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Elliott: It’s time to talk about an industry that I’ve been passionately in for the past 14, 15 years – Singapore’s media market. Ask anyone about it and they will say it’s known to be a small, niche one. And because of this, there’s a lot of competition and you’ve got some small companies that find it hard to stay afloat while they are looking around and waiting for that next big project – you know how hot that can be.
But Singapore’s largest production house – Big 3 Media – has managed to defy all odds and make it big. To Managing Director and Founder, Willie Lee, the business is now his vehicle to do good, not only in the industry, but in the world serving as the Disney of Asia. But how did Big 3 Media make it big and what are the challenges they faced when they first started out?
In the studio with me this morning is Willie Lee, Managing Director and Founder of Big 3 Media. Willie, thanks a lot for taking the time this morning.
Willie: Good morning! Thank you for having me here.
Elliott: So I’m interested to find out how you guys first started out – was media a passion of yours? What was the inspiration behind this company?
Willie: Well, I must say that I was an accidental entrepreneur in this industry. In 2008, what happened was that I graduated with a Bachelors in Finance and that year was also the Global Financial Crisis. And of course, I wanted to be a banker. I wanted to walk along Shenton Way with a briefcase and essentially try to make it big. But what really happened was that banks were actually having a job freeze – I couldn’t find work. So, I had to do what I was already doing back in school.
When I was doing my Degree, I was actually working in a music studio as a Music Producer and Sound Engineer. And it was just a natural progression to continue what I was doing – I started Big 3 in 2008 to continue doing music and then slowly gravitating towards videos.
Elliott: Do you ever still hope to go back to the Finance industry? Do you still dream about holding that briefcase, or is wearing jeans to work every day just too much of a draw for you? I can never, because I enjoy dressing this way to work every day.
Willie: Well, as you can see I’m really easy – it’s just a t-shirt and maybe a pair of khaki pants and I get to work. And we sort of have a uniform in Production which is black shirts. Would I like that trade-off of being in the Finance industry? I really don’t know.
Elliott: But it’s also addictive being in the media industry, right? Especially since you’re a Content Creator and a Producer. When you create these projects, that satisfaction you get from one project out of a hundred projects is very addictive.
Willie: I suppose so. Every time when you add, for example – creatives, you can expound on your creative ability or your capability, that really provides some satisfaction. Of course, if the clients love your work, that’s an added bonus.
Elliott: Could you share with us a little bit about Big 3 Media’s business model – how does it work for anyone who’s not familiar?
Willie: I think what people commonly recognise from the name Big 3 Media is a video production company. But essentially, Big 3 Media is a larger group of companies – there are about 11 different companies that are media capabilities as well as media outlets. Not only do we have video production, we have animation, we have a music production company, we have a UI/UX design company, we have a software development arm, we have food media outlets, we have YouTube channels, and we have community outreach in areas of propagating good. So, it’s really a conglomerate of media production companies and outlets – that’s how Big 3 is like.
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Elliott: I understand that you guys share your working space. Now, I’ve seen this with other production houses before and it has not really worked out for some of them. So, you guys are sharing it with sister companies including SethLui.com, Fixx Digital, CraveFX, The Hidden Good – why the move to share this working space? Is it a collaboration effort?
Willie: They are all companies that are related to each other – essentially, they are all complementary businesses. This group is a collective of all these different media capabilities and in order to qualify being this group, we need businesses that are uniquely different as well. And what happens is – as much as these businesses are working in silo, they have their own clientele, they have their own kinds of expertise, and they are also able to collaborate across each of these capabilities to further deliver value to our clients as well.
So, a video production arm could be working with Animation, and then working with Software Development to make VR/AR content, or even produce games from time to time.
Elliott: It’s also an opportunity for a left pocket to right pocket type of situation, right?
Willie: Our books are actually separate. Although we have a centralised Finance department, but everyone works independently – their books and their performance are independent.
Elliott: Alright. Willie, could we talk a little bit about picking and running projects because in this industry of ours, you’ve got to have a feel for it – it’s not like a desk job. Do you have a philosophy behind picking and choosing your projects?
Willie: Our philosophy follows very closely with our values of the company. For those who know about this guy called Simon Sinek, he has this thing called the 3 concentric circles for a purpose. So, at the heart of it, I believe with my business partner that we need to do things better to better the world, but our tool for making sure that we are creative and we understand what exactly is good is Empathy – and I think that’s a very fundamental philosophy we believe in all our staff and in the kinds of work that we do. Slowly, we’re seeing a trending term called Creative Empathy, which is the understanding of our audiences, the understanding of our clients, the understanding of our staff, the understanding of the objective and to put ourselves into somebody else’s shoes and understand the greater picture.
Elliott: What was it like for you in terms of pitching for clients? Did you encounter clients saying, “You’re new – why should I trust you?”, “What’s your price point?”. Did you have to price your services lower just to get more business? What was your strategy?
Willie: In 2008 when it was the Global Financial Crisis, there was a mass exodus of large media companies. These large media companies were losing money and eventually closed down. Because of that financial crisis, we were just a young start-up and would do anything that somebody wanted us to do, even for the cheap – so that’s how it really begun. And because these big companies were going down, we had some relevance. For example, people who didn’t have a big risk appetite would say, “Since you guys are so affordable, we would give you guys a shot.”
We also thrived in this period of increased amount of attention to digital. We couldn’t compete with the old boys of the industry, but there was a new sector for digital media and that’s where we parked ourselves and we rode on that wave ever since all the way to where we are right now.
Elliott: Interestingly, you brought up that your company was born out of the Global Financial Crisis and now there’s a lot of talk of a potential recession, especially here in Singapore. Having had that experience at the start-up phase, is there a game plan going into this potential recession in terms of dealing with clients, price plans, and what not?
Willie: Definitely. I think that especially during a recession, most companies are very price-sensitive as well and in every stage, we have clients who want more value. But during a recession period, people are a bit more hesitant to spend, especially for media – sometimes, a company may cut back on Marketing efforts and even Internal Communications, and that’s the time when we need to stay relevant in being more affordable with sharper products. There is also an evident trend that clients are looking for more results or ROI within the video and that’s what we’re trying to deliver to our clients – very tangible, result-oriented type of media materials.
Elliott: Speaking with the tone of a potential recession, I’m a freelancer emcee, my dad’s a musician, and we do see a slowdown in terms of people willing to pay for entertainment. You, of course, come into play where Advertising and Marketing is concerned. Are you worried that companies would potentially decide to produce all their stuff in-house? For example, if there’s this graduate who happens to have Photoshop skills or a little bit of Pro Tool skills. Does that worry you?
Willie: It does, but what we understand about the industry is that how companies bring some capabilities in-house, for example, video production – we’re seeing this more in the areas of cheaper videos or mass-produced type of videos that are easy for them to handle but when the medium becomes a bit more complex, that’s where we stay relevant. And I think most larger companies find it difficult to justify the kind of scale needed to address a more complex material so their team would remain lean just to cater for that. That’s the phenomena we see in the market and that’s how we’re able to stay relevant for so long.
Elliott: But do you lose out to the potential money you could make from smaller videos?
Willie: Actually, smaller videos might be quite difficult as well. Because you have clients that say, “I’m paying this amount of money but I’m demanding you to do even more. There’s a saying in the industry – you pay a $1,000 and you want a $5,000 video.
Elliott: Willie Lee, Managing Director and Founder of Big 3 Media. You’ve been through all of this before – do you anticipate clients that become – pardon my choice of words – a little bit more difficult because they want a lot more, especially in the past when they say, “Yeah, I’ve got $1,000 to spend, no issue,” to now, “I can spend this $1,000 but I want to make sure that I’m really spending it properly.”
Willie: I think ever since I started this business, it has always been happening. Everyone is always demanding more and more value each year. They will tell you, “Am I supposed to get the kind of results from your video?” or “I don’t like this edit – can you redo the whole thing?”
Elliott: Like rendering is not going to take time at all. You’ve existed for about 10, 11 years now – when did you start becoming profitable? Survived the Global Financial Crisis, I might add.
Willie: Good question. Maybe just to give some context of profitability, I would like to believe that we’ve been profitable all the way through and that’s how we’ve been able to sustain. But of course, in relation to that, when I first started out, my salary in the first year of business was $100 a month. And it was $300 a month in the second year of business. And so, I suppose we are profitable because I was paying myself a meagre salary.
Elliott: Wow! I don’t know how I would survive on $100 a month. In terms of turnover rates, what are you looking at now?
Willie: We’re coming to the 11th year in our business, the entire group turns over about $50 million in revenue.
Elliott: Wow! Congratulations on that, well done! Can you share with us on some of the big clients you work for?
Willie: There’s a myriad of clients we have – some notable clients include Singapore Airlines, we have clients from CapitaLand and CapitaMalls Asia, international clients like Jones Lang Lasalle – a realty company, and Syngenta – which is a chemical and agriculture company.
Elliott: And how do you keep these clients? What do you make sure is done in order to retain that business?
Willie: I think value is very important for the client. Another thing apart from the client’s perceived value is they must have this level of relationship with you as well. Value is one point, but how do you maintain that consistency of value and delivery of experience for the client? It can’t be just the work that you do, but how do you make them want to continue working with you? And I think that’s really on soft skills – that’s a really important facet.
Elliott: It might actually be more important than Sound Engineering skills, to some level. Any expansion plans for Big 3 Media?
Willie: Definitely. We are now heavily investing in technology such as Data Mining, machine-learning technologies for our videos as well. I think we can’t run away from the fact that in the future, people are increasingly wanting to know actual results and wanting to know if their videos are delivering to the right audiences. So, right now we are studying all the videos we’ve done in the 11 years we’ve been in business and mining that data and matching the correct kind of messages with the correct kind of video formats and styles. This is something we’re able to crunch right now and tell our clients this is the right kind of video that you should be doing for the price you’re paying as well as your message objectives.
Elliott: So obviously, this modifies the way you pitch your ideas across to clients and you can actually show examples as well?
Willie: That’s right. It also demands for the clients to be sharper with what exactly they want to do and the material that they want to generate as well.
Elliott: I imagine quite a heavy investment in this AI data-mining sector of the business then.
Willie: It really depends. The main cost would be in the areas of trying to make sense of all these data and I think that’s where the real money is invested in. How do you make sense of data and how do you make that correlation? And that’s where most of the time is spent (and of course, time is money) – trying to make sense of it all.
Elliott: Very interesting. Well, thank you so much for taking the time this morning. Willie Lee, Managing Director and Founder of Big 3 Media. Willie, all the best! Thank you again.