This is the first instalment of a four-part series The New Creative Economy on homegrown professionals who are driving Singapore’s creative, innovation-based economy.

You’re going to pay us to make fun of you?”

That one realisation during a collaboration with Scoot — shortly after poking fun at the budget airline for promoting flights to Seoul amid inter-Korean tensions — arguably launched the digital content empire of Adrian Ang and Karl Mak.

Co-founders of SGAG, Adrian Ang and Karl Mak

The schoolmates and co-founders of SGAG began their careers unremarkably enough by creating “ugly but funny” Facebook memes behind the lecture theatres of Singapore Management University in 2012.

“I thought it’d be a good idea to start one for Singapore, because I was a big fan,” says Ang, referring to the explosive popularity of meme pages a decade back. “It was meant to be a hobby, never a career.”

Karl Mak

That Scoot meeting, however, opened the door to converting this pastime into a legitimate business. Seven years and a Forbes 30 under 30 award ceremony later, Ang and Mak own HEPMIL Media Group, the parent company of SGAG and its offshoots in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia (upcoming), plus a creator network and e-sports arm.

A 150-strong team serves clients such as Disney, Google, Starbucks, and Unilever, and their channels reach a combined figure of nearly 40 million. Besides Facebook memes, there are also Instagram videos, YouTube reality series, and TikTok clips.

Related: Art, memes, and a revolution: a conversation with Metakovan

From university bros to polished businessmen

Adrian Ang

As their business model matures, Ang and Mak’s evolution from university bros seeking a laugh parallels their evolution as polished businessmen As a result of that first partnership with Scoot, brands lined up to commission engaging social content targeted at millennials and Gen Z.

In 2015, after some soul-searching, they pivoted to make a new brand identity as their order book grew. “We took the element of making fun of others out of our DNA,” says Ang, noting that “it always came at the expense of someone else”.

A pivotal moment was Lee Kuan Yew’s passing: “During that period, it didn’t feel right to be making jokes.” SGAG’s Facebook page instead shared stories of Singaporeans caring for one another. “For the first time, I felt that we could do more than just make people laugh. We could make everyone’s day better.”

From then on, Ang, who oversees content, and Mak, who runs operations, avoided polarising issues such as politics, sex, race and religion. “You can easily get billions of views, but if this kind of content divides people, we shouldn’t be doing it,” Ang says firmly. “A comedy platform like ours is not the right place to discuss such topics.”

“Every morning, we wake up and there are so many things we’d still like to accomplish. We’re having so much fun.”

HEPMIL’s Karl Mak and Adrian Ang

Growing the region’s best and brightest content creators

To better structure and support their growing staff numbers, many of whom had begun asking about career advancement, they also hired a leadership coach. “In our minds, this was a university project, and we were wearing flip-flops and berms to work,” admits Mak. “We were two friends who had run failed side gigs together. We were lucky to have had the help.”

These changes have paid off in spades. Today, SGAG and HEPMIL are on the up and up. Mak and Ang are now scouring South-east Asia to find the region’s best and brightest creators. “We are always surprised by the variety of content being put out. The creativity is boundless,” says Mak. “That’s why we’re going long into the creative economy. It is super exciting.”

Although SGAG started by accident, the pair are not looking for an easy cashout. “Over the past seven years, we have been offered opportunities to sell the business,” adds Mak. “But every time we reach that point, we’re like, we’re not done yet. Every morning, we wake up and there are so many things we’d still like to accomplish. We’re having so much fun.”

Watch the full interview

Visit our Made in Singapore, Creatively series for more stories on homegrown creative personalities.