Memories of the advertising business
Shakib (Gerry) Gunn joined C.F. Young Publicity in 1955 and stayed with the same shop for 13 years. Youngs was one of the first half dozen ad agencies in Singapore. Its successor is now Leo Burnett. Shakib’s work now is pursuing his pastimes and hobbies and his hobby is doing creative stuff, his former work.
The mug still holding pencils and pens sits on my desktop. On the side it reads ‘SHB 1893-1953’. On the base there is an imprint: ‘600 pieces only’. The initials stand for S.H. Benson. The memento marked their sixtieth year in business. That is where I began.
In 1953, arriving by boat, we marveled at the skyscraper that greeted our entry to Keppel Harbour. Asia Insurance Building had just been built. On my second visit two years later to join C.F. Young Publicity, I landed at Kallang Airport and was met by a somber looking Michael Hammersley. As we slid into the back seat of his Humber Super Snipe, he warned, “Be careful, we have big trouble today.”
The date was 12 May 1955. That night, just down the road from where I boarded, the police moved in to break up pickets at the Hock Lee Bus Company depot. Four people died in the melee. The next day, the papers showed an American journalist aflame and walking but dying from head injuries.
Hock Lee Bus Company workers had started an earlier strike for better pay. This was not the first time Singapore had witnessed the madness and sadness of death at the roadside, nor was it to be the last.
Squeaky boards but not squeaky clean
The wooden floorboards squeaked as I walked across the third floor of cavernous John Little’s Building in Raffles Place. There were five partitioned office spaces under its high ceiling: S. Moutrie, a music shop; Remington, the typewriter people; Joan Tooke, an employment agency; Ong Swee Keng, a legal practice and C.F. Young Publicity.
There was a musty smell. The vault-high roof had grilles to promote air circulation, but pigeons lived in that lofty space and one of my first clients, Peter Steggles of GEC, raised his umbrella as protection at meetings on more than one occasion.
Joining Churchillian C.F. (Tony) Young for a modest $1.20 three course lunch (then referred to as tiffin) in John Little’s, he explained, “Our business is about relationships.” And so young Gunn was to discover, most clients came through business friendships and social links.
Youngs had been formed in 1950 with its first office in The Arcade. It soon moved to John Little’s Building, occupied about 800 sq. ft and had a staff of 16 sharing three telephones in 1955. Annual billings averaged $1 million to $1.5 million.
I started on a salary of $750.00 which was more than adequate in those days – my board and lodging cost less than $300. The rest went on running my scooter and my boat. By the mid-sixties, I earned about $3,000 per month. At one point I recall comparing my salary with that of the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew – our salaries were identical. Things have changed since then.
Sharkskin and bow ties
A sad reflection on colonial times was the inappropriate respect expatriates received, a beholden complex that did little to encourage participation by subordinate local staff. Amongst the expatriate staff, there was a tendency to submit to the style and behaviour of the CEO.
At Youngs, following the pattern set by C.F. Young, expatriates wore white linen or sharkskin suits and often sported bow ties. The rest of the male staff dressed uniformly in white slacks and shirts.
The boss owned a Packhard, his deputy owned a Pontiac. The writer bought a Vespa scooter but succumbed to a Studebaker followed by a 9mpg Ford Fairlane. Cars were cheap: a good secondhand American limousine could be bought for $2,000. Around 1959, I art directed an advertisement for a new Dodge saloon priced at $5,999.
We enjoyed office dinners but there were few restaurants of repute. The mainstays were the New Shanghai in Chinatown and the Tai Thong in Happy World (the first Chinese restaurant to be air-conditioned) where a table for ten would set you back $60.00. The Islamic and Jubilee restaurants were our favourite hangouts. A friend, Ameer Jumabhoy, would chat over a bowl of after-work sop kambing from a pushcart in Raffles Place. The price was 30cts per bowl inclusive of a continuous supply of chunky bread.
Competitive drinking was an art form. I mourned the loss of two good people in advertising who died in their forties from cirrhosis of the liver.
In 1955, there were more than half a dozen agencies. S.H. Benson in Great Eastern Life Building, Cecil Street, was the largest and the best. Others included Cathay Advertising in Asia Insurance Building, Marklin Advertising in Chartered Bank Chambers, Millingtons in Winchester House, Fortune Advertising on one side of Raffles Place, and C.F. Young Publicity on the other in John Little’s Building.
Then there was Papineau and Groake Advertising in Clemenceau Avenue. The list expanded in the late fifties/early sixties to include Booty Advertising, Asian Ads, Hyad, and Advertising Consultants.
Media – a convenient formula
Media selection was uncomplicated. Thinking people read newspapers. Youngsters read film magazines. Almost everyone patronized the cinema. The Chinese coffee shop crowd and housewives listened to Rediffusion, and everyone saw wall signs and bus panels.
It was a convenient formula and mainly true. There was no television or commercial radio to muddy things. There was a good raft of newspapers including Singapore Tiger Standard, the Free Press, Malay Mail, Weekender (a saucy tabloid), Malayan Tribune and Malayan Monthly.
Singapore has never had so many cinemas relative to its population. Small clusters such as Pasir Panjang, Bukit Panjang, Nee Soon and Katong often had more than one hall. Even off-the-track villages had cinemas, many open air. All this was good for test campaigns and product sampling.
Outdoor advertising was dominant. Youngs rented wall sites for Brylcreem right up to Penang. Later neonizing became the rage and Orchard Road was reminiscent of Leicester Square.
There was one print title most advertisers succumbed to, The Straits Times Annual. The 1955 edition carried 55 full page advertisements, 21 of them in colour.
In the article “The Malayan Parliament takes shape”, there was a photograph of Singapore’s new legislative assembly hall, our former parliament house. In an article in the 1956 edition, “This year of change in Malaya”, the annual carried a photograph of the legislative assembly with a young Lee Kuan Yew standing with the opposition facing the government led by David Marshall.
Commission and service fees
Cross my heart, there were no backhands in the infant days. The habit became the subject of discussion in agency circles in the early sixties but it was not prevalent.
When I inherited Young’s Kuala Lumpur office in 1964, we handled a trading house with 60 or more agencies on a service fee. Based on forecasted sales, budgets were set and appropriations agreed and totaled. The client was then billed in twelve equal installments, net plus a service fee component – a comforting arrangement for cashflow.
In retrospect, I believe the client got better service that way. Big and small, all the agency products received focused attention and the agency was motivated to push sales.
The recognition of creativity
The Creative Circle was set up in 1961/62 by Brian Hoyle who joined Youngs from Hobson Bates, London in 1960. A defining moment in the recognition of creativity, he co-opted John Hagley, Bill Mundy, Chris Arthur (all creatives) and Arthur Gough and Trevor Inkpen (Straits Times). In 1963, the first Creative Circle Awards were made.
Four years later, in 1968, the 6th Asian Advertising Congress was held in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Hoyle created an elaborate presentation for ‘Quench’ orange drink that had a side effect: it won a new account for LPE – Eveready Batteries.
The 1968 congress featured a region-wide competition with Hoyle as chairman of the exhibit committee. Twelve judges included Warren Wood (Advertising Associates), Andrew Lam (Cathay Film Services), Eric Jennings (Straits Times), Bob Hazell (Far East Research Organization), John Hagley (Advertising Consultants), Ros Chow (Cathay), Dick Flint (Grants), Richard Tang (LPE) and Oscar Frei (Times Printing).
Up to 1957 or so, scraper-board was widely used in lieu of photography. The face of the testimonial giver, a car, two housewives talking, a ship at sea, they were often beautifully rendered with depth and sensitivity – an art form now lost. There were no graphic designers in those days; there were only artists.
Photography came about via the twin-lens reflex and flash bulbs. Robert Wong, later joined by Mun Chor Koon, set up the first studio at Young Advertising. In the early days, there were no commercial photographers save for Peter Robinson Studios in Heeren Building who specialized in portraiture.
From around 1959, Cheong Press in Havelock Road began offering a typesetting service – nice clean reproduction proofs to order, supplementing a service offered by some newspapers and printers on the side.
“Quick, tambi, pick up the block from the Tiger Standard in Anson Road and take it to the Straits Times in Cecil Street.” And sometimes, “Take this artwork down to Mr. Wong Tik Yuen at Tien Wah in Cecil Street, you’ll see him sitting at the front of the shop.”
Production departments took up a lot of floor space with wooden shelving used to store blocks. Life depended on getting your block and type mark-up to the press in time. Office boys, known as tambi, carried blocks together often with rudimentary type mark-ups from newspaper to newspaper. And every production man-ager’s hands were stained with printing ink from handling these horrid things.
Young’s suppliers were Borneo Engraving and City Blockmakers. The dear lady responsible for ordering blocks couldn’t handle the word ‘city’ which always came out as ‘shitty’. How many times did I hear that the shitty man was on his way.
For late night approval of advertisements, we would visit the pressrooms to check the hot metal typesetting and the alignment of the block in the forme. [Blocks or stereos, the equivalent of today’s film, were images etched on zinc and mounted on wood. Process work was done over night but hand etching and retouching of full colour originals was a slow process. I can’t recall how long it took but at Bensons in London, we provided for three weeks to make copper originals.]
A change of sorts in the late fifties
By the time Youngs moved in 1958 to upscale Shaw House in Orchard Road, and with a new business perspective, they were writing well-founded, often research-based, proposals for clients. The name had then changed to Young Advertising & Marketing to reflect a wider scope of interest.
The writer was to stay with the company until 1968 through its days of hiatus with London-based G.S. Royds and later LPE (London Press Exchange), the former’s contribution being to bolster staff strength by sending us a series of ill-chosen executives.
On one occasion, we were asked to check on a new arrival who took time off to visit the doctor. He had flown through the doors of Gethin Jones in Raffles Place and was now back at his hotel nursing a bottle of gin.
I began to feel then and I am sure of it today – most agency problems arise from within. Almost all the clients I have had were a pleasure to deal with.
By the end of the sixties, following business-like restructuring by LPE, Leo Burnett bought the shop. My friend Abu Bakar Maidin, now president of Jamiyah, ably maintained the accounts for 20 years and more and is the true repository of historic information.
When I arrived in 1955, the entire office depended on one calculating machine, a cylindrical pin-wheel Odhner operated by spinning a handle. And the accounts were written up daily in heavy blue ledgers. Such was the concern of C.F. Young that not a cent be overlooked that he took these large books home to pore over.
Research and ‘interruption’
By 1958 we were using research as a tool for better understanding of the marketplace. John C. Lee, an American based in AIA Building, did consumer research – we used him for product testing and consumer panels. Bob Hazell at Far East Research Organization provided a media index. Newell Grenfell of Survey Research Malaysia later provided brand barometer data and in 1963, I popped off to ACNielsen in Oxford for a spell to hone up.
We were not short on ‘interruption’ to quote the popular term. In 1955, we had sandwich-board men and people dressed as products such as Carlsberg beer working the crowds in Raffles Place. Our ear was to the ground; as an account executive in 1960, I travelled from Kota Kinabalu to Kota Bahru to check on product penetration and to listen to marketplace stories.
Let’s be first…
There was no shortage of innovation – the first cinema slide with a spoken commentary for Mackeson’s Milk Stout at the Starlight cinema, Pasir Panjang, in 1956, the first radio commercial (I still remember the commentary) for Max Factor Crème Puff, the first full-colour advertisement in The Straits Times, again for Max Factor, the first cinema filmlet screened in Malay, around 1960, for Brylcreem, at the Lido cinema.
In 1959, an important trade exposition was held at Kallang Park. Youngs constructed an air-conditioned cinema for Shell, but lacking today’s multi-screen paraphernalia, even Kodak carousels, for a separate show unit we linked together six or eight cartridge-fed slide projectors, technically innovative by the standards of the day.
Matters of perception were always of concern and not always easily answerable. In 1956, we featured Denis Compton, the prominent cricketer, in the press and on wall sites for Brylcreem. Would the product be more readily received by the Malay community if we used P. Ramlee? Well, we did with success.
Max Factor was then the make-up of the stars of Hollywood, with advertisements featuring Lana Turner, Doris Day, Kim Novak, Esther Williams and Cyd Charisse. Should we use closer-to-home stars with Asian complexions? Well, we experimented with Maria Minado, Saadiah and Rokiah, with mixed results.
I lunched with glittering Max Factor in Hollywood in 1963. He wasn’t too happy about anything that did not come out of the works in USA.
Another significant one for Youngs was the first double-page spread to appear in The Straits Times, art directed by Brian Hoyle for Fiat cars around 1961/2.
We have made great progress, yes?
The changes – first was the invasion of products and services and increased market competitiveness; second was the speed in which processes were applied and executed. The third was one of knowledge – we understand more, we have created new realms of science out of fundamental truths.
I wonder about the future. There is a surfeit of choices, of books to read, of gurus to follow, of trends to hitch your wagon to. In concert, there is obfuscation, words that lack depth of meaning and clarity, terms we understand but cannot explain.
Over the years the simple truth of advertising claims has not been something we’ve questioned too closely. An idea that moved goods and services was good strategy. And so it remains today. Social consciousness – not to look good, but to do good is a new idea.
Will there be a clash between helter-skelter expediency and fine print, and morality?
Will consumers start to turn off from the messages? Will they start to rebel against consumerism and short product life cycles? As Bob Dylan put it: “Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”
John Archer is the Regional Creative Director of Bates/141 Indochina, based in Singapore. From 1978 to 1983, he was the Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather, Singapore.
Calvin, the irascible cartoon character has the wondrous knack of whisking himself and his feline friend Hobbes back in time, whenever the mood takes him. And, all it seems to take is a little imagination. Well, as there’s plenty of that in the corridor, here goes.
Activate time machine: whirl, spin, sper-loogie! The year is 1981, or thereabouts.
The Singapore skyline is dominated by Shaw Towers on Beach Road and the OCBC building behind Boat Quay, all other structures huddled in their shadows. Each of these buildings has a point of interest. Shaw Towers was known as such for about 20 years until – in the finest Basil Faulty tradition – the ‘s’ dropped off the word ‘Towers’ to the applause of pedants who noted that there had only ever been one tower. As for the OCBC building, at an exposition on modern architecture at MOMA, in New York, I was surprised to learn that the style and the method of construction (at that time) were unique. Name a building, anywhere in the world and there were 10, 20, 100 other clones to be found. There were only three that stood alone: Le Corbusier’s church, the Sydney Opera House and the OCBC building, in Singapore. (Knock me down with a feather!)
During this period, the Merlion is closer to the Padang (and had yet to spawn its evil twin on Sentosa Island), the Satay Club is adjacent to the Padang, Raffles Hotel is a run-down rat’s nest – but, the Writer’s Bar is always fun, Bugis Street at night is jumping, Brian Richmond (o-my-god!) is to be seen and heard everywhere. Top 40: Brian Richmond. News on the Weekend: Brian Richmond. Soccer Line-up: Brian Richmond. Our man at the Olympics: Brian Richmond. New store opening: Brian Richmond. For 10 years, the man never slept.
A fresh-faced Willie Tang has recently returned from London and is the wunderkind that everybody has to have to take their shots. In fact, Willie is one of the few creative types who opts for the au naturelle look. Steve Reveller, Norman Kerr and Peter Booth look like Mexican bandits from The Three Amigos. Bill Gartshore and Allein Moore are bearded-up and waiting for the West End to summon them to The Pirates of Penzance rehearsals. (The fact has been recorded, that in those days, there was more facial hair in evidence than at a Taliban re-union. The men were even hairier.)
Linda Locke is a young art director at Burnett and always a voice of reason at the Creative Circle judging. Looi Chee Cheng, Patrick Low, Francis Moh, Eugene Cheong, Victor Yeow and a dozen others are full of enthusiasm and awaiting their chance. And, Singapore Girl is as radiant, demure and inviting as she is today. Hallowed be Ian Batey, Rick Scott Blackwell and Faie Davis, her creators.
Graham Cadwallader, a music buff and Creative Director of Y&R, writes the first rap jingle and wins Silver at the Creative Circle Awards. The track is for Shui Hing Department Store and may well be the first rap jingle anywhere in the world, although the seminal work has more of a disco beat than would seem acceptable to today’s gangstas. A sample of the lyrics: “Have you seen, Have you been, Down Orchard Road, To Singapore Shui Hing.” Timeless. Really, with another word or two added, we have the 2004 version. “Has yo’ bin, muhfug, Has yo’ sin, muhfug, Or-Char’ Ro’ home-boy, Sing-uh-pore Shui Hing. Bitchin’ good.” As I said, timeless, which is more that can be said for the store.
Those days were gentler times when, despite fierce competitiveness 9-to-5, we still had time for each other. Friday nights meant drinks at Post Production Shop in Geylang and once a month, there was (cue March of the Torriedors) the riotous Lunch of the Creatives, forever known as the Lurch of the Creatives. It was a moveable feast, of sorts, more out of necessity from having worn out our welcome, than by design.
Coises! Foiled again
The first major pitch that I led, in Singapore, was for the Singapore Armed Forces business. All the major agencies had been filtered and four, or five, were invited to pitch for different divisions of the account. Peter Stenning and Eugene Seow and myself headed up the O&M Team; we had been invited to present for the Army and the Navy accounts.
(Time out to adjust the reality function. There were no Power Point presentations, no DVD animatics, no CD-Roms. We did have cassette sound but opted for reel-to-reel. “It’s the bee’s knees, old son. Never compromise on quality.” Sound advice – a-ha, a pun in the wind – but a nightmare to deal with. We also had state-of-the-art multi-slide projectors, all nicely synchonised and eager to malfunction. Plus, animatics on U-matic tape cassettes, voice over: Brian Richmond. U-matics were so big, cumbersome and prone to trouble that one could be forgiven for suggesting that Noah would have had an easier time of it manoeuvring the ark in a bathtub. Back to the tale.)
The presentation was to be held in the inner sanctum of Army Headquarters, the place where the military planners devised various cunning scenarios to protect Lion City, by pushing wooden ships and tanks around a topographic rending of the island with croupier-like finesse. Naturally, the place was contained by an electrified 12-foot fence, topped with barbed-wire. Within these daunting surrounds, we were allowed an hour to rehearse, the day before the presentation was scheduled. All went well, but there was one proviso: we had to leave all our presentation materials and our equipment there overnight. As we were the last agency to rehearse and the first to present, what could go wrong? With hindsight, a very naïve assumption.
The big day arrived, the hour was upon us. Some 48 senior military and ministerial personnel were in attendance. In the front row was the head of the Armed Forces, a general who admired Winston Churchill and was affectionately known as Bulldog. Next to General Bulldog sat a very savvy Colonel Lee (yes, the very same DPM Lee, in the trenches). Peta (The Girl) Meyer did a sterling job presenting the Army work, then on came muggins full of bluff and huff. A guise that proved to be as short-lived as it was disastrous. The most humiliating and unprofessional experience of my life followed. Every slide – and, there were about 200 – was back-to-front and upside down. Every one.
A great presentation – and, it was a great presentation, in content – but any chance of being awarded the account went down the gurgle. To this day, I’ve no idea how it happened. Gremlins? The only saving grace was that 48 senior defence personnel thought that my shenanigans were the funniest thing they had seen since the last Bob Hope show.
Thanks, largely, to Peta Meyer’s peerless qualities on the day, we were appointed to the Army account. The Navy business went to (I think) Linda, at Burnett (or, was it Saatchi?). I can’t remember who won the Air Force, though I do remember that JWT was awarded the Combined Armed Forces account. A division that, of those who pitched, none had the foggiest notion of its existence. All of which nicely segues into the Day the Singapore Army (under Generalissimo Jack) Invaded Malaysia.
Now, quite possibly, it has not escaped your attention that the chaps on the northern reaches of the Johore Straits can get a little scratchy about little things. Whereas, armed invasion tends to rank very high on their list. So the tale begins.
Invasion of Malaysia
Peta and Francis and I had written a rip-snorter of a commercial for the Army. It was Boys’ Own, Dan Dare, Eagle comics and The Thin Red Line all rolled into one. To realize the vision required an infantry battalion, 14 Leopard tanks, 8 aquatic APCs, a mechanized battle bridge-spanning jobbie, a pontoon bridge, a convoy of trucks and several helicopter gun-ships. Francis Ford Coppola, eat your heart out. The location was at a reservoir in the north-west of the island. All troop movements were to proceed towards the centre of the Republic, so as to not agitate the neighbours.
There were cameras everywhere, one of which was to be affixed to one of the choppers. Small problem: we didn’t have a Tyler mount for the chopper. “No problem-o,” said director/cameraman, John Noble, “She’ll be right. Just like the Nam.” I immediately promoted myself to be his camera assistant. This entailed buckling myself into the side gunner’s rig on the Huey, looping my arms through the back of John Noble’s trouser-belt and defying Newton’s Law of Gravity with every twist and turn of the chopper as the pilot – Johnnie, of course – tried to get the director cum DOP into free fall mode. My sole purpose was to not let go of the noble Mister John.
Off we zoomed. Timing was everything. We were to come in at 50 feet at the very moment that 440 battle-ready men stormed across the pontoon bridge, whilst 8 APCs chugged through the water, other gun-ships whirled around making mayhem of the swirling smoke – smoke, smoke everywhere – and 14 Leopard tanks came crashing out of the jungle. By resorting to ‘terrain flying’, we could circle around and get two takes before all the battalion had crossed the pontoon.
(Terrain flying is where the aircraft is so low that the pilot – literally – weaves in, out, up, down and around the hills and dales and anything else that may get in the way. And, quite a few branches did.) Let’s see now, allow for a couple of rehearsals and, a piece of cake, right? F**k off. By take #28, there wasn’t much left of jungle, the light was fading and the battle-ready men were ready for oxygen, makan and a weekend’s R&R.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. So, we landed and had a pow-wow with Johnnie, the pilot. The decision was taken to fly a wider arc and to come in from a different direction. All was going well, until I noticed that we had run out of jungle – except for the prodigious amounts that were now camouflaging the helicopter skids – and we were over water and fast approaching a section of the ‘reservoir’ that I hadn’t seen before. “Oy, Johnnie. Where-lah?” “JB, man.” Now, call me old-fashioned, but that was a moment when I was, indeed, sphincterally challenged. With a fighting force hard at it, less than a klick away, our intentions, to the casual observer, could easily have been misconstrued. Then again, under the circumstances, how could one possibly remain casual?
We didn’t get that final shot. We didn’t get shot down and we didn’t get invited back for the sequel, either. No imagination, it’s a terrible thing.
Fun times. Great times and soon to be greater, thanks to the efforts of a man who was to be my successor. At the time, he was gnome-ing away in a back room of a little remembered agency in London, Holmes Knight Richie. The era of Neil French was dawning.
Reg Starkey is Creative Director of Millennium ADMP plc (London) and former Creative Director of Leo Burnett.
Picture if you will: a damp cold morning in London in 1985. My second Best Man calls me, from Hong Kong (by which I mean my Best Man, second time around). His opening words are calculated to win over any ‘resting’ copywriter: “Hi Reg, I hear you’re on the beach again…”
“I’m consulting,” I counter, wittily.
“Yeah, yeah, on the beach… Would you like to come to Singapore for the Summer?”
Immediately, images of rickshaws, gin slings at Raffles, ceiling fans and Panama hats are cued up in my mind.
“Could be…” I reply, playing hard to get.
“We’ll make it worth your while…”
“When would you like me to start?”
Oh yes, I negotiated, cannily, I can tell you.
My wife, at the time, and Alan Croll sorted out the details. Meanwhile, I organised a leaving party invitation which took liberties with the Leo Burnett logo, showing a hand reaching for a glass rather than the stars, with the legend ‘Join me for a Singapore sling before my Singapore fling!’ (I told you I was a copywriter. I didn’t tell you my hero is William McGonagall.)
Using my Diners card, because temporarily I was strapped for cash, I booked open return Business Class tickets on Singapore Airlines. This was my first experience of the Big Top and it was everything I hoped it would be.
My arrival in Singapore is shrouded in a mist of time, or perhaps too much in-flight champagne. I do remember my first meeting in the agency – 8.30am. Progress. Alan Croll’s mantra was ‘Work comes first!’ I was impressed by the volume of work going through and also daunted by its diversity.
My previous experience of working for an American multi-national was for McCann-Erickson in London. Our motto there was ‘Anything is possible’ and, in those days, there were people to do everything. As Creative Director, you were expected to run the department, to deal with the politics and keep the prima donnas on song. As some wag had said, “If you see two people walking closely together down one of our corridors, they probably have the same knife in their backs!”
From that first meeting, I knew it was going to be challenging – not least because of the language problem. To my London ear, Singaporean English sounded fast and difficult. I remember a really nice young account guy coming to see me that first week to talk about a new campaign and saying: “Regg” (Most people seemed to have trouble pronouncing it ‘Redge’ – it didn’t matter. In Accounts, as I recall I was ‘Mr Regg’). “Regg,” he persevered, “We need a team line…” I was bewildered. Was this some cutting-edge new Asian concept that hadn’t yet reached London? Would I lose face if I expressed my ignorance? Would my new colleague lose face if I said I didn’t understand his English? I played for time, like Peter Sellers when asked what ‘bore’ shotgun he was after, “Oh, Boer…!” “A team line, eh…” “Yes, yes… Like Guinness is good for you!” (It might not have been that example, but you take my point? Excellent!)
I was set to work on two TV campaigns – one in production for the Ministry of Information and Culture, the objective of which was to encourage everyone to be more courteous. The agreed team line was: ‘Bring on a smile!’ An award-winning English TV director called Simon Peters had already been booked – confusing when people have two first names, isn’t it? I got my two pennyworth in by getting some music composed in London by Richard Myhill, then seeing it translated and sung in three different languages.
The other campaign was for Yakult. Here I was able to introduce ‘animatics’ as a qualitative research technique. Once again, for the commercial itself, we imported a TV director from London, David Olins, to work with the Film Factory. We had music composed in Sydney and animation done in Hong Kong. Incidentally, the Aussie muso was very sniffy about the Courtesy music. “Sounds very Carol Bayer Sager to me, mate!”
I remember shooting Yakult and backing horses with Chin Woo between takes. Every shot was either ‘Best in the World!’ or ‘Best in Asia!’ I loved that. I loved the genuine desire for excellence, particularly since the kit and facilities in those days were some way behind either London or Los Angeles.
On a personal front, I will never forget being taken to some Army-base canteen to experience my first fish-head curry. Early on, I also remember being invited sailing by Alan Croll and expecting it to be ‘drinks on the poop deck’ in a gin palace rather than a dinghy that was also entered in a race! Out on the harness, I fell through the rigging and cut myself to ribbons. (We still came fourth! AC, competitive or what?!)
When I eventually got back to London, I appreciated the cool crisp English air but I missed the energy, the optimism and the sheer quality of life in Singapore.
Mike Ellery now runs Cuevision, a video production house. In earlier times, he was a well-known broadcaster and his voice can still be heard from time to time over the radio.
As I started radio broadcasting in these parts (as opposed to cable broadcasting) 50 years ago, this year it seems like a good time to wonder what happened.
For me, it was Rediffusion (the ubiquitous cable radio network) in 1950 as a novice, then the great leap (@ 21) to Radio.
Radio was known as Radio Malaya to the public, but The Department of Broadcasting to the Administration.
We were designated Programme Assistants then, which has mutated to Disc Jockeys now. The difference being that as Programme Assistants we didn’t jockey any discs, that job was done for us by a noble band designated Broadcasting Assistants.
A Programme Assistant was at the mercy of his EPO (English Programme Organiser), who was at the mercy of his English Programme Supervisor (EPS), who handed out jobs that in the course of a week might include writing and presenting at least half a dozen music programmes, covering a sports or public event, acting in a Drama Group play and co-producing a quiz show. OK. At 21, you have the energy to do it and the anxiety to please.
Technically, it was wild. At the start, things either went on the air ‘live’ or were cut to acetate-covered aluminium discs – 18” for quarter-hour chunks or 12” discs for short bits like interviews etc. If you made a mistake, the disc would probably have to be scrapped and you started again. Not a popular idea. It was possible to edit, involving the Broadcasting Assistant playing over the disc, marking off the bad bit with a chinagraph and then – hold your breath – jumping the bad bit ‘live’ on transmission.
Running in parallel to this, for external interviews, was the revolutionary technology of the portable wire recorder made by Grundig, as I remember. A little problem here was that if the machine stopped too suddenly or you tried to rewind, the springy wire would likely jump off the spool and strangle you.
This was replaced fairly quickly by the famous EMI L2B portable recorder using TAPE! It ran on torch batteries (for the electronics) but the motor was clockwork, so that every three minutes, one had to stop and re-wind using the handle attached. There was another portable called Wearite which I think ran off a car battery. Take your pick.
Meanwhile, in the studio, things were going ahead by leaps and bounds with the advent of Ampex tape recorders. Ampex seems to have disappeared now, but at the time, it was an amazing tool. ONE HOUR tapes! Ye gods. Thank you Bing Crosby (it was reputed to be his company).
On the cultural side, things have undergone their little changes. The credo of Radio as laid down somewhere was “to inform, to educate and to entertain.”
Of course, the result leaned towards boredom, but it did mean that there were wildly different credentials needed to become a broadcaster, with the ability to compere a variety show somewhere down the end of the list. An enviable ability to consume huge amounts of alcohol came somewhere in the middle.
Before I forget, there was no advertising then – no listener surveys either. Blessed memories!
It’s a pleasant thought that many of the people I worked with then are still around today (in their 70’s and 80’s) and one or two can be heard on BBC World Service from time to time. Or here, taking grandchildren for walks and doing other useful things. I don’t think any are actively broadcasting here though.
It was Radio’s solid aunty image that led to the establishment of Rediffusion and to its runaway success.
My time with Rediff was mid-fifties to mid-seventies during which we created a bit of a pop monster. Virtually, ‘all the hits all the time’ with a scad of young local music enthusiasts presenting from 6am to midnight, mixed in with imported DJ programmes from the likes of Kasey Kasem, plus ‘live’ shows with local acts and visiting foreigners.
The phone-in had its start in Singapore on Rediffusion giving the duty DJ’s heavy experience in handling some pretty weird people.
With that sort of output, perhaps you can imagine the total panic that set in when The Ministry of Culture decided to ban from broadcasting “the type of music known as ‘rock and roll’”. I can remember frantically digging through the record library pulling out anything with a beat. It didn’t help that Elvis and Chubby Checker were reigning at that time.
Long hair also became a taboo. It didn’t affect me personally, being a nice upright English boy, but I can name a DJ or two (still with us) who had to have a hair-do before their next ‘live’ show. They were so ashamed they went out and bought wigs to wear in their own social circles.
I don’t recall how everything eventually returned to normal. It was a gradual process, and here we are today, with countless radio stations playing almost nothing but beat music day and night and poor old Rediffusion semi-dormant, wondering what hit it.
Allein G. Moore is a former Creative Director of Batey Ads, Leo Burnett, Saatchi-Compton and Chiat/Day/Mojo. As publisher and editor of AdAsia, he is still very much on the advertising scene.
Stepping off the plane at the old Paya Lebar airport in Singapore that night in November 1979, I knew immediately I was in the ‘exotic east’. The warm humid air, which hit me as I passed through the aircraft doorway and descended the steps, contrasted dramatically with the cold windy weather I had left behind in England. The visitor who now is conveyed from the air-conditioned aircraft via passenger bridges to the Changi terminal misses this sense of arrival in a foreign land.
Here’s not the place to write at length about my early days in Asia but I will try briefly to give an idea to the younger readers of what it was like working in the ad industry in the early eighties and perhaps remind the older readers of these ‘good old days’.
Visiting many ad agencies as I do today, being welcomed as an editor of a trade magazine, I am aware of the contrast between working conditions now and then. Today, most agencies have pleasant environments, some even have bars, coffee lounges and billiards tables. Even an ice-cream refrigerator graced McCann-Erickson’s reception until recently and if I recall correctly, BBDO as well. Arriving from London in 1979 where I had a glass-walled office overlooking Hyde Park, I was shocked to discover the office provided at Batey Ads was a small grey windowless booth. In fact, nobody, not even the founder Ian Batey, had a window so one would go out to lunch not knowing if it was raining or sunny. My next agency was the locally-owned Fortune Ads, located in Raffles Square within a run-down shop house (before these became trendy places for the communications companies). The office was bigger but still windowless. I remember the cockroaches were partial to the white paint the art directors often used. Yes, folks, the art directors actually drew the visuals so they had to be reasonably skilled artists. Magic markers were used for most layouts but crayons were not unknown in the studio in those days. The idea of sticking down colour photographic prints for a layout was usually way beyond budgets although I must also slip in here that some clients still followed the 4As recommendations and paid for new business presentations! Body text was indicated by ruled lines or on more finished presentations, Letraset body text which was placed in position by hand. Headlines were drawn by hand or we used Letraset, a sticky sheet with individual letters on a wax base, which were rubbed down in position. Agencies had drawers full of Letraset sheets that were left with all the most used characters gone but ‘z’ and ‘x’ in plenty supply.
There were no colour photocopies (all photoprints prints were ordered from photographic specialists), few fax machines and, of course no computers. For the artwork, typesetting was sent out and one company (Kofords) more or less had a monopoly of advertising work in Singapore. Each panel of type and each photoprint had to be stuck in place with the ubiquitous Cow Gum. After London, home of great typography, I found the choice of typefaces unbelievably limited. Eventually, I started my own typesetting company with which I wanted to build an appreciation of typography. It was for a time quite successful but before I have finished paying off the huge bank loan for the equipment and fonts, another revolution took place.
The desktop computer (then costing around $12,000) changed forever the way agencies produced layouts and artwork. Suddenly, typesetting could be produced in-house and complete layouts and designs could be created on the art directors’ desk. Personally, I would hate to return to pre-computer days but I do remember several talented studio people dropping out of the business because they could not switch to computerized artwork production.
Others have faded away but it is surprising how many people with whom I worked in those early days are still active in the business. Of course, Ian Batey is still very much in command of his agency. When I arrived there as CD, Linda Locke was already there as a junior art director. Bill Gartshore, who now heads up his own agency here, was a suit while Norman Kerr was in charge of film production. John Finn who is credited with designing the first Singapore girl ad, popped back from time to time as freelancer. At Fortune, we had a great team of locals (contrasting with the heavy expat element at Batey Ads), including Patrick Low (now ECD at DY&R), then an art director who partnered Eugene Cheong, now a highly regarded group head at O&M. He was then starting his career as a junior copywriter. The senior art director at Fortune in those days was John Tan who now runs a successful design company with his wife Gloria, also former Fortune account executive. John Archer was the prominent CD at O&M and he now continues in a senior creative role at Bates. Graham Cadwalleder and his wife Mei Ling, both ex-CD’s still spend time in Singapore.
There were only two or three sound studios in those days. I can recall a couple that I worked with regularly – Sound Lab which was run by Larry Lai and Peter Bodewyn who went on to be a suit at O&M, Studio 3 run by Colin Chew, an ex-account man who employed Mo Alkaff as his young sound engineer. Colin is now a PR man and still very active.
Mike Ellery, an ex-announcer from Rediffusion, still runs a sound studio. His company, Cuevision expanded into video production while Barry Butler (famous for his parties in the early days) still runs Speakeasy.
In those days, the sound tape had to be cut by hand and stuck together. If the track was too long, a small guillotine snipped out blank sections to shorten the recording. Today, it is so simple to compress the sound on the computer.
There were only about four stills photographers serving the ad industry in those days, Chua Soo Bin, Philip Little, Mun & Wong and Willie Tang. Soo Bin and Wong have retired but the others still continue to shoot.
The commercial film scene has changed dramatically. There were a few old expat directors knocking around and some established companies like Film Factory run by Woo Chin Woo, an ex-CD, Lynx run by Peter McKenzie and Film West run by Jon Noble.
Rough edits could be done locally but the final edit and all processing had to be done in Japan. Once you had made up your mind on the length of a dissolve or the position of a title that was really the final choice. Any change would have been expensive and time-consuming.
The first attempt to bring modern editing facilities to Singapore was a Hong Kong company under Gordon Morias. The Post Production Shop in Paya Lebar Road was the trendy place for editing in those days. I think they are more remembered for their regular parties than their contribution to the industry. It wasn’t until VHQ was started, with a thumping loan from the Government, by three people from video production house Yarra Films, that the film industry started to modernize. Chris Batson, one of the founders, is still active in the film industry in Singapore.
It is never easy to come up with a good idea. But it is a helluva sight easier today to execute the vision. Computers have made many things possible, which back in the early eighties could not have got off the drawing board.
Writers and art directors working in Singapore now have access via the Internet to concepts and imagery unbeknown in those days except to those working in New York or London. We get film premieres simultaneously with LA. In the eighties, the only movies shown at the cinemas here were the big blockbusters; no art or quasi-art films were screened. There were few art galleries and hardly any theatre to stimulate the eye or imagination. Concerts by major stars were unknown. Today, we see not only Asian stars but major talents from the UK and USA. Under this onslaught of ideas, hopefully, our creative teams will not overlook the well of ideas that can be drawn all around us in everyday life.
We had a lot of fun in those days and the feedback from younger people in the industry seems to suggest that this isn’t in great supply these days. This is a pity. Why don’t you make it a new year resolution to lighten up in 2004 and become a little crazier?
Eddie Chan is a former CEO of Meridien Advertising, AdMan and MDA/Mojo, past President of 4As and former ‘Advertising Man of the Year’. The piece below is taken from his forthcoming book.
As I decided to make advertising my lifelong career, my ambition was to be the best in the business. I realized that I would not be able to achieve this unless I get the best training possible. The agency that offered young bright executives the opportunity of overseas attachment was Masters. It also was the largest agency in Singapore and had a list of ‘blue-chip’ clients. Through the years, advertising attracted some of the most colourful characters into the business as there were no barriers into entering the business. In fact, some of the most successful advertising personalities who entered the ‘profession’ were ex-waiters, salesmen, and teachers and would-be pastor dropouts. Many others got into the business by being mailroom boys but through talent, hard work and determination rose through the ranks to become creative directors, CEOs and chairmen of their agencies.
Among some of the most colourful characters in business I had the chance to work with were copywriters, art directors, account executives and media people.
Ralph Modder was the most unforgettable character of all. He was an ex-radio presenter and was hired at the time when radio was becoming a popular medium for advertisers. Ralph, a rather casual personality like John Wayne, would normally wear an open-neck shirt. However, management had told him that he had to wear a tie to attend meetings with clients. He was a radio scriptwriter but could not tie his necktie properly even if his life depended on it. He could not get the front end and the back end to be of equal lengths. Being a creative person, he naturally came up with a creative solution. He was frustrated that the front end of his would hang way below his belt and decided to snip off so the front-end tip would just touch the belt buckle. This was like cutting through the Gordian knot. The only problem was when he did that everyday for a week snipping off the excess lengths, he ended with rather short tie, which looked more like a small napkin and also he had to get a new tie every week!
There was one incident, which showed the true grit of Ralph in getting what he wanted. Ralph was involved in the opening of the new Guinness factory in Petaling Jaya in Selangor. As he was staying in a house in Johor Bahru, he would commute from his home to the office in downtown Singapore. On that morning, Ralph had to drive down from Johor Bahru in his Rover 80 to catch a flight from Paya Leber airport to Subang in Petaling Jaya as he was the Master of Ceremony for the official opening. Unfortunately, Ralph had overslept, was running very late and had to rush to the airport to catch the morning flight. After getting through the causeway, he was belting Dunearn Road at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone. The ever-efficient mobile squad policeman saw him zooming past, gave chase and flagged him down. When the policeman took now the details of his driving license, Ralph told him why he was speeding, as he had to catch his flight to Kuala Lumpur for a very important appointment. Obviously, the officer was not impressed as he must have heard such lame excuses from all the drivers he had caught speeding. After the officer had recorded his particulars and warned Ralph against speeding, he took off in motorcycle to continue his patrol. A few moments had just passed when Ralph overtook the mobile squad police and was zooming down Dunearn Road again at 80 mph; the officer was perplexed at the audacity of this motorist whom he had just booked. He throttled his high-powered motorbike and went after Ralph like the roadrunner. He managed to catch up with him at Adam Road and booked him a second time. Ralph repeated his excuse that he had to catch the K.L. flight or he would lose his job. The officer had heard it all before and was not going to fall for this excuse.
Before the officer could mount his motorbike, Ralph had zoomed off again for the third time hitting 80 mph within minutes. The officer was shocked that this errant motorist was not the least remorseful and the chase was on again. Finally, he caught up with Ralph along Braddell Road and booked him for the third time.
Ralph pleaded with him that he had to catch that flight and truly he would lose his job if he did not get there in time. The officer finally believed him and took compassion on him. He decided it was better to escort him to the airport and even turned on the siren to clear the traffic in front so that he would not be held up. Weeks later, Ralph appeared in court and even the judge took compassion on him and fined him $250, a princely sum in the ‘60s for the multiple speeding offences!
Bill Gartshore is the owner of one of the few independent local advertising agencies, Gartshore &Associates. which is located in Beach Road. He was formerly an account director at Batey Advertising and partner in Gartshore, Kerr & Lim.
A look back at the good old days of the advertising industry in Singapore? Firstly, a couple of my early experiences to set the scene. I came to Singapore in January 1978 to work for Batey Advertising, as it was then called. They had a New Bridge Road address but access to the office was through a small door in a side street, Hong Kong St. So my first test was to actually find where I worked.
These first Batey premises were, well, like Ian himself, a little unusual and certainly unique. The interior was housed within a number of separate shophouses – I was never able to work out exactly how many. It was labyrinthine in the extreme. Staircases went both up and down along the same corridor, something like the hotel in Fawlty Towers. Sometimes when I worked late, I swore I could hear large burrowing mammals scampering around behind the walls. Local colleagues assured me that the sounds were simply spirits from the past.
My office was tucked away deep down in the bowels of the building, a good five minutes walk from any daylight. On the wall behind my chair were curtains which, when parted, revealed more of the wall. However, I found that I could keep them closed and kid myself I had a great view across the South China Sea.
But all this is mere architectural trivia when one considers the engineering marvel that was the celebrated ‘two-tier’ toilets system – and my second test. This was a masterpiece in the economic use of available facilities, minimally adjusted to serve two separate forms of ‘usage’. It consisted of a plastic toilet seat, loosely perched on four foldable metal legs, suspended above what is called an Asian Squat toilet bowl. So, if you wanted to sit, you pulled the folded contraption down from the wall and sat. And if your preference was to squat, you simply folded the metal legs and toilet seat up and against the wall and you squatted. Voila! Ingenious, and with a little practice, most ‘sitting’ Batey staff managed to master the system with surprisingly few mishaps. I had just graduated to this stage when management decided to tear the system down and replace it with the very latest in vitreous enamel – much to the chagrin of the parsimonious financial director who had designed the original system.
I think this sets the scene quite nicely and it is time to move on to the subject proper.
The market was a lot smaller in 1978. Media choices were limited, especially outdoor or, should I say, ambient advertising. The coming of the MRT greatly improved the viability of this medium, as did the freeing-up of whole buses and bus stops.
Today we are blessed and burdened by huge advances in technological aids. The Apple Mac, in particular, has made a major difference in how and how fast art directors now work. Back in the late ‘70s, some art directors could actually draw and presentation layouts were finished by hand. The only Mac in those days was one worn by a certain Creative Director, especially at indoor media functions.
Where a Mac G4 Monitor now proudly stands was once a box of magic markers. Where once a team of finished artists laboriously cut and glued strips of text onto boards – called mechanicals, don’t ask me – are now an art director and his Mac. But, as I have hinted, all is not good news. Where once a secretary would type an article such as this, I’m typing it myself.
Some great characters were around when I arrived. There was less money being dished out but this didn’t deprive Alan Croll, M.D. of Leo Burnett, the privilege of being chauffeur driven around town… in a battered and rusting old Ford Cortina that would not have been allowed on the road today. When he retired, Alan’s leaving present was a brand new trishaw which he duly shipped to his home in the Isle of Man. He was said to have been looking for a Manx trishaw chauffeur/rider but found the costs prohibitive.
Much of the talk 25 years ago was about the problems of earnings and the inappropriate media commission system and rebating. Well, that hasn’t changed much, has it? In fact, it is worse today, what with media brokers plumbing new depths. I perceive that this, coupled with a general change in the breed of client, has led to an erosion of how advertisers value ad agencies. Price, pure and simple, has become a fixation at the expense of value for money. Ad agencies are increasingly seen simply as third party suppliers of a commodity.
To illustrate my point, consider the following comparisons, based on real experience:
1978: Client Brief. “This is our product. Please tell us how you can make it a big, successful brand/create x% increase in sales.”
2003: Client Brief. “This is our product. What discount do you give? Do you charge production?”
Anyway, I don’t want to be a moaning minnie, so back to the topic.
In 1978, pubs, those providers of the magic juice that keeps the advertising business running, were few and far between. In fact, there was the Beefeater on River Valley Road and that was about it. We sometimes grabbed taxis and went there for lunch and rare draught Guinness, served by girls in beefeater mini-skirts. The only other pubs were really hotel cocktail lounges with pseudo pub-type names. Other than that, there were lounge bars, such as the Mayfair in Armenian Street, a dimly lit and quite friendly little place popular with nearby Batey and Burnett staff (male). Fortunately, limitation of space precludes me from further comment on this particular bar. Another time, perhaps.
With fewer drinking holes around, we tended to visit each other’s homes for drink or dinner parties. King of the hosts was a writer and CD, Greg Plummer. Greg had the reputation of never, ever running out of booze and his soirees rarely concluded before dawn. It’s probably a good thing that we now have such a wide choice of pubs and restaurants that marathon dinner parties have become scarce. My liver certainly agrees.
I’ve left the most important subject, Creative, to last.
The general standard of the creative product – print and TV – is one aspect of our trade that, in my opinion, has changed the least in 25 years. One needs simply to scan back issues of awards books for proof. Take a look and see if you don’t agree. There is some good recent stuff but we don’t seem to have moved on very far.
However, my biggest creative disappointment is radio advertising. Radio commercials are, frequently, wincingly bad and an embarrassment for the industry. I am forced to listen to BBC World Service much of the time, even repeats. Why is it so bad? My view is that the low production costs are to blame – so cheap, any old Tom, Dick, Harry or the proverbial one man and his dog can have a go. Dream on, that in times to come, radio stations here will be strong enough to protect their listeners by refusing to air commercials that are simply unacceptable.
To conclude, it is a great comfort for me to know that there are still characters around who pre-date my arrival – Ian Batey and Rick Scott-Blackhall, no longer in New Bridge Road but not far away from their roots, John Archer at Bates and Bernard Chan and a few more. Suddenly, I don’t feel quite so old.
Footnote: I happened to be in Armenian Street shortly after writing the above article. The building which once housed the Mayfair lounge bar is now a Clinic. Now, there’s progress for you.