Advertising was a career choice for me back in 1964. As a 19-year old with a temporary job at a bank, I was looking for a job of my choice when I chanced upon one of Confucius’ famous sayings: “Choose a job you love and you will never have worked a day in your life.”
I entered the advertising business in 1966 after finishing an Intermediate Certificate awarded by the Advertising Association of London, an organization which later was defunct. My acceptance as a Trainee Account Executive (AE) with Cathay Advertising Limited heralded my entry into the advertising industry. Cathy Advertising was, by the way, nothing to do with the cinema chain. The job opening came by chance although I would like to think it was also by merit. The executive who interviewed me at Cathay was an Australian called Ingersol but I never saw him thereafter when I was formally presented to Alan Green, the Managing Director. Alan, a well-known figure in the industry at that time, was a tall Englishman with a rather receding lower jaw.
Ingersol mentioned that I was very fortunate to be selected from among 500 applicants. I recall another successful candidate who was selected together with me called Raymond Teo. I am afraid I lost contact with him and have no idea how his career went or where he is today. We were both inducted together as Trainee Account Executives and were each assigned on a rotation to various Senior AEs. In addition to, and as part of our training program, we were put into a market research firm owned by Cathay Advertising called Opinion Research managed by a psychologist cum statistician named Eric Kok.
Cathay Advertising had offices in Hong Kong and Kula Lumpur as well as Singapore. When we joined Cathay Advertising, the agency already had the Fraser & Neave (F&N) and Malayan Breweries Limited (MBL) accounts, and these two added to their other accounts made Cathay the biggest agency in town at that time. One of the plum accounts was the British airline BOAC (the acronyms stand for British Overseas Airways Corporation, but internally, we called it, “Better On A Camel”). Other major clients were Rank Xerox, Robinsons and John Little, Parker Pen, New Zealand Insurance, most of which I worked on. F&N and MBL came together as one account as these two companies were under the same CEO, Max Lewis. The joint account was managed by a separate high- powered teams that included Alan Green and Eric Kok. On hindsight, it was probably the inclusion of market research as a key component to handling the business that helped Cathay gain so many advertisers. Eric, who was educated in the US, was a small-sized young Chinese gentleman, and whenever he stood next to Alan Green, who was over 6ft tall, you saw the ups and downs of the advertising business personified.
I met Max Lewis of F&N fame on a private occasion years later that had nothing to do with the business. It so happened that we met through common friends and in the home of someone who has huge investments in F&N. The occasion was friendly and I also got to meet his wife, Garcia. Max, was a portly man with a penchant for life (he drunk whiskey with durians). He was a hardworking, hard-driving Jew who began life in F&N at a very low level, beginning at the bottling plant. However, he probably came from a wealthy Jewish family and held shares in F&N. There is today a Max Lewis Scholarship fund administered by HSBC Trustee started by his wife in his honour. They had no children of their own but he did help many young people by his gift. I remember Max as saying proudly that he was responsible for coining the famous advertising line, “Time for a Tiger”, which went for quite a long season.
Coupled with some self-studies, I learned fairly quickly at Cathay during the six-month stint as a trainee. When I first started to read about advertising, it was defined as, “to bring or draw attention to,” which comes from the word ‘advert’. By the time I got smarter, advertising has been re-defined by the Marketing Association of America as: ”any paid form of nonpersonal presentation and promotion of ideas, goods, or services by an identified sponsor.” The key words in bold speak for themselves: personal selling is NOT Advertising as there is a person being represented; it has to be paid for, so word-of-mouth is also NOT advertising. The advertiser is identified as the person paying for the advertisement and differs from publicity that is generated through news worthiness.
Back to Cathay and the year 1967. Getting down to business meant we were thrown into the deep end immediately after our six-month stint and given the role of Junior Account Executives – but without the word ‘junior’ stated in our business cards. So we had to appear smart and knowledgeable whenever we see a client together with the senior AEs. Back at the agency, it is hard work to meet deadlines and to write contact reports. In my case, I had additionally to write advertising market reports for which I was not properly trained. We had someone from the media who monitored competitors’ advertising and BOAC bought the reports I made. In fact, CB Ong at BOAC raved about the reports as his boss in London was apparently well pleased with my work.
After several back-breaking years with Cathay, Raymond and I decided that it was probably less stressful to be working on the client side of advertising than on the agency side. Raymond left earlier and I eventually went to join Rank Xerox.
I moved to Xerox in 1972 as an analyst. It was still a duplicating machine leasing company and my job was to analyse paper-flow and how to increase revenue by copying/duplicating more. In 1974, the company’s 12-year xerographic (printing on plain paper) patent expires and it has to reorganize its marketing strategy into a copier sales company. Although I was trained in Xerox in their highly-coveted sales program, I was re-assigned as a sales administrator; and in a subsequent major reshuffle, I lost my job.
I started my own advertising agency in 1974, after deciding I should concentrate on what I knew best- the advertising business. My first office location was at the Mandarin Hotel, Singapore on Orchard Road and I only had two employees: a Personal Assistant and a Graphic Visualizer. By 1975 my agency SP&V Advertising had grown and we were accredited, and so I joined the 4As (Association of Accredited Advertising Agents), Singapore. I was invited by the then President to volunteer on the executive committee, little did I know I was to stay there for some 12 years. I served on various sub-committees that include ASAS (Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore), the Education Subcommittee and taught advertising for a short while in what was then The Adult Education Board.
During those twenty years on my own in the business, I recalled what Alan Green advised n the very beginning: to look at advertising as a business and not from a professional standpoint. He was right. There is not much an ad man can profess except from the business lessons he has learned and apply that into a business model.
The Advertising business is really a talent business. We either have the talents to employ advertising to make other businesses work, or we don’t. Because I could draw and write, the advertising business was well suited for me and others who had those talents. With an artistic bent, we could apply to the presentation of the business. And so, our true role in the business world really is, “We need to understand what a marketer has to say, and we say it for him/her/them through advertising.”
In 1995 I wound up my business amidst the changing multimedia landscape. The Internet and the ever-changing computing industry caved in on me as the cost of replacing my hardware peripheral became too costly and to acquire the knowhow just to understand the software was becoming onerous. Although now I have caught up on some of the computing peripheral, the environment has changed somewhat dramatically into a different business environment along the multimedia corridor.
Article contributed in 2014