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 patronised 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 Organisation 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.”
Article published in AdAsia Jan/Feb 2004