IDEAS: The Batey Ads/SIA story

Edward Ong is on a quest to discover and create Malaysia’s best ideas. He is an award-winning Writer and Creative Director and can be found at

Welcome drinks. Book the Cook menu. Buffet spreads on long haul flights. Upper decks which transformed into full-sized beds. Free headphones. KrisWorld. VOD KrisWorld with Nintendo. Inflight phone and fax. Innovations we’ve come to expect as standard on SIA flights were not all dreamed of by somebody in SIA. Some came from the agency.

MSA (Malaysia Singapore Airlines) was formed in 1966, jointly owned by the governments of both countries. In 1972, after both administrations decided they wanted their own flag carrier- and presumably because it confused the rest of the world with two flags on the aircraft- MSA became Malaysian Airline System (now Malaysia Airlines) and Singapore Airlines.

Before Ian Batey piloted the agency that bears his name, he was Account Director at McCanns handling MSA (Malaysia Singapore Airlines). When SIA took off, he started Batey Ads with George Chan, a former Financial Controller (or something like that) with the airline. More than advertising, they knew: what the client needed was aviation ideas.

While the Malaysian government was developing a domestic network; Singapore chose to go all the way with international routes.
This meant that SIA had to effectively compete with more established regional players. However, it takes time to plan for and manage a larger fleet, train new pilots and work out a more expansive route.

SIA was a company that couldn’t wait to grow up. The category norm at the time was to talk about exotic destinations, and number of flights to major cities. Batey told SIA they couldn’t just rely on a destination campaign.

The agency developed two other pillars: Best inflight service represented by the Singapore Girl. And the youngest, most modern fleet which, in the years to come- would be overlapped with onboard innovations such as KrisWorld, Nintendo games, Biggest show in the sky with the latest movies on demand and so on.

Meanwhile, now that the agency had proposed luxurious castles in the air, all they had to do was find- or rather create- the necessary foundations.

Back then, media planning and buying were part of an agency’s suite of services. Big agencies had departments that provided these services- instead of outsourcing them. Income generated from media allowed the agency to invest in learnings about next generation innovations and threats facing the industry.

Nobody was more invested in the business than Ian himself. He attended aviation seminars and conferences. He learned about industry trends and outlook. He also personally selected the people who worked on the account. Novelists wrote copy for colouring books in the amenities kit. Artists art directed the ads. Creatives flew in- and out- just to work on a single campaign.

In the 90s, the standard par excellence was the Sony Portable Video player which was available to Business and First Class passengers of British Airways. How can SIA up the game with KrisWorld?

The agency asked experts how to put a VCR and Walkman into each seat. Following which, they worked with SIA to merge screens, video-on-demand, video games, and phone calls with seat design.

Bear in mind the system was untested and costs more. While SIA was negotiating with four separate vendors and wondering if it would work, Batey developed the ads. The agency created campaigns to demonstrate the potential of selecting from a menu of channels, and showed how the phone, games, start, stop, rewind and forward buttons strengthened SIA’s best inflight service proposition

Altogether, they had one team working on existing briefs. And another on spec briefs. The latter was put together to find and develop business ideas. After all, more business for SIA meant more business for Batey.

Not only that, the agency also organized global sales conferences. They flew in the best speakers and thought leaders. Every two years, the agency held a pitch. Which they prepared a year in advance. With themselves as the competition. Cost was never a reason to reappoint Batey. It was always about the ideas.

Nowadays, it’s trendy to talk about being a business partner. How many agencies actually act like one? How many will spend ahead of revenue or shoot the work ahead of the brief? During their heydays, Batey Ads walked the talk and inspired a generation of creatives to do better, go the distance, fly higher heights.

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