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Leon Lai’s independent creative agency levels playing field with winning formula

For the CEO at ALT Worldwide, standing out in a saturated advertising industry calls for smarts, grit, and a heavy dose of authenticity.

It’s infuriating when someone attributes his success to luck, as though a person’s chance at making it big is really left to, well, chance. But, when you look at a company like GOVT, a seven-year-old creative agency that closed at over $15 million in turnover by the end of last year with clients like OCBC Bank, Netflix and Haagen-Dazs in its roster, you can’t help but wonder if co-founder Leon Lai, 34, is right about being charmed.

Not that talent and grit aren’t key ingredients in his journey as an ad man, he admits. When co-founder Aaron Koh first proposed the idea of setting up their own agency, Lai was hesitant and ready to leave the industry – after working as project manager for Motorola for two years and setting up creative agency Riot in 2009 before leaving three years later due to differing visions of company goals.

It took Koh seven hours to convince him. Lai says: “We were at a coffee shop in China. By the end of our chat, we had had 10 cups of milk tea and my wife was sleeping on the table. The line that finally worked on me was that I had unfinished business with the industry. That was a sore point.”

“I’m a workaholic on steroids. I don’t like being comfortable. So I’m always asking, ‘Can we go faster? Can we do more?’”

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  • Leon Lai

    LEON LAI

    Group CEO, ALT Worldwide

Turns out, he can. Four months after starting GOVT, he landed Pernod Ricard’s Absolut Vodka as a client, followed by sister brands Glenlivet and GH Mumm. Blue-chip clients like National Gallery Singapore and Airbnb continued to roll in and GOVT’s projects started expanding beyond Singapore’s borders. “We had to be scrappy. We really hustled. Since we had no real work on the table at the start, we had to show clients what we did in our previous careers.”

For Lai, it was how he brought in business from Unilever, Singtel and Nestle while at Riot and, for Koh, it was his vast portfolio from his time as creative director at award-winning agency DDB Singapore.

“If you look at the work we do, there’s a very distinct personality and voice driven by honesty,” Lai explains. “It’s not crass. It’s real.” Earlier this year, his team launched a 15-minute film in China for Malaysian biscuit brand Julie’s – a bold move for a market that prefers bite-sized content – and it told a story rooted in human relationships, with nary a mention of biscuits.

“It’s the mediums of communication that have changed, not the way we communicate,” he says. Rather than force-feed an audience with direct brand messaging, he understands this generation’s hunger for experiences, which is why he started The Lab last year. The experience and innovation-driven creative company, together with GOVT, form ALT Worldwide, and it has helped Tiger Beer make its presence known in Japan last year through its Tiger Yuki campaign.

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“Why did Tiger Beer choose us? It’s not because we are some fancy multinational company, or that we have a 100-man team with the resources to take on a big brand. It was because they were past the ‘It’s Tiger Time’ phase, with ads showing ang mohs (Westerners) drinking beer on boats. They were looking for authenticity.”

The Yuki campaign, with its theme centred on the Japanese word for courage, highlights individuals who are brave enough to follow their dreams. A pop-up bar in Fukuoka, for instance, was a collaboration between a Japanese truck driver-turned-artist and a former Singaporean engineer who later chose to be a chef.

This is where Lai’s prowess lies. While his partner handles the creative work, Lai draws on relatability to get new business and convince clients that their ideas are worth the big bucks. Growing up in a multilingual family, he is able to switch effortlessly among Hokkien, Teochew, English and Mandarin. “I can go to a beer boy and he will understand my business. I can go to a watchmaker, put on the chi chi Queen’s English, and he will understand my business,” he says.

Put simply, he understands that his is a business of connecting with the community. “I’m always telling our clients: We don’t market to brands, to dead things. We are marketing to real people. Your brand is not what you think it is. It’s what the guys on the ground think it is.”

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