Marketing podcast: Life after advertising with 1880 founder Marc Nicholson

While its live events arm was deeply impacted by the much needed social restrictions put in place by COVID-19 last year, private member club 1880 found itself in an interesting position when it saw member applications going through the roof. In fact by November 2020, Marc Nicholson, founder of 1880, said the club had its highest ever number of applicants and the team had to reassess the number of applicants it could allow.

The club which is currently hosted on the third floor of Quayside@Robertson Quay prides itself as being one which connects non- homogenous groups of people, giving individuals “access to minds”. At the heart of it all, is former ad man Nicholson who was previously running an agency called Rocket X Media – who deeply believes in the power of human connections and that "conversations can and will make the world a better place". In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Nicholson said the club was created not to bring together “like-minded” people but rather people who would challenge our status quo and style of thinking.  

Listen to the full podcast here.

Currently, its facilities include a spa, a bar, a restaurant, an outdoor terrace, movie theatre and co-working space. A one-time joining fee for its membership is approximately SG$5,000, with monthly fees of over SG$180. Nicholson explained that Pre-COVID-19, on any given day, the club would have approximately 60% of its members travelling out of town. However, now with travel restrictions strictly in place, its members were heading down to the club more than ever. As such, the team had a very unique and interesting challenge to balance incoming revenue through new members versus providing a desired experience for established club members.

Prioritising positive member experiences, Nicholson and his team made the tough call of halting its membership application. Its membership is currently capped at 2,000 individuals.

“We had no choice, with all our members in town; we had to focus on our members. Demand went through the roof,” he said. Nicholson admits that while halting the membership would be seen as “counter intuitive” from a business perspective, he knew the move was necessary.

“We were entering the holiday period and people were scrambling to get tables for New Years and Christmas and we knew the same would happen during Chinese New Year and we were at 100% capacity. Our members were getting frustrated not being able to get tables on Friday nights and we thought if we let in more people and they can’t use the club, that’s a negative experience.”

Of course, as with most businesses Nicholson and his team has also had to embrace the digital. However despite the trend towards all things digital, Nicholson still believes that at the heart of the club is to promote human interaction. He said,

Right from the beginning we wanted to be more analogue than digital because we are a person to person organisation.

Thus, instead of turning to digital solutions early in its communication, the club focused on physical ways to stay connected, such as writing letters to members, or giving each other a call, and meet-ups instead of turning to digital solutions. In fact, other than using digital platforms such as email, Telegram, and WhatsApp to communicate with its members or potential members, 1880 has always prided itself as an organisation that focuses on person-to-person interaction.

Analogue’s challenges

However, staying analogue in a digital world comes with its own set of challenges. When COVID-19 struck in February, Nicholson said “everything got wiped out” right off the bat. The club, which purpose was to bring strangers together to inspire conversation, could no longer hold large-scale events that it used to.

With the new restrictions, 1880 had to pivot its offerings, and instead of hosting huge groups of people to its venue, it sought to bring people closer together in the comfort of their own homes. During the circuit breaker period, members started to request the team to send cakes for their friends’ birthday or other special occasions. Sometimes members would hold dinner parties through digital platforms and place food orders from 1880. The team then made sure that food for the different parties all arrived at the same time, so its consumers can have their dinner together over Zoom.

Furthermore, to align its new-found delivery services with its purpose to sparking conversations, Nicholson said the team at 1880 started including conversation cards in meals. This way, guests can not only share a meal, but also quality conversations. Following positive feedback garnered from its conversation cards, 1880 eventually made it into an official game deck that it currently sells at its own retail shop within the club.

Additionally, instead of its usual large-scale events that it holds, 1880 started to host “Table of five”, an event where five people who do not know each other come together and get to know one another. According to Nicholson, this idea was birthed as it had members who expressed they were lonely and suffering socially, and the event soon became “super popular”.

Great symbiotic relationship

When it comes to brand-agency relationships, Nicholson said 1880 has the “greatest symbiotic relationship” with The Secret Little Agency (TSLA). Before 1880 was established, Nicholson approached TSLA to create the branding for the club.

The agency had the idea that when guests of the club wander off and look somewhere else, there should always be subtle little reminders of the brand that meets their eyes. Therefore, 1880 now embeds its iconic number ‘8’ into the design of its front gate and its filter system at the bar.

When working with TSLA, Nicholson said the agency would often challenge the brand to step out of its comfort zone.

“TSLA would take us to a very uncomfortable position, and we will find our way back before deciding how far we want to go with the idea,” he explained. TSLA started working with 1880 on a retainer base, and eventually became shareholders in the business. Currently, 1880 and TSLA’s partnership has expanded to one whereby 1880 sends its staff for skills upgrading at TSLA. These include social media and website design trainings.

Moving forward, 1880 said it is looking to expand its business into neighbouring markets, and has its eyes on Jakarta, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.