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Rowena Bhagchandani of BLKJ explains what is “un-advertising”

As the CEO of BLKJ, a creative communications agency, Bhagchandani shares how they've become one of the fastest growing independent agencies in Singapore.

How do you get kids to love Chinese?
The Learning Lab was launching a new Chinese language school for children, and BLKJ – headed by CEO Rowena Bhagchandani – was tasked with getting kids and their parents excited about it.

The creative communications agency went straight to the one place all children love: McDonald’s. Over two days, kids who ordered their Happy Meals in Mandarin didn’t have to pay for them. The results – 8,000 meals redeemed, 180 per cent more sign-ups and 881 new leads – speak for themselves.

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It is typical of Bhagchandani and her team’s work to make their case for “un-advertising,” which she says “can be done differently and can change behaviour.”

Founded in late 2016 by Bhagchandani, 47, and her creative partners Joji Jacob, Lester Lee and Khalid Osman, BLKJ is an amalgamation of their initials. Today, it is one of the fastest-growing independent agencies in Singapore. Scoot, Great Eastern, the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Republic of Singapore Air Force, and KrisShop are among its clients. Within two years of its founding, the agency, which now has 75 employees, won Creative Agency of the Year and Independent Agency of the Year at the 2018 Creative Circle Awards.

Its work is entertaining, creative and surprising, breathing new life into legacy companies. An example is the Starhub “World’s Fastest Band” campaign, which promoted the telco’s accolade as Singapore’s fastest 4G network. It racked up 3.7 million views by harnessing the Internet’s quirkiest and fastest talents, like a lightning-speed finger snapper and nunchaku master.

In February, BLKJ made headlines again when global communications company Havas Group announced its acquisition of a majority stake in the agency. With the new partnership, BLKJ Havas will strengthen its creative operations in South-east Asia through a closer partnership with Havas Creative.

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Bhagchandani says the move was a highly strategic one.

She notes: “Our vision was always ‘Made for Singapore, made for the world’. When Covid hit last year, we realised that if we wanted to grow and scale our agency and deliver relevant, meaningful and impactful work to our clients, we needed to be smart about it. So we formed a partnership with Vivendi, which owns influential brands like Havas Group, Universal Music, Gameloft and Canal+. BLKJ’s DNA parallels that of their brands, which are independent, creative and free-spirited.”

The acquisition had immediate effects, says Bhagchandani. BLKJ Havas has already picked up global brands such as JLL and Netherlands-based coffee and tea company JDE, which owns L’OR, Moccona, Super and OldTown White Coffee.

This is an apt portfolio for an industry veteran. Bhagchandani was the group managing director of DDB Group Singapore, TracyLocke and TRACK, and has also put in the hours at (the former) Young and Rubicam, Bates Asia and Batey. She is also a council member of the Association of Advertising and Marketing Singapore and an integral member of the industry advisory committee (Digital Communications and Integrated Media) at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

“I’m a true-blue Singaporean and love that this little red dot has produced some amazing ideas that can go global,” says Bhagchandani, who is a volunteer for Kembangan-Chai Chee across many of their outreach programmes, such as their Meet the People Sessions.

Perhaps this explains the emotional resonance of the agency’s campaigns during the pandemic. “Made With Passion” promotes Singaporean lifestyle brands such as Janice Wong, Bynd Artisan and Yeo’s, and the evocative stories behind them, complete with a new brand mark, social content and store activations.

Dear World, an EDB video campaign launched last October, marked Singapore’s readiness and showcased the tenacity of its citizens. According to Bhagchandani, the latter changed Singapore’s narrative and brought it together as a nation.

She adds, “Good work grows out of a really strong partnership between a client and an agency in which they can have an honest conversation in pursuit of actual change.” And what might advertising look like in the future since even traditional publishers want a piece of the advertising pie?

“Everyone is trying to diversify and up their game to stay relevant,” she says. “However, you must stand by your brand’s position and stay true to your core or risk losing your customers. Ours is our creative DNA.”

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