Gateway to East Asia

China and India may grab the design limelight, but Singapore – midway between the two, but with a strong anglophone culture – is proving to be a very attractive location for UK groups servicing the Asian market. Angus Montgomery reports

’I think it’s great news, there’ll be three of us out there now, all dynamic businesses – I think it sounds like great fun.’ These are the words of David Worthington, chairman of Lloyd Northover Group, reacting to the news that Elmwood is opening an outpost in Singapore, joining fellow UK groups Lloyd Northover Yeang and Holmes & Marchant (both subsidiaries of Media Square), and Design Bridge, as well as a host of networked groups.

Singapore is recognised as a strong design centre in the region. The International Design Scoreboard, produced last year by a consortium of UK universities and supported by the Design Council, identified the state as the number one country in the world for design capabilities relative to size of economy.

The report noted, ’While Hong Kong has the advantage of being physically close to the manufacturing base in China, and Taiwan is a historical bridge between the US and Asia, Singapore is uniquely placed as an English-speaking gateway to the developing markets of East Asia.’

The report highlighted the efforts of Singapore’s Economic Development Board and International Enterprise Singapore, as well as central government initiative Design Singapore, run along similar lines to the UK Design Council. The report also noted a consistently high level of public investment in design – more than double the level of funding in the UK – and a high number of design and trademark registrations.

Several networked groups are taking advantage of this fertile environment, with Landor Associates, Fitch, Future Brand and The Brand Union among those maintaining operations in Singapore. Design Bridge was the first of the independents to head there, founding an office in 2003, which now has a staff of more than 40.

Media Square group Lloyd Northover established Lloyd Northover Yeang in February 2009, after incorporating Singaporean group Su Yeang into its operations. Media Square packaging specialist Holmes & Marchant joined LNY and set up an operation in Singapore around eight months ago, under managing director

Steve McGinnes, while Addison James maintains responsibility for both consultancies as chief executive.

Now Elmwood has set up, under former Future Brand Singapore head of strategy and innovation Dominic Mason, although Elmwood chairman Jonathan Sands says the outpost is so new they haven’t picked up the keys yet.

Of course, as with many foreign posts, reasons for setting up in a particular city rather than any other can be very subjective. As Sands says, ’We see Hong Kong as equally important and have been looking at both in tandem. The reason we are opening in Singapore first is just the simple fact that we found our man their first.’
Worthington makes a similar point, referring to the ’entrepreneurial’ instincts of James, which have seen LNY open offshoots in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Shanghai in China.

This drive presumably comes in handy in an occasionally challenging environment. Mark Budden, managing director of Design Bridge’s Singapore office, says, ’The design industry is “younger” in this part of the world, and so educating clients around appropriate budgets and timeframes conducive to great creative can be a challenge, not to mention the free-pitching that goes on [not by Design Bridge, however].’

There are a number of objective advantages for using Singapore as a regional hub, aside from those highlighted in the IDS report. Sands says, ’After two years of research it appears to us, at least, that Singapore is the gateway to South East Asia, and Hong Kong the gateway to China. Singapore has great tax benefits and is English-speaking with an English legal system, which makes life much easier.’

Budden says, ’We also evaluated Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur [in Malaysia], Bangkok [in Thailand] and Jakarta back in 2002. Singapore came out top for a number of reasons – its central location in relation to the Asia region as a whole (it is equidistant between Mumbai and Shanghai), ease of set-up with the relevant government departments, favourable taxation and a very sound economy in which to base a business, to name a few.’

Worthington points out that Singapore ’is a benign environment, both economically and financially’. While dull-sounding, this is a quality Blue Marlin, for example, with its office in Bangkok, might have looked on at enviously during the recent strife which has hit that city. Worthington adds, ’Singapore itself is quite small – its modus operandi is very much economically driven. From there, you can quite easily service Vietnam and Indonesia, and you can get to India easily – that’s quite a well-established trading route.’ Indeed, Design Bridge’s Singapore office last month announced a tie-up with India-based Brandscapes Worldwide Consultancy to service that country.

A rich variety of local and regional clients also adds to Singapore’s appeal. Worthington says Holmes & Marchant’s fmcg clients include a lot of drink and food clients, such as Tiger Beer and Maggi Noodles, while LNY works with clients including Singapore Airlines and government departments including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Information, Communications & the Arts.

Design Bridge has a core Singapore client base including Singapore Post, Times Publishing and healthcare company Eu Yan Sang. Sands says Elmwood will aim to focus on fmcg and government clients in its Singapore operation.

Sands concludes, ’If you are serious about being able to give global insights to clients, you have to be playing in the key global markets. Simple as that. Another benefit is that adding an Asian context to your work I think helps freshen everything you do back home, as it adds new stimulus to your thought processes and, therefore, your product.’

Singapore’s design industry

  • Total public investment in design/ US$26.12m (£18.1m)
  • Number of design consultancies: 3657
  • Turnover of the design services sector: US$470m (£327m)
  • Employment in the design services sector: 5049

Source: 2007 figures from International Design Scoreboard

Latest articles