Terrence Tan, a familiar face in the industry, has over 30 years of experience in the creative world. He has gained his advertising experience in the biggest of agencies such as TBWA, M&C Saatchi, DDB, Ogilvy and many others. He was also one of the founders of creative hot shop 10AM Communications which launched in 2000.
Over the years, he has created over hundreds of TV commercials and worked with clients such as RSAF, HPB, Caltex, Nissan, ION and many other iconic brands. Today, Tan leads his own team in his own creative startup Ice Inc which he started up four years ago.
Here’s his story.
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When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?
I had my first break back in 2000 when I co-founded 10am Communications. I’ve always wanted to run a company doing what I like. I changed my mind about being self-employed after five years and decided to return to agency life. It wasn’t an easy decision to make then. Without regrets, I have gained much more, achievement wise, after joining M&C Saatchi and DDB.
Which year did you first start up? Who was the first client you had on board?
After spending six and a half years with DDB, I decided to give it a second shot. This time around I had solid vision and knew exactly what I wanted to create with my own agency. In year 2011, I found Ice Inc. I positioned Ice to be an agency that caters to fashion in retail, luxury brands, skincare, beauty design and branding.
I had Skin Inc and MediaCorp as Ice’s anchor clients then. Today, they’re still with me. I am eternally grateful to them for trusting my then newcomer of a start up.
A year later we landed ION Orchard, arguably the most affluent of shopping malls in Singapore.
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How did you put your first team together?
I didn’t start the agency with a team of creatives and account executives. I found it to be a risky move as a newcomer if there wasn’t a substantial enough number in terms of clientele to support that. My headcount only increased with demand.
Apart from running the show myself, a handful of freelancers who supported me with creative outputs helped keep the running cost down and the business profitable. Only in its second year did Ice witness a growth in its account management team. Keeping the agency nimble and profitable was my priority. And up until today I have managed to maintain that.
What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?
Having multiple deadlines due in the same week counts among the greatest of challenges Ice has encountered, especially when every job greatly demanded my attention and input. The result: consecutive 16-hour working days and countless late nights in the office with my staffs and freelancers. Having said that, eventual approvals and recognitions of our works from clients and the public alike makes every second of our commitment to any project feel like time well spent.
Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?
I am, of course. I haven’t met someone who isn’t. Failure can be averted with a trusty plan. In the event of a worst case scenario, there’s always Plan B. I’m working very hard to make sure this day doesn’t come.
How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?
I haven’t worked this much in three decades of my career, not before Ice. Though I have to say it is all highly fulfilling, albeit in very exhausting ways.
Pluses and minuses of being independent?
Getting to pick my own clients tops my list of plus points. On top of that, I don’t have to report numbers to shareholders.
The greatest downside of all is having to fight for every piece of business. There is no such thing as being assigned an account without having to first wage a creative challenge with your time and expertise.
When you first started out, how did you market your agency? How did you get clients on board?
I knew very well from the beginning the direction with with Ice would progress. Ice was formed with the philosophy that a visual focused approach to advertising and brands is a strategic opportunity to brand building. Our constant immersion in the visual-driven world of art and fashion puts us in a position to identify trends right as they develop and, in some cases, create trends.
With that positioning in place, the word spread far and wide. That led to clients from both my previous agency and around the region knocking at my door.
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What was your first experience in the ad world? How do you think that shaped you?
I had my first job in a small local agency designing classified ads. At that time, the challenge was to design nice borders around the ad to help it stand out from a sea of recruitment ads. I fell in love with that and took up night classes to further my skills and knowledge. It may be the most unchallenging job today but it has provided me a strong foundation in typography and layout creation.
What have you taken away from your years in the ad world and implemented in your current business?
I believe in beautiful breakthroughs: true insights and aesthetic mastery coming together to create memorable ideas. I always make it a point to have my works well reflect the philosophies I preach.
What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?
Take it all one step at a time, payable assistance-wise. Having too much on your plate is a good problem to have in comparison to having staffs sit in the office and wait for jobs. As a boss, be prepared to get your hands dirty and make sure every piece of work that goes out of the agency is something you are proud of.
What is one piece of advice you’d give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?
Find your niche. Differentiate from your competitors the work you could provide and make every effort worthy of your time.
Would you be open to buyout?
Yes, but it has to be a partner who shares similar design philosophies as I do.
Five year plan for the agency?
To become the most sought-after of boutique agencies, anywhere.
First team: Terrence Tan
First client: Skin Inc
Founding year: 2011
Founded by: Terrence Tan
Claim to fame: ION Orchard Christmas 2014 - Both an Ad of the Month winner and a finalist for SPH's IINK awards, our most visually intricate project yet saw itself reap praises and recognition by the bucketful from both our peers in the industry as well as the general public, making it our most unforgettable Christmas project to date.