The Independents: Blak Labs

Founded in 2015, local agency Blak Labs recently opened a Myanmar office signaling its undying enthusiasm for the business. With Maybank as its first client, the agency has grown into familiar name in the industry.

Founder Charlie Blower shares with Marketing some nuggets of wisdom for achieving success in setting up your own agency.

When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?
The thought occurs to you every now and then when you’re working for someone else. And when my future partners and I met up for coffee one day back in 2010, we figured then was a good time to give it a go. It’s called Blak Labs because it’s an experiment to see whether creatives can successfully run a business.

Which year did you first start up? Who was the first client you had on board?
2010. The first client who gave us a chance was Maybank. They’re still a client today and since then we’ve grown by word-of-mouth. Thanks to everyone who has shared our name around!

How did you put your first team together?
As it happens, we’ve all worked together in the past or wanted to work together in the past. So we started by coming together at each other’s homes, then at cafes in Dempsey Road, chatting things through and put together a rough idea of how we wanted to position ourselves – organising ourselves around a client’s business.

Then we set about doing it. Today, it gives a client reassurance to see the business owners are the people doing the work and tackling their problems with Creative Care.

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What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?
Choosing an office. We went out and looked at loads of places and finally found one that felt right. Leaving our first office was hard but necessary due to our growth.

Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?
Of course – but you learn to use that feeling to push through. You pitch. You win some. You lose some. Lick your wounds, have a rest, then get back on the horse to try again the next day.

As Winston Churchill put it “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
We are still full of enthusiasm which is why we’re now doing work in Myanmar.

How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?
Having come from running an MNC, where you are just a link in the chain, it feels pretty liberating.
But it’s also exhausting…never enough hours in the day! But what we understand better now is that being your own boss means there is no safety net…you either eat or die trying…luckily, we’ve managed to keep starvation from the door.

It’s pretty simple…the partners sit around one table and boil the questions down to the barest essence and figure out if things work for us or not. No need to check with someone in NYC who doesn’t give a damn about anything but the numbers.

And on working for someone else, it depends who they are…

Pluses and Minuses of being independent
+ You make your own destiny. – There’s no safety net.
You’ve got to think twice as hard and watch the cash flow.

When you first started out, how did you market your agency?How did you get clients on board?
We had nothing but an idea, a desire to create work that solves problems and some great talent. We also had some big experience to draw on. We cold-called. A lot. We didn’t actively market ourselves until we’d actually done something worth talking about…which got picked up. Things snowballed from there.

What was your first experience in the ad world? How do you think that shaped you?
My first experience was great – at DDB in Hong Kong with two great bosses who taught me a lot. Then I went to work for a small agency in Hong Kong. That’s really where I learned a great deal – in a small agency, you have to do everything…

What have you taken away from your years in the ad world and implemented in your current business?
Better listening skills which gives us a better understanding of what we should be doing for clients. And a clearer idea of how we should be protecting and rewarding our people.

We take every one away on a trip each year to thank them. (We’re not the first agency to do this.) And we try to have a Friday lunch after a big push at the office.

What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?
There is no safety net.

What is one piece of advice you’d give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?
Go for it…be brave. You’ll learn a great deal and have some fun at the same time. There’s nothing like winning a piece of business against a previous employer…

Would you be open to buyout?
Depends who’s doing the buying and what’s being offered. Always open to a chat.

Five year plan for the agency
Now that would be telling. But broadly: Continue our growth to a place where we can replace ourselves.

First team: Hwee, Charlie, Justin, Nick & Elsa – all current partners
First client: Maybank
Founding year: 2010
Founded by: Hwee, Charlie, Justin
Claim to fame: Hard to say - winning Gardens by the Bay against one of my old agencies was great. Winning a three-country pitch against some of Malaysia’s more famous agencies. Our young guns winning the inaugural CCA NexGen digital challenge.

Read also:
The Independents: Community by Victor Ng
The Independents: The Alchemy Partnership by Alvin Wong
The Independents: GOVT