Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Chris Kyme_April2016.jpgChris Kyme continues his "Postcards from..." series and this time he asks why start an agency?

Just recently, I somehow seem to have come across more and more small independent agencies in Hong Kong than ever, most of whom I had previously never heard of before. Like 'Tomorrow Advertising', 'Sunny Idea Hong Kong' and 'Radical Choi Sum' (okay I made the last one up). There are many many, and in most cases, the work they produce is no better or worse than what the big agencies are churning out (mainly because on the whole the general output is pretty crap, scam work's ain't hard to compete frankly).

Is it a trend or a sign of the times? Or is it that, these days, anyone with a couple of Macs, a subscription to Campaign Brief Asia and a tub of Haribos can set up, get started and pull some clients?
To be honest, having done it, it's certainly not that scary or complicated. I've been more stressed out trying to peel an asparagus.

The biggest barrier, if you are coming from a comfortable job in a big network agency, is psychological. It's like getting off a big, safe ocean-going ship, to climb onto a small boat and navigate it yourself through uncertain waters.

What can determine whether or not you will, not only survive, but make a success of it, are a number of factors. Starting with, what drove you to do it in the first place? Was it your dream to create a company which reflected who you are? To show just how could you could really be? Or did you just get fed up working until 1am every day on boring accounts serving unreasonable clients and doing crap work just to make the CFO happy while your personal life took a backseat?

We've all seen Mad Men, where some big heavy hitters all break away with a lot of clout and some nifty suits and haircuts to take on 1960s Madison Avenue. I grew up in London in the 80s when some pretty substantial independent heavy hitters were also coming into force, albeit with slightly different hairstyles. BBH, WCRS, Lowe, Howard Spink, Gold Greenlees Trott. Quality people opening quality doors and setting the tone for where the UK would be heading tomorrow. Great work ensued. We all drooled.

But today's world is somewhat different. It's a lot easier to set up, get some critical mass going, and get interest from clients. In fact, these days, attracting clients mostly entails winning pitch projects and if you're doing regular work on that basis it's a lot easier. (We were recently asked to pitch for doing a calendar???!!! What the hell is the world coming to?)

Today's clients are constantly on the lookout for better, perhaps more cost-effective options.

So recently I casually posed the question of 'Why?' to some not unknown ex-big agency folks who have all seemed to be doing jolly well at starting up and running their own shops.

Desmond So, co-founder of Uth in Hong Kong, has built up a pretty stalwart business which boasts some major AOR clients. I knew Des years ago when he was starting out (I think I knew everyone when they were starting out with the exception of Rosser Reeves), and he grew to become one of Hong Kong's most sought after management figures, running agencies like JWT.

"I wanted to do better work and create an agency culture that suits the local market. There were too many restrictions in a multinational agency structure which discourages people to fully express their talent. Like myself - I wanted so badly to involve in the strategic and creative development. But being at top management, I was swamped by lots of management issues and so called departmental professionalism. Our industry should be about the liberation of creativity!"

This from a highly successful agency suit who had already reached peak position.

andrew lok.jpgAnother person I posed the question to was Andrew 'Loksmith' Lok (left), Co- founder of Civilization in Shanghai with ex BBDO colleague Alex Xie. Andrew is actually from Singapore, and came to work in Hong Kong (I think it was so he could keep his hair Tarzan-length originally..they prefer it short in Singapore..).

By all accounts Civilization has been a roaring success, at least from a growth and business perspective, and doing some good work. But according to Tarzan, it wasn't always easy. "The first two years were so painful. I would probably never do it again. It was exciting, no doubt. But agonizing."

Okay, so why do it Mr Loksmith?

"Well for me, it was October 2012, and the digital disruption was taking place. Which meant agencies were rethinking their roles and scope of work. I was 40 years old (he doesn't look a day over 46 and a half today I swear). I knew that in the big agency life, there would always be someone younger, cheaper and more talented. And I didn't know what else to do in our business. So, I leapt!"

He did indeed, and he's done alright by it too. They have spiffing, funky offices, lots of talented young people, and are constantly challenging the big networks. But there's an interesting motivation right there in what he's said - thinking ahead.

Looking at yourself and where you are going, and ensuring you will stay relevant. When you have your own agency, only you can screw it up. Nobody can take it away from you. You'll never be out of a job. And you're never too old to be steering a creative ship (shop). Despite the perception in agencies that it's a young person business, clients don't always see it that way. If you're good, they still want you, and I'm speaking from experience.

I recall when I was in a regional creative director role, interviewing candidates for a somewhat far flung posting in Asia. Seeing guys who were older than me, and who had really kind of been off the radar a long time ago, and thinking "There but for the grace of God, go day!".

And vowing to myself that I would never put myself in a position whereby my livelihood was at the mercy of short-sighted bean counters. I'm too good for that. Always stay relevant. Create your own destiny. Reinvent yourself. Age is irrelevant. I have never ever been fired, and I've always been the one to initiate where I went next. (Advice from Uncle Chris.)

Sorry, I digress. I was getting all misty eyed there for a moment. But this line of thinking was echoed by my good friend Rudi Leung, who set up Hungry Digital.

I admire Rudi immensely for his passion, creativity and vision.

"Some might have thought that the reason I left the 4As world to start my own agency was that I was sick of big corporation politics, bureaucracy, and blah blah blah. True that might be a small part of it, but not the most critical reason. My "early" retirement plan was to open my own ad agency. That might sound weird. But it was true that the year when I completed my first home mortgage (a tiny apartment that it took me 25 years), and I had a little bit of saving, I decided to start my own ad agency, where I can do the work I believe is meaningful and enjoyable. More importantly, it is a sustainable way to keep me busy and happy. I always feel grateful that I can do advertising for a living. The type of work that allows me to keep connecting with art, writing, filming, photography, music, and many other things that always delight me. Even better, I am such a geek who loves exploring technologies and online media, and now I am at the conjunction between traditional and digital advertising. I believe I know how to hit "that" sweet spot. Now I am a happy adman who no longer needs to worry when I will get axed or forced to retire. I can keep working until the day when I have no client wants to hire."

The desire to create a world that is yours to control, and find out how good you really are, by applying your own principles and values, is indeed a great driving force when considering to abandon big ship.

Robert Gaxiola.jpgRobert Gaxiola is co-founder of Mangham Gaxiola in Singapore. Seeing as I'm an old fart, he's another fella who I've seen rise and shine, having seen his potential and hired him at FCB Singapore. To say he was always driven is an understatement, and he was no stranger to the award shows. (I once heard him crashing himself into a wall in our office. Thinking he'd tripped up it turned out he'd just been notified of acceptance into The One Show annual and was expressing delight. Weirdo.) So what motivated him to leave a creative job at one of the world's constantly most awarded agencies where gongs are dripping off the walls? "We were handed the keys to our place over five years ago. When I unlocked the door that first day, I knew I had a rare opportunity at hand. I thought it was a good chance to try things differently. I had years of agency experience by then and had learned a lot of stuff the hard way. All I really wanted out of this little experiment was to make it a nice place to work."

So, been there, done that. Follow your dream.

Also, he wanted to bring his cat to work, so that's another good reason for getting your own place. Mangham Gaxiola has now come under the fold of the Dentsu Aegis Network and is now Mangham Gaxiola McGarry Bowen. (And therein lies a clue for another reason for starting your own agency..go figure..)

The fact is, when you are successful at a big agency, you reach a point where you can't help thinking - could it be better? What could be achieved given complete freedom to choose who you work with, how you work with them, and what work you create?

This is reflected by the Co-founder and Creative Partner of another recent and so far very successful start up, BLK J in Singapore. A breakaway from DDB Singapore, the agency has been founded (like many a great indie start up) by an all star team.

Joji Jacob_DDB.jpgNo creative director in Singapore comes with higher award-winning credentials than Joji Jacob (left) in recent years, and it's not like he needed a job. He shared some thinking on their motivation.

"For a few years now we have been noticing that brands are getting fed up of the ponderous pace of the bigger network agencies. The size, silos, and structure of these agencies make it impossible for them to move at the pace of the market. In the past the clients wanted size but now what they need is speed. We thought and rightly so that there is place in the market for a bunch of highly experienced people to come together to form an agency that's fast, nimble and smart. And having our own thing helps us collaborate with the best media houses, directors, PR agencies and whoever a particular client may need at any given point in time. The four of us can make these decisions in 10 minutes over coffee rather than wait a week to hear from some HQ. This means that our clients get better work faster".

There are successful independents founded by bloody good people with passion. Some of whom are so successful they eventually get bought. There are many others who quietly plod on, earning a living and happily producing bread and butter, free from the politics and stress of big agency life (and security I hasten to add). There are others who are started up by people with 2 years experience who think they know everything and frankly end up going nowhere, because they were started for all the wrong reasons and weren't that good in the first place.

I loved my years in big agencies (basically Grey and FCB mostly). I loved the challenges, the striving for success, the people I was lucky enough to work with, and what I learned from them. The experiences I enjoyed. And I encourage any young person in the industry today to get in somewhere good, under someone of quality, and listen and learn. And keep learning. And keep learning. And one day, when you it's you who are doing the teaching, and you don't feel challenged any more but you are still hungry, the God of Independence might come knocking on your door.

Never get complacent. Never rest on your laurels. Go for it.

Chris Kyme is chief executive officer at Kymechow, Hong Kong



Mark A Amdur said:

Spiffing article. Having done that in HK I can say the creative motivation to leave the steady ship remains as it did in 1986. The only point you've missed is that when you are successful the big networks want you and they are ready to pay cash.

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