The latest specialist shopper marketing agency in Malaysia is Newton-The Activation Company (TAC).
Its founder Mahesh Neelakantan speaks to A+M on what it is like to strike out on one's own. Neelakantan currently leads a team of 14 and his role is more of a mentor and advisor. He continues to hold a key role for Advocacy Malaysia as well.
Check out Newton's office here:
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(Read more stories from our series The Independents here.)
When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?
Buoyed by the success we had with a couple of clients – we decided to launch Newton in early 2015 with its own unique identity and positioning to capitalise on the gap in the market. The timing seemed perfect as clients were looking for an offer like ours - particularly with the advent of GST implementation and winning the battle in-store.
Which year did you first start up? Who was the first client you had on board?
Newton had its early beginnings as a part of Advocacy Malaysia and there was a small team looking after IMC and Activation for Dutch Lady since Q4 2013. It was in early 2015 when we launched Newton with a separate identify and positioning – and to create separation from the core offer of Advocacy – which was Word of Mouth & Advocate Marketing.
What makes your agency stand out?
We are Malaysia’s first ‘Shelf-Out Agency’ focusing on driving ‘Big O2O ideas from the shelf-out’ –activated and amplified. Inspired by the ideology of Sir Isaac Newton, we believe the right action can trigger the desired reaction. If there is one thing we want to be known for – it would be to be known as a team of ‘IDEAPRENEURS’ – developing and championing ideas for brands and making them happen.
What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?
It’s difficult to pick one tough moment – as there are loads of them – especially as you make the transition from working for a network agency to a start-up. Especially when you are trying to Setup-the-Start-up. From learning how to register the company in Malaysia, finding office-space, designing it, choosing the office furniture, opening the bank account, recruiting the team, internet, telephone - you name it. It's a lot of hard work and you are probably doing a lot of it for the first time. But if I were to pick one – I would say the toughest moment used to be around the 20th of every month – when its time to make payroll! While we did have clients and our P&L was healthy and steady- synchronising the collections from the clients to coincide with the need to meet the payroll deadline was sometimes a challenge.
It was then with the advice of a CFO-friend – I applied for a working capital loan and met a couple of banks and eventually got this going.
Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?
If you are someone like me – who has spent almost his entire career in a large network agency – you pretty much had your roles & responsibilities defined & you had an extended team to support & help you. To start with, you are most probably out of your depth and overstepping your comfort zone every single day. No place to hide and no extended team. It's quite human to make mistakes when you do something new. Failure only means that you've tried, not that you're bad at what you're doing. Failing the first time will give you that much more strength for the next round. All I can say is that if you have 'fear of failing' written all over your face – you won’t go past the 100 day mark. Thankfully we embraced failure and got thru the 100 days and beyond..
How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?
To tell you the truth – it’s a misconception that if you run your own agency – you are your own boss. While it’s nice to imagine not having to answer to anyone, the fact is that everyone serves someone. “My clients are my bosses,” Earlier – I had two or three bosses – working in a matrix organisation – but now “It’s as if I have five to 10 bosses at one time – each one demanding than the other” .
Would I ever work for someone again – ‘Never say Never’. At the end of the day – it’s the experiences and the learnings that you take from one job to another – boss or not.
Pluses and Minuses of being independent
- Freedom to explore and expand your business.
- Ability to Collaborate. – In fact Collaboration is survival and ‘Independents more than anyone else – tend to be fiercely collaborative and always looking to partner with like-minded companies/individuals.
- You can choose your clients and whom you want to work with.
- Access to clients and global alignments
- Need to set up Vendor agreements and be part of the agency-roster/panel
When you first started out, how did you market your agency? How did you get clients on board
Clients always tell their agencies that it’s the people that matter and not the agency. I couldn’t agree more. Clients are a lot more open and willing to give small and start up agencies – their first break. If it weren’t for clients – backing us and entrusting us with their briefs – we wouldn’t be here.
What’s surprising for me was that our own industry – was most critical. It’s almost that they all want you to fail. I have had more client-friends appreciative and supportive during our early days as opposed to agency friends – who give you that look – ‘How long do you think you will last?’
What was your first experience in the ad world? How do you think that shaped you?
If I were to look back and list down the experiences that shaped me – it would probably be my years in Ogilvy Mumbai. It’s the best office ever and its the place that is still home for me, where I learnt everything, made friends for life and even met my wife there. It’s extremely difficult to describe what ‘Ogilvy Mumbai’ is – you have to be there and experience it – to know it.
What have you taken away from your years in the ad world and implemented in your current business?
- Plan for the worst and Hope for the best.
- Be transparent with your clients and even more so to your team.
- Don’t ever give buffered deadlines. Especially to your own team members. It’s cruel.
- No one ever got fired for being creative. If ever you do – it’s usually for not being creative. At the end of the day – it’s an ideas business.
- Have Fun & Remember it’s a short life
What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?
Small is the new big.
What is one piece of advice you'd give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?
Fail faster and don’t be shy to ask for help.
Would you be open to buyout?
Absolutely. As long as they are buying the people; and not the P&L.
Five year plan for the agency
I can probably tell you our five-day plan and at best – the five-week plan. Our current business environment is so dynamic that – its impossible to plan for the next five months – let alone the next five years.
First team: Nadia, Vix Chandra, HongFei Ho & Ewan Yap.
First client: Dutch Lady
Founding year: 2015
Founded by: Mahesh Neelakantan
Claim to fame: Our work on Softlan. When our work was screened at one of the client’s town hall gatherings – one of the client’s commented –“Why Can’t Malaysia export this campaign to other countries instead of always adapting international work.”