As a child I lived in one of the old flats at Tiong Bahru Estate. I remembered the rounded balconies, flat rooftops, spiral staircases and underground shelters. It has a close knit kampong spirit and everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. I remembered the old dialling telephones we had then. The picture of my mother, Laura Tan having two rotary phones placed on the kitchen table to make cold calls to companies etched deeply in my memory. My mother has long beautiful painted nails. She would use a pencil to dial the numbers to call her clients. The other phone would be used for incoming calls. What a brilliant and enterprising idea! Laura Tan, now 84, was one of the first entrepreneurs to sell advertising space on the back of the bus.
Needless to say I was sent to Tiong Bahru Primary School following my late elder brother Winston Tan who was a year older than me. I grew up always having dreams of the future and thoughts of making it big. A driving passion and vision was instilled in me even at a very young age.
I started a career by working for an enterprising shipyard as a personal assistant to the boss. It was a short spell and I enjoyed my work but family obligations beckons. At the family dining table I was enthused to hear the challenges my mother Laura Tan encountered in her business. My mother, Laura Tan founded 3 Aces one of Singapore’s largest outdoor bus banner agency. My father assisted her by communicating with the outdoor production company in dialect. The challenges and success she faced made me eager to join the family business.
Newly wedded, we had to move abroad for a few years. In 1982, my husband Kwek Chee Kian, managing director of a pet food company Petsaurus was awarded a scholarship to study aeronautics in Florida. Having nothing much to do in a foreign country besides keeping house I decided to enrol in a business course at Daytona Beach Community College. During this short stint of approximately three years I learnt the nitty-gritty details on how to be an entrepreneur. It was hands-on in creating TV advertisements from scratch. I had to print my own price tags and make cold calls to merchandisers. I had to literally set up a business. The philosophy is that you learn by doing. I learnt that all an entrepreneur does is to create something that consistently makes money. It was amazing and breathtakingly exciting!
I was so hooked on bringing my ideas to life. Attending classes were downright fun. Ideas kept flowing in and during weekends I even set up a small clothing boutique booth. Being alone in a foreign country, it was a different environment altogether. My family and friends seem so far away. I had to be positive and independent and remember to think out of the box. Now is the time to be resourceful and make things happen. I believe this was the turning point in my passion for creativity. The clothes I sold were moving so fast. Week after week seeing the clothing snapped up was such an exciting and rewarding experience! When your business is thriving and people love your store there is no better feeling. Then before you know it, my three years were up and it was time to return home. The business I set up even paid up my Daytona fees at the tune of $100,000. I returned to Singapore with excitement as a full-fledged entrepreneur!
Back home in Singapore, I returned to 3 Aces and assumed the helm of the company for ten years. I said to my mother tongue-in-cheek, “Mother, this is my national service to you.” My mother was an excellent and tenacious sales person. Someone said she could make a sales deal just by talking on the phone. For me, I was more a visual person. I would get some visuals done up by an artist before I see a client. We both made a good team. Selling ad space for bus panels was exciting and it was at 34 years of age that I made my first million! A firm believer that a company must have a soul, I believe in giving back to those in need because it’s not just about making money.
Something for the family
As the managing director of 3 Aces and also a mother with my then two sons Jerel and Janan, I wanted to do something that was family oriented. I saw the need for a busy working mum like myself to stay connected to my children and also be geared with valuable and handy information plus contact details of everything – from going to a child friendly restaurant to getting an orthodontist. I saw the need for young parents to build relationships in a busy environment so that they can stay connected. I decided to move on to publications.
Having a passion for children, I had an idea in 1993 when I was at Canberra with my son Janan. An A5 magazine slipped under my front door. It was a magazine called “Kids in Canberra” I thought to myself what a brilliant idea to have such a magazine in Singapore! That was how Kids Guide was birthed. “Kids Guide” was a self-funded annual directory with a circulation of 100,000 copies. It highlighted libraries in Singapore, and apparel outlets in the city and more. “Kids Guide” was peppered with short articles and how-tos for parents to be positive and generous in awarding praises to their offspring. Another family oriented publication Family Guide was targeted to busy moms with useful resource directory of services available island-wide. I then published “Family Tree”, a bi-monthly magazine that rendered tips on how to improve family lives, finances, health and parenting skills injected with humour. We distributed these publications to kindergartens around Singapore. The kids will bring the books back to their parents. Many concerts were organised at different schools such as Maria Stella School and Gracefield Kindergarten. It was a joy to observe proud grandparents and parents watching their children performing. Our aim was to showcase the children’s talents and to help them gain confidence. This was a higher purpose.
I remembered one party we threw during the early Kids Guide’s days. It was a party where all the staff had to dress up as characters from Fairy Tales. There was this sense of excitement in the air. We even had professional make-up artists to recreate the characters and gaudy coloured costumes were rented for this thrilling event. Some were dressed as a Fairy Godmother, One as Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother; one was dressed as Snow White, another was Prince Charming and some were just gnomes and elves. It was great fun and indeed an unforgettable evening! The party was surreal and dream-like. That evening took off so well that we had our clients talking about the party for weeks and months after the event.
We are family
One project gave me a lot of excitement as it was a joint effort between Jerel Janan Print and the then Ministry of Community Development. The illustrative book was entitled, “We Are Family” and it was aimed at reflecting on the importance of family life. It was published in celebration of the International Year of the Family, 1994 and was authored by Singapore children. I thought to myself why not publish a Chinese edition to promote and instill the 5-core values in the lives of the Singapore children. So another book was published and written by children in Singapore. It was also supported by the then Ministry of Community Development.
Still, there was a need for more funding. And so, I sold advertisement spaces on Kids Guide and at the same time I was the media agent for City Dreams. Satisfied with the success of both magazines especially Kids Guide as it had impacted many lives and I felt I was able to enhance the quality of family lives, I moved on to Outdoor Advertising.
Dreams in the City
In 1999, I started City Dreams and focused on advertising space on taxis. A cab is not just a cab. With a passion for outdoor advertising, I took the opportunity to build City Dreams on a dream and my dream was to turn every dream into a cash cow. I believe with all my heart that if I have the passion plus integrity and a certain sense of audacity to chase my dreams, I can turn them into cash cows…
When I looked at a CityCab taxi, I saw possibilities. I could see the opportunity for innovative creativity. I asked myself if I could place 3-D advertising paraphernalia on the taxi tops? How about wholly painted taxis? The answer was a resounding “yes!” I became excited with another innovative advertising opportunity. Why not place ads on the wheels of the taxi. I reminded myself that if I have dreams and the passion to realise them, I can stay alive.
Straits Times, May 4, 1999 reported:
“The Managing Director of advertising company CityDreams also came up with CityCabs’ wholly-painted taxies and 3-D taxi tops. But while business is booming now, she has seen bad times and has overcome them. She says: If you have dreams and the passion to realise them, you can stay alive.”…
I managed City Dreams for a year and a half when APN Outdoor, a public listed company was interested in buying its shares. Meetings took place and in 1999, I sold City Dreams to media company APN Australian Publishing. It was then time for me to take a breather. I went on a two-year sabbatical at my holiday home in Gold Coast.
Garden Leave – a bed of roses
I had mixed feelings when I was at Gold Coast. By then I had built a good working relationship with Singapore’s second largest land transport company ComfortDelGro. I was asked to revamp their advertising arm and I readily conceded because dreams, ideas and concepts were already brewing in my head and it would be good to reignite my creative spark again and pour my ideas into a new business.
The Move to Moove
I was offered an exciting role and that was to inject creativity into the Comfort DelGro business and to completely revamp it. It was a big move from City Dreams to a bigger dream in Moove Media. And I was ready.
Hearts on Trees
In the month of September 2000, When I was told that Singapore was introducing National Health Week to the public to raise heart-health awareness in conjunction with World Heart’s Day. I initiated an innovative idea where 3,000 red acrylic hearts were scattered all over Singapore to get the message across. The red hearts had to be tied around the trunks of 3,000 trees island wide. The campaign theme was, “Love your heart, Let it Beat”. I was thrilled that it was a roaring success and that the red hearts were loved by the public. Besides knowing that the campaign was successful, I was determined to stress the importance of a healthy heart and to create awareness for the public at large to take good care of their hearts and subsequently to prolong their lives. We managed to rope advertisers into participate in this campaign via sponsorship and ad placement inside the heart magazine. I was happier still to be told that a whopping $2 million were raised was collected for needy heart patients.
There’s something about cows. Cows moo and because we are in the transit/moving industry, the word “move” comes to mind. To add oomph to the word “move”, I added an extra “O” to form the word, “Moove”. Cash cows moo and cash cows bring in cash and revenue. So Moove Media was born and so did the Moove cows! When I was planning the Cows on the Moove campaign, I felt excited and happy. I spoke to Mr Kua Hong Pak, Managing Director of ComfortDelGro, “Mr Kua, How much money I can make for you, I can’t really tell. But I can tell you this that I will make you proud.”
We wanted our cows to draw the public’s attention. My idea was to make wooden cut-outs made of recycled plywood printed with eco-solvent ink and prop them up on the landscapes in Singapore. What a glorious sight it was for me to know that one ordinarily morning in April 2005, Singaporeans woke up with glee to see neon coloured, quirky cows grazing the greens, on roadsides and across the sunny island of Singapore. The feedback I heard from my staff was that many “cows” were “pinched” as keepsake or as mascots. I really did not mind if it makes someone happy and have touched their lives. I just wanted to make Singapore vibrant and fun. It was a really fun thing for me to figuratively transform the landscape of Singapore and inject laughter and delight. It became the talk of the town with vast media coverage in the newspapers and magazines. The teaser cow campaigns grabbed the attention of the public and the media.
One trade magazine wrote about the effect of the Moove media cows on the public: “If you had told me earlier someone would launch a company based on cartoon cows scattered on grass patches island wide I would have thought you were joking, but Kwek leveraged on her wide connection to do just that….revolutionising the business of outdoor advertising in the process.”
Our first anniversary showcased the generic cows. It was a simple idea but one that brought out the simplicity using five coloured cows. All the cows represented vibrancy, magic and vitality. I smile when I remember the second anniversary of Moove cows in 2007. The theme was that Hollywood Moove Cows visits Singapore. The Moove cows were aptly named after famous actresses and actors like Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee and Charlie Chaplin. One Moove cow was even named after Michael Jackson and all of the cows graced our Moove Hollywood party.
Taxi boot stashed with cash
An established bank wanted to promote assets into cash with their product. I thought about a taxi boot stuffed with money to promote a great visual on turning assets into cash. I printed specimen of 100 dollar notes and had them inserted into taxi boots. The fake $100 bills were literally spilling our from taxi boots that seemed to be brimming to the full with them. It was definitely an traffic stopper. My tag line was “Turn your assets into cash with AssetLine”. I was delighted that it won the Silver Award in SOAA 2006.
In 2007 I had an “Aha! moment” when I decided to present a creative concept on themed buses. I decided to strip the interior of a bus gutted to resemble that of an airplane namely for a Silk Air campaign. Even the seats were upholstered using Thai silk. Everyone was excited with the concept buses. Another theme was Formula 1 Panasonic buses where we replaced bus seats with hand sewn racing car seats. I am happy to announce that this bright idea did bring in the dough.
Spot the Gobbler Monsters
In 2011, I decided to add some fun to the environment in Singapore. This time it was not Moove Cows but Gobbler Monsters hung on trees around Singapore to be spotted by the public. I called it the “Happy Green Moments” I created Gobblershop to be an associate of Moove Media. GobblerShop is an online discounted mini-mart that sells affordable groceries to everyday people so that they save more and can enjoy life better.
Cows work very hard. To salute the professionals, executives and rank-and-file workers who helped shape Singapore’s past, present and future, I decided in 2012 to launch more than 400 occupational cows around Singapore. These cows were called The Moove Cows@Work. Everyone was really happy with this concept as everyone has helped shape Singapore in their own small ways.
Happy Cows and Hearts
Last year in 2013 I worked together with the National Parks Board in a campaign to celebrate Singapore as a “City in a Garden” and also to promote graciousness and kindness to the public at large. So a Happy Cows and Hearts Campaign was launched in May and 600 cows each carrying a red heart on their backs were created to graze the landscape of Singapore.
Snappy Red Boot for Snapping
In 2013, we created huge pairs of red oversized Ronald McDonald’s shoes and had them placed on Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and Bus Hubs for Instagram shots. I wanted to rally support on McDonald’s latest Ronald McDonald’s House Charities (RMHC) campaign. What they need to do was to snap a photo on Instagram with the hashtag#mchappydaysg so that a dollar will be donated to Ronald McDonald House Charities for every photo taken.
Glowing Taxi Doors
One of my “Aha! Moments” was to think of glow lights? Illuminated, glowing, luminious? We decided to place electroluminescent light technology on taxi doors. They were die-cut and overlaid with stickers and “glow” once the engine is turned on. It was really so cool and our client Citibank was happy with the result of launching its “Rewards Card and Citibank Globeshopper” with our latest technology on taxi doors.
My Three Sons
With more than 30 years in the industry, I determine to be a role model to my three sons. Jerel, 34 is the CEO and Co-Founder at Addiction Foods. A premium pet food sold in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Asia. Janan, 23, GobblerShop’s Brand Manager and Jed, 21 are both keen in running their own businesses. Involved in the youths and the arts scene, Jed is at present working on a few major activities that include photography and a student project called Moove Media Hails Young Hearts. Dinner table discussions are always exciting and stimulating. I would bounce off business ideas with them and they in turn would share with me their findings. I strive to inspire, influence and plant seeds of innovation into their lives.
Motivating Moove Team
My greatest aim is to mentor my subordinates at Moove Media. My desire is to empower them. I coach them unceasingly and strive to be a mentor to them. I even created a book called, “Belief” for my staff. It is a handbook with quirky fun visuals and inspirational quotes. One quote says, “If you can’t solve a problem, it’s because you are playing by the rules”. I created this booklet to nurture my staff to view every challenge in their lives as an opportunity for personal growth. Above all else, I am committed to my staff at Moove Media.
There is this burning desire and passion in me is to be an agent of change in creative and innovative solutions. An idea motivates me and makes me alive and happy. I gazed at the window of my apartment and often reminded myself that the sky’s the limit. Walls must be knocked down. Even the walls of my house were knocked down. I detest walls they stifle me. My mind feels liberated without walls.
Books to boost imagination
I have a voracious appetite for creative books and books that motivate me. Books are my source of continual stream of “Aha! moment”. I breathe in books and reading is my “oxygen”. I am inspired by my favourite authors. They inspire me and I feed my mind with creative concepts and ideas from the winners in the marketplace. Books like Bhargava’s Personality Not Included, why Companies Lose their Authenticity and How Great Brands Get it Back are real sources of inspiration. When I read these books it is a moment of clarity, a defining moment where I gain wisdom that teach me to constantly reinvent my business. I cut pages from certain magazines that inspired me and have a ready scrapbook to share my ideas with my team at the office. I am ready with a concept because when I speak to a person about a project, I have a ready picture or a concept in my head.
Someone asked me am I done yet? The answer is “of course not!” Having achieved many of my dreams I am driven and motivated and still in the process of pursuing manifold dreams. The best is yet to be!
Article contributed in 2014