13 questions regular S'poreans asked about how 'brownface' E-Pay ad even got made, answered

A peek at the sausage-making process.

Belmont Lay| August 07, 03:20 PM

Many hot takes and think pieces have been written about "brownface", the roasting rap video response, and how racism, casual or otherwise, can be tackled in Singapore.

Apologies have since been issued from those quarters deemed responsible for the E-Pay ad campaign -- Nets and Havas, namely -- featuring actor and deejay Dennis Chew as the face of various races.

Questions remain, though

But what is still befuddling for many Singaporeans outside of the advertising industry is how an ad or an entire campaign even came to be.

The common man on the street perception is that the E-Pay ad's conception was basically Nets going to Mediacorp, and then presto, it is done with Chew's faces plastered all over it.

But there is more to it than that.

Multiple other questions, such as, "How much did it cost?", "Why didn't anyone try to stop it?", "Who is Havas?", and "Is anyone else going to get into trouble?", have also been tossed about -- but left unanswered.

In other words, advertising professionals might be familiar with the process, but regular people not in the ad industry are left none the wiser.


To demystify the entire episode to show how the sausage is kind of made, we spoke to advertising professionals familiar with the process to answer burning questions normal Singaporeans would have.

Here are the answers.

1. How did this E-Pay campaign come about?

The E-Pay ad was a publicity campaign by Nets.

Nets had engaged Havas Worldwide as its creative agency.

Havas then engaged Mediacorp's celebrity management arm, The Celebrity Agency, to cast actor and deejay Dennis Chew as the face of the campaign.

2. What is Havas?

The different companies play different roles.

Havas has both a media agency and a creative agency. They operate as one group.

3. So, who approached who?

Havas approached Nets along with three other competitors.

It won a deal to be Nets' media agency in 2017.

Havas' appointment is for a year in 2018, with the option to extend for another year in 2019.

The account is worth approximately SG$1 million.

Havas is a long-term partner with Nets.

They have been working with each other for the last four years.

4. What likely happened behind the scenes?

There were probably two ways how the ad came about.

1) Scenario one

Havas has a creative team consisting of a creative director overseeing an art director and a copywriter.

They would have brainstormed this campaign and thought it was a good idea to pitch to the client, Nets.

The idea was pitched and the client ended up liking it.

When it came to execution, they then engaged Dennis Chew, the talent from Mediacorp, but managed by The Celebrity Agency.

It can cost anywhere in the tens of thousands of dollars just for the rights to use Chew in this ad.

2) Scenario two

Havas has a media agency and they could be working closely with Mediacorp.

They could have gone to Mediacorp and presented the client’s brief.

Havas and Mediacorp could have negotiated a deal acceptable to both, such as buy media and park creative services as a bundle deal.

Then Mediacorp would have come up with the idea of having to pay for media cost, plus the talent fee for its artiste, as well as charging for the creative concept.

Mediacorp can also then have the option of throwing in a bunch of free stuff to make it worth Havas' while.

5. So, all these would have to be done with Nets' approval?

Regardless of whether this ad was conceptualised within Havas or Mediacorp, it would have been signed off by the client, Nets, before it went out.

6. Can Nets just go to Mediacorp and make an ad happen?

Havas is like the middleman or consultant to make everything happen.

The requirements for Nets' media agency are to "provide media strategies, planning, buying and implementation for an integrated marketing communication with cost effectiveness and efficiency".

7. How did anyone not point out the possible faux pas?

It's hard to tell.

Even if Mediacorp was the one that okayed the ad, a salesperson or creative person in Mediacorp might not have been aware of the Toggle "blackface" incident in 2016.

8. Are the apologies issued by Nets, Havas, and Mediacorp enough?

The client Nets has not thrown any party under the bus.

Nets apologised and has taken heat from the public as well.

An understanding client would accept their role in this brouhaha and try to move on from it.

9. What other action can there be for Nets, Havas, and Mediacorp?

A police report has been made against the ad, so there is that outcome the public can look towards.

There is also the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS).

They can’t enforce anything.

ASAS did not find that the E-Pay ad breached its code of practice.

But the code of practice will be updated after this brouhaha.

So, it’s quite likely the only penalty those involved will receive is bad press and then they move on.

ASAS has a code of conduct. But there is no way any penalty can be enforced.

10. People have come out to blame Chew as well. What can he do?

Chew is a talent who had this idea proposed to him.

Historically, he has a track record of playing Auntie Lucy and taking on multiple personas. He is an actor.

He has not apologised but that is his prerogative. (Chew issued an apology on Aug. 7.)

11. What is The Celebrity Agency then?

All talent is now managed by The Celebrity Agency.

The public can understand it as a separate department of Mediacorp.

The Celebrity Agency likely gets a full cut of the artiste fees.

Mediacorp probably gets nothing.

It is definitely in the interest of the artiste management team to take care of Chew and have his back.

12. Is the E-Pay ad a "churn" ad done quickly, which explains an overlooking of sensitivities?

This is not a "churn" ad.

It was a full integrated campaign based on the core idea of Chew taking on different faces.

There would have been a lot of work put into this.

The definition of a churn ad is, say, a product that gets slapped with a “50% off for limited time only!" sign.

This E-Pay campaign had some attempt at branding.

In this mix of people getting involved would also include the production house who shot the television ad and the visuals.

13. Have ads been cancelled at the last minute?

Yes. It is not unheard of for ads to be conceived, done up and almost ready to go only for them to be pulled.