While the independent scene tends to see many creative and PR agencies setting up, it's rare that a media agency goes independent.
Founders of six year old The Media Shop Gary Tang and Jessica Toh reveal how they do it, as well as the ups and downs of being independent.
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When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?
[Jessica] I was thinking of joining an advertising agency to help with business development and integrate media buying into the process when Gary mentioned that if I have my own plans, I should include him. It sounded brilliant at that time that we should do something together.
[Gary] There was actually no precise moment; after working in various media agencies in different capacities, I wanted to challenge myself, get out of my comfort zone and achieve something greater.
And the timing was ideal too - Jessica and I were the first hires in a new media agency in 2008. We occasionally brought up this topic over lunches and eight months later, we decided that Singapore really needed a local media independent and thus created The Media Shop.
Which year did you first start up? Who was the first client you had on board?
[Jessica] It was late in 2009 when we spoke to people that we are thinking to strike out on our own. We have two clients - Epicor and Stepstone (now known as Lumesse) who immediately wanted to sign up.
What makes your agency stand out?
[Jessica] We differentiate ourselves with our boutique-style service and strives to give personal attention to each of our client and win them over with sheer dedication. In fact, majority of our clients ended up becoming our friends!
[Gary] We are the only media independent in Singapore that is locally owned. This also meant that we work much harder and never compromise on quality to make sure our service meets our clients’ and partners’ expectations
What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?
[Jessica] It was challenging during our first year of operation as it coincided with the Asian financial crisis. It was hard times for many but we see that as a good opportunity to take advantage of the weaker economy and maximize value for our clients.
[Gary] The toughest part has always been convincing potential clients and partners to take the leap of faith with us. For them, it is risky to work with a relatively “unknown” media agency with no track record, compared with the bigger network media agencies. Most times, these clients and partners’ are convinced by our sincerity and we in turn ensure we exceed our commitments to them.
Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?
[Jessica] To me, every obstacle is always a learning experience which makes us wiser. This might sound clichéd but I am a firm believer of whatever does not kill you will make you stronger.
[Gary] Always! Most clients and partners have become friends and we did not want to let them down. Therefore we make sure we are very transparent in our processes and do not hide anything. We maintain our highest integrity at all times and this in turn leads to complete trust developed with them.
How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?
[Jessica] Being a boss means making decisions sometimes in a spilt-second day in and day out. Every decision made often has a huge impact on someone’s professional or even personal life. It also affects the direction where the company is headed to.
It will always nice to work with someone who is able to mentor and motivate you. Striking it out on your own means there are times when there is no one to point you in the right direction when needed.
[Gary] It was fun for the first week but reality set in quickly and we got down to business thereafter. Having a business partner to bounce off ideas help too. Jessica and I may have differing views for certain matters but we always have a shared goal for the company.
Of course I could work for someone again. With the experienced gained from this venture, it will be invaluable to any company.
Pluses and Minuses of being independent
[Jessica] Really, the best thing about being independent is that we are independent. There is no need to conform to certain guidelines or norms and are free to work with anyone or partner with any agencies. This flexibility allows us to pick and co-operate with the best in the relevant fields resulting in more effective solutions for our clients.
On the flip side, being an independent also means that we are more limited in resources and we need to keep a closer eye on your cash flow needs. Competing for talent in the market with the bigger players is also a challenge.
[Gary] The ability to make decisions on the spot without checking in with your bosses is the big plus and you are able to plan and steer where the company is headed since you are not accountable to the management. You also get more leeway to choose to work with clients that value your expertise.
The downside is limited resources you have to achieve what you set out to do and that you have a smaller voice in the industry.
When you first started out, how did you market your agency? How did you get clients on board?
[Jessica] I am a people person. Through my stint in CNET Networks (now CBS Interactive), I got acquainted with many marketers. Hence, when some clients heard we are starting our own agency, they came forward and wanted us to manage their campaigns.
[Gary] We firmly believe that your best marketing tool is a happy client and aims to help clients achieve their objectives they set out to do. Hence, we rely mainly on word-of-mouth and now we keep our clients engaged via social media.
What was your first experience in the ad world? How do you think that shaped you?
[Jessica] I started as a sales person for a small local radio broadcaster. Being the underdog meant that we needed to work extra hard and be really creative to reel in the budget because we do not have the audience number compared with the bigger players. This honed my skillset and helped nurturing that entrepreneur in me.
[Gary] I was a sales associate with a free weekly lifestyle magazine, before I joined a local start-up advertising agency (Fong Haque & Soh) as a media buyer. Subsequently, I worked in various reputable advertising / media agencies like Monsoon; Optimedia, The Media Edge, Dentsu, UM & DWA. I am grateful to have the privilege of working with many advertising / media veterans along the way and this helped to shaped me into the media person I am today.
What have you taken away from your years in the ad world and implemented in your current business?
[Jessica] Think in your clients’ shoes, understand their challenges and work with them to help them advance in their career. In my previous company, we went all the way to implement a campaign for a client that seemed impossible to execute when we first mooted the idea. Against all odds, we managed and both of us got promoted as a result. Up till today, we are still good friends and kept in touch.
[Gary] It is important to develop genuine and sincere relationships with your partners and clients as this will weather all storms. I am a firm believer that technology helps to improve work processes but we should never ever use it to replace personal communication. Nothing beats a discussion face-to-face!
What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?
[Jessica] Always maintain that integrity when you conduct your business. There are times when you might get tempted to break one or two rules just to get ahead. Stay true and remember that karma will come back to bite you sooner or later.
[Gary] For a start, nobody owes you a living. You cannot expect concessions from anyone just because you are a new start-up. You have to earn their trust and this takes time, therefore you have to be patient. There is no shortcut in life, unfortunately.
What is one piece of advice you’d give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?
[Jessica] Get some real work experience and make lots of good friends along the way. Do not ever burn bridges because you never know when you will meet again.
[Gary] Believe in yourself, take the plunge and go for it!
Would you be open to buyout?
[Jessica] Never say never. If there is a good match and we can value add to each other’s expertise, I do not see why we should not be open-minded about it.
[Gary] Definitely will consider, but the synergy between the two entities is very important to ensure continuity for the clients and also the team who have placed their trust in the agency.
Five year plan for the agency
[Jessica] Having won the Marketing Interactive’s Local Hero for Media Agency of the Year, we hope to one day be amongst the top 3 winners of the AOTY award!
We definitely see ourselves expanding into some key markets where our clients operate in, such as Indonesia or Vietnam. We will set up our Shanghai office later this year to further expand our coverage for North Asia in addition to our Taipei, Taiwan office.
As more clients shift their budget over to digital, we are aggressively expanding our already robust digital offering to take programmatic in-house and set up our own trading desk.
First team: Gary Tang and Jessica Toh
First client: Epicor and Stepstone
Founding year: September 2009
Founded by: Gary Tang and Jessica Toh
Claim to fame: Being appointed by CA Technologies as the Agency of Record for the Asia Pacific campaign in 2012. Having worked through the Lunar New Year period for the submission, we managed to edge out the other bigger agencies pitching for their business. Till date, they are still our client.
Clients worked on: NETS, CA Technologies, Wargaming.net, Toshiba, Hitachi Data System, Royal Caribbean International, Sandisk