The Independents: Whitewords

Founded in 2000, creative agency Whitewords has come a long way from its humble beginnings: it now works with a wholly integrated approach across advertising, branding, design, digital and experiential.

Media shy, the firm started out preferring to build its business quietly while trying to “have as much fun as possible”.  Today the team of six is eager to continue carving out their successes in their own terms. In an interview with Marketing, founder and creative director Jacke Tan shared with us on the importance of maintaining one’s passion and hunger to succeed in the industry.

(Read also: The Independents series)

When was the precise moment you knew you wanted to do something on your own?

Buying of our fax machine – this was during the era when communication between client and us was through fax where comments were written directly on paper and faxed to us to make changes.

We knew we were getting serious then as we chipped in collectively to own our first company asset (we still have the fax machine today).

Which year did you first start up? Who was the first client you had on board?

Around the turn of the millennium when we were approached by Asia Pacific Breweries Singapore to conceptualise a Tiger Beer nationwide promotional campaign. With credits to this project, Whitewords started gaining attention and soon, new clients noticed us.

How did you put your first team together? 

Lucy, Joe and myself met when working in an editorial design company and we were at a stage in our lives where we each wanted to explore new opportunities before we got old. Coincidentally we left our full time jobs around the same time and began freelancing separately. Along the way, we started sharing resources and soon enough, we realized the potential in starting a company together, and so we took the plunge.

What was one of the toughest moments in running your agency? How did you overcome it?

There were many tough moments, especially in the early days when we made around SG$5,000 a month. Or when we never took any pay for three months straight. That was when we knew we had to network and actively hunt for accounts, as no one is obliged to hand us a project just by reputation.

Were you afraid of failing? How did you handle it?

Never crossed my mind to fail, not in an arrogant way but precisely keeping to this attitude and mindset was what pushed us through the years.

How does it feel like to be your own boss? Could you ever work for someone else again?

It is not all fun, at least not the utopia I thought it to be. To the second question, yes if we do have an interested party wanting to buy us over, I will not discount working for someone again.

Pluses and Minuses of being independent

Pluses are definitely the ability to make a call on creative directives, and choice of clients and projects which we can scope, instead of merely receiving a brief and working within prescribed deliverables.

The other joy is being able to build a company, and grow a consistent and strong team who has become very much the faces of the company which clients take comfort and reliant on a consistent team, which in this day and age is becoming more of an anomaly.

Minuses will always be budget constraints. Being independent with no brand name behind us gives clients the impression that we can do more with less (budget) – this might be true, but it also limits creative potential.

When you first started out, how did you market your agency? How did you get clients on board?

Fortunately, we did not do any marketing at the beginning. Clients know us mainly through word of mouth referral, network and winning some awards help (we think).

What was your first experience in the design world? How do you think that shaped you?

Building an ability to develop my creative voice; which was very exciting and dynamic for a newbie. I learnt a lot on harnessing my creativity – making design relevant, creatively engaging yet commercially viable – and all about striking a balance.

What have you taken away from your years in the design world and implemented in your current business?

Patience; Endurance; Perseverance.

What is the one thing start-ups need to remember in this market?

Do not be a burst in the sky – it is not the starting up that is difficult, but the maintenance.

What is one piece of advice you’d give anyone wanting to make it out on their own?

Be prepared to persevere, bear the grit and not to compromise.

Would you be open to buyout?

Would not rule out option of buyout if fit is right.

Five year plan for the agency

To offer more integrated services, beyond print and brand experiences, e.g. to communications, digital and even film projects – a personal favourite.

Current team: Jacke Tan (founder and creative director) and Jasmin Tan (account director)

First client: Asia Pacific Breweries

Founding year: 2000

Founded by: Jacke Tan, Lucy Ng and Joe Tjian

Claim to fame: Chinese hand-stitched calligraphy book to promote and enhance the brand of Tiger Beer in the European market. In-depth research was done to create this beautiful book, which was also one thoroughly enjoyable collaboration with a client who appreciated the partnership.


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