who designed exclusive, customised t-shirts for the race. Fashion often reflects changing trends and subcultures. How can brands leverage emerging designers or niche communities to bring light to not only social issues, but showcase local creativity on a global stage?

A big part of our creative point of view is about making things that are consumable, beyond conventional, paid advertising mediums. We want to either be a mirror or magnet for culture. For the campaign, we wanted the topic of ‘breaking the silver ceiling’ to permeate culture. Hence we looked towards running culture, fashion streetwear etc, to really help bring the message to life. Brands need to find spaces in culture to exist.

Once they start doing that, it widens the aperture towards local brands, designers and communities. Then it’s about finding the most authentic communities and brands to collaborate with, for the right fit for the message that they want to communicate and get out there. 

The Little Secret Agency also worked with the AIC on the award-winning ‘We See You Care’. Singapore is home to more than 210,000 caregivers, and the campaign brings awareness to this oft-overlooked community in three short films. How do you ensure intentionality and dignity is prioritised when capturing these stories? How was the expertise of the AIC incorporated into the process? 

We talked about the power of quiet storytelling in an op-ed we penned, that is related to the campaign. We wanted to break tropes regarding the over-herofication of the healthcare and care-giving industry. We felt this was the perfect opportunity for AIC to embody some quiet storytelling through a more authentic way to evoke more genuine emotions.

In a study that JUNK embarked on for AIC, the team did home visits as part of a series of interviews and qualitative study into the state of mental health and care-giving in Singapore.

These home visits allowed us to truly see and understand the lived realities of caregivers and their care recipients. What their daily routines were like, what were their everyday challenges, joys and shared moments. This provided rich insight and creative fuel into how we’d eventually script our films, the decision to not have music in the films and even inspired how it was shot, in one continuous take. 

The campaigns we’ve looked at showcase the creativity in the East. As globalisation continues to reshape the industry worldwide, what do those changes look like in Asia? How do you continue to tell stories that resonate with both local markets and on a global stage? For the brands looking for advice on how to be authentic and stay relevant — what’s your secret?

Less of a secret, more of a simple truth. Understanding the humanity in your audience will then reveal universal human truths that everyone can relate to. Then it’s about contextualising it with what’s happening in the market and in culture, and bringing it to life through the power of a good story.

Featured image: Kristina Flour

Natasha Randhawa, Editor-at-large at MediaCat Magazine

Tash joined the magazine as Editor-at-large at the start of 2023. Previously she headed comms for The Marketing Society (2018-2022). Now, as Editor-at-large, she travels around Southeast Asia, writing about culture, social impact, creativity and technology, and how these forces influence the marketing industry and wider business world.

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