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.
Article published in AdAsia Jan/Feb 2004