The CFO from France — an Irishman, and recent arrival — screamed out from his tiny office, “Did we make a profit or didn’t we?” There seemed to be no one in his office, yet I could feel his frustration. “Welcome to Singapore” I said to myself. Where what you think is happening may not be happening. Or perhaps, the heat has all of us Ang Mo’s slightly crazy.
A short time later the managing director, an affable chap from England, was edged out. He had kept his key account man so busy, the account person hadn’t time to get the billing procedure for a major client in proper order — about two years worth of billing if you can believe it.
Of course the managing director’s ‘enemies’ didn’t notice the whole time. The ‘locals’ it seemed to me had their ways I’ll tell you that.
The key account person on this major client offered this explanation to me before he was exiled to Malaysia: “I didn’t have time. I was so busy. ‘Of course, I said to myself: why bother with billings?’
So what was the real truth in this fascinating muddle called Singapore Advertising?
Where if you ‘cracked’ the brief in the morning, why couldn’t you do the same thing for another account in the afternoon? And perhaps into the night as well?
Back in the states working at some of the major advertising agencies in New York, as well as a brief stint in London, I had become fascinated with some of the work coming out of Neil French’s Singapore. Although a lot of the ads in the award books from Neil French and his disciples didn’t make that much sense to me, they sure got my attention. I kind of had this affectionate image of French as the Colonel Tom Parker of Singapore Advertising.
Late in my career when I discovered my harsh ways with account people and art directors at major agencies in New York, did not heed well with getting a job later in life, no matter how many awards I had, I told my wife one day I was going to Singapore. I didn’t want to spend the rest of what was left of my career sitting in a Head Hunter’s office. I had sent French some of my ads and he replied that he might help me secure a position if I came there (probably thinking I never would.) Because of personal reasons my wife could not come with me, and just as well, she hated the heat and nothing to do all day when she did visit me. Thank god for Borders I said when she did come for brief stays.
Anyway, I managed to locate Singapore, but finding Neil French at that time in 1995 was another story, he had just left EURO. After two days of investigation and a zillion phone calls, I headed for his off-beat office in Chinatown as the CD of JWT or was it Ogilvy?
As I stood with my expansive portfolio at the bus stop, crowded buses kept passing by and not stopping. Finally the Singaporeans at the bus stop anxious to get to work began to give me dirty looks — in one case menacing. I quickly figured out that the bus drivers thought my portfolio would be too much of a hassle on the crowded bus and weren’t stopping. So I took a cab to French’s ‘office’ and dropped off my book.
A day later, now located at the ‘Y’ and sans portfolio, I decided to visit EURO RSCG and talk to some creative people about how much a senior copywriter could make. This began a lucky confluence of events that ended up with me getting a job there.
1st lucky break
In the ‘Y’ lobby I looked up the telephone number of EURO and used the lobby phone at the ‘Y’ to call them. No answer. Who would have thought that a major Singapore Advertising agency would move and leave no forwarding number? Although I didn’t know at the time what the problem was.
On a lark with no intention of following up if I got nowhere, I noticed the information number in the telephone book and called it. To my surprise, EURO did not go out of business. They gave me the new EURO number. Oddly, it turns out, I found out later that the ‘Y’ had cut off any calls being made for the information number from the lobby phone. Sure enough when I tried to call information again I couldn’t. I have no explanation on how I was able to dial information. Destiny perhaps, but that’s awful corny.
2nd lucky break
When I called EURO and told the receptionist what I wanted to do, she said fine and gave me detailed instructions on how to get to EURO. How could I not follow up I told myself.
3rd lucky break
In my brief stint at Ogilvy in London, I often wandered into a small office occupied by an art director and copywriter from Singapore. The creative directors at Ogilvy, who had just been Associate Creative Directors at another agency before getting the job, bragged that these two were their secret weapon, although I never got the impression that the Singaporeans were told that.
So I’m on my way to EURO by bus figuring what do I have to loose. (I was told later that French had just been edged out at EURO by internal politics with a million dollar settlement. Don’t know if it was true or not.)
Anyway, when I arrived at Euro RSCG the receptionist, a Malaysian lady couldn’t have been nicer, I asked her if I could speak to a copywriter. Sure enough, she made a call and this lanky Indian led me to his office. I handed him a handout of some of my ads and he told me to wait a moment that he would get the Creative Director. I was embarrassed, and said “No, I just want to find out what the going rate is for a senior copywriter.” He insisted, and Eugene Cheong walked into the room. Yes, the same copywriter at Ogilvy in London who I visited often. He hugged me, and asked me to work with his copywriter at a nearby hotel on a pitch for MasterCard.
I’m not sure the copywriter was too happy about the arrangement but he went along with it. His name was Juggi Ramakrishnan. Yes, that guy. Later, he would often complain about me talking too loudly, and could they please relocate my office. That may have been why he left for Saatchi. One never knows.
Anyway, somehow, the entire process, my work and Juggi’s included, managed to get the MasterCard account, and Eugene went on to create a fascinating ad at the time which was shot in Australia. I never understood the opening of the spot, but Eugene has an incredible imagination, perhaps the most far-reaching in advertising.
It seemed to me, however, that I had to pass one more test before I was offered the job at EURO RSCG: How I participated as a team player on a bowling team lead by one of Eugene Seow’s protégé account executives. I always looked grim when she tossed the ball into the gutter, and must have passed the test.
Life after that was hectic. My working for Ed McCabe for eight years prepared me for it, however. But I did work with some great people. Reggie Chew, and Vincent Digonnet for example. Vincent was the most creative account person I ever worked with. Later he became Managing Director. He could have headed any creative department as far as I was concerned. Eugene Seow was incredibly talented as well. He won the Vietnam account by drinking whiskey with a snake in it; all the other agencies competing for the business passed on that one.
Friday nights were spent drinking a pitcher of beer down at the Boat Quay. Saturday, the movies, and maybe a half a day at Euro. And Sunday, mass and another movie. And maybe a trip to Borders. Not too exciting, I know.
I lived with some good families, and some dysfunctional ones. And had an apartment of my own at one point on Chay Yan Street. If I took a taxi there the drivers always smiled when I mentioned the street. Finally, I asked why and one driver said it was the street where a lot of mistresses were kept. Late at night I would hear a number of high heels clacking on the sidewalk. I never got used to the Chinese clearing their throats every morning in stereo. It was hard eating cereal when that happened.
All in all, between the heat, and not allowing myself any creature comforts, and sending most of my money home, Singapore for me was about survival the number of times I worked there. Yet, very exciting to some degree. A young population that loved advertising with more Art Directors and Copywriters per capita than any other city in the world, thanks to Neil French.
I did get a novella out of the experience. It’s an e-book, on Kindle (Amazon) called Down and Out in Singapore. My author name being E.N.J. Carter
Would I do it again: Yes.
Earl Carter, New York City , February 25, 2014
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