Things They Don’t Tell You: Kenneth Chia of Pencil Sword on writing and starting his own marketing agency

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Things They Don’t Tell You is a weekly online column that dives deep into the lives of Prestige 40 Under 40 class of 2020 laureates, where they share little-known stories and offer insights on things that go under-the-radar. This week, we get candid with Kenneth Chia, Founder and Lead Copywriter of Pencil Sword.

I waylaid a creative director as he got off the stage after a talk. He continued walking, so I kept pace with him — introducing myself as I flipped through the pages of my A2-sized portfolio. One of my spec ads caught his eye. He stopped in his tracks. “Interesting,” he muttered. “Drop me an email tomorrow.” I did, and landed my first copywriting gig in a multinational ad agency. That was the start of a decade-long stint with the big boys of advertising. In 2017, I left full-time employment, and started my own marketing agency, Pencil Sword.

Pencil Sword redefines the category because we offer what clients really need: Strategic creativity. Good design and well-placed ads are important, but without a compelling story or message, these brands won’t stick in prospects’ minds. That’s what Pencil Sword does, and that’s why we’ve won the trust of local SMEs and regional brands, as well as a handful of partner agencies.

I’m thankful every day for my loving fiancée, and my amazing family.

I’m passionate about helping brands and social service organisations communicate better. Many of these messages deserved to be heard and understood by more people, so my team and I do everything within our means to make a deeper impact.

Many people inspire me on a daily basis. My dad. My mum. My fiancée. My brothers. My ex-mentor Ed Cheong. Then there are incredible folks like Elon Musk, MacKenzie Scott, Simon Sinek, Christopher Nolan, etc. whose beliefs inspire me to push myself further. Mark Rober has a special spot because like him, I see life’s challenges as stages of a video game. It’s a pretty cool way to get ourselves to learn better, and strive harder.

I’m adaptable, patient and very hardy. Every failure is an opportunity to learn, and it’s pretty damn hard to get me down.

I might be too nice for my own good, sometimes. I tend to see things from others’ perspective, and sometimes that’s not great for profit.

One of the best things someone has said to me: “It’s hard to beat someone who never gives up.”

One thing I’m almost sick of hearing: “What’s the ROI of launching a new brand film / refreshing our tagline / changing our Facebook banner photo / posting this LinkedIn article?” A good brand takes time to build. While marketing should have long-term KPIs, it’s unrealistic to have expectations of every single deliverable.

I’d rather be shot than be forced to sit through a Jack Neo movie.

Fear is a formidable ally, if we know how to use it to our advantage.

We can be more compassionate when we learn to see things from others’ perspective. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when they say that empathy is the highest form of intelligence.

I’d tell my younger self: “Keep writing, but don’t forget to read more nonfiction, and figure out that investment thingamajig.”

When we want something bad enough, the universe will conspire to help us achieve it.

It’s so important to be able to master our own emotions.

Singapore is my home, and I’m grateful to this special place, for making me who I am today.

(All images: Kenneth Chia)

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