“Personally, entrepreneurship is interpreted as master of one’s own career destiny.” Mark Phooi

Entrepreneurial spirit in our Singapore design communication industry is still sorely lacking in both management depth and width. Look around us. Are there any established local design agency or group that has the creative talent, business management know how, financial muscles and networks to pitch against foreign MNCs agencies and take on global projects?

9 years have passed since this article was first published. Sadly, the speed of progress in the industry is only slight and less than spectacular. The points here remain relevant and there is still much work to be done, from both private and public sectors. But perhaps even more important, now more than ever, there is much to hope for.

Where are the old pioneers who first ventured into the design communication business with a vengeance to pit themselves against and stem the infiltration of these foreign invaders?

Sadly, they have either downsized, kow-towed or sold out to these agencies from abroad. Many went bust and some have disappeared entirely from the industry itself. Interestingly, the last that I heard, some have even done an about-turn, forsaking their earlier principles and are now in the employ of their overseas-based foreign bosses.

On the government front, while we applaud the authorities for recognising the significance of the creative industry and its potential contribution to the nation’s economy, they are nonetheless slow in developing a comprehensive and sustainable action plan for the industry to groom more management-trained designers. This market is still very dependent on foreigners for ideas and employment despite our own talent and development.


“Copycats” rather than Entrepreneurs

Scan around the creative industry market today and you will see there are more opportunists than ‘true-blue’ entrepreneurs.

They are very easy to spot. Armed with a ‘copycat’ business model (borrowed from their previous employment) and a ‘hungry shark’ mentality (going after their previous employer’s clients), they look for an opportune time to launch an attack. Their modus operandi is not any different. Some moonlight as freelancers before venturing into the business full-time. Others depend on sleeping business partners supporting them from behind with business leads. Either way, many do not have the guts to venture into this business alone.

These ‘run off the mill’ agencies have only one key strategy – that of using low fees to attract clients. This multitude of opportunists, trained or untrained individuals, sorely lack the business innovativeness, the right mentality and the tenacity to withstand bad times.

Evidently, it is also the lack of financial resources that see so many individuals banding together to start a business. This kind of partnership that forms out of convenience does not augur well when put to the test. When there is nothing to share, there is no problem. The first sign of trouble comes when money is concerned.

Thus, local partnerships in the creative industry are borne out of convenience and expediency rather than a shared vision. It is chiefly motivated by potential financial gains. The sheer lack of a common business vision inevitably creates a lack of motivation for the partnership to pull through when pummelled with a crisis. Without astute business foresight, it is difficult to apply the correct know-how when overcoming obstacles. These are the usual reasons why 80% of businesses do not last more than 10 years.

Another primary reason for business failure among entrepreneurs is the lack of management knowledge and expertise. Since most owners were merely practitioners before turning “bosses”, they are usually equipped with only expertise in their creative fields. Their lack of management leadership knowledge and managerial skills are key crucial reasons why many local agencies cannot survive, let alone grow or expand overseas.


Lack in Management Depth – Developing and Nurturing Local Creative Talents to become Creative Managers

My experience during the recession periods has taught me one valuable lesson – when we hit a bad patch, foreign agencies would be the first to pack their bags and leave town or move to greener pastures. The locals were the ones paying the price – stuck with job redundancy and low employability. I would suggest that we re-assess and look into how we can build up the creative industry.

Place greater emphasis on nurturing local agencies – the government should invest and assist local creative enterprises, particularly those that have a proven business track record, encourage them to grow and expand into regional markets.

Develop a strong national pride in buying the Singapore brand of creatives when overseas – do what the Japanese have done – cultivate a ‘Buy Singapore Brands’ mentality. The small number of local MNCs based overseas must start engaging and promoting Singapore’s creatives vigorously. Only with local support can local creative talents succeed.

Train more design managers among the existing pool of designers – to support the creative industry, we should focus on nurturing and developing managerial qualities among design practitioners. These trained managers will provide the badly needed managerial expertise required by the local agencies for business sustainability and business expansion.

Export creative managers – designers need to move up the knowledge chain with acquired design management knowledge. Singapore can export such managers overseas to many of our regional markets, where they would be highly sought after. Exporting these trained managers regionally will also help put them in the forefront of potential business opportunities as well as establish Singapore as a hub for creativity.

Nurturing “True-blue” entrepreneurs in the creative business – to overcome high business failure rates and to reduce our dependence on foreign agencies for employment and creativity, we should start a curriculum that teaches design entrepreneurial studies for enterprising designers. Unlike other conventional businesses, starting a set-up in the creative field is definitely a lot more challenging and complex. Newcomers to the business would benefit greatly if they gain knowledge on what makes the trade tick before setting up one themselves.