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.
Article published in AdAsia Jan/Feb 2004