Joseph Tan might be known to many as an industry ad veteran, having spent over 11 years with MullenLowe and now helming the role of CEO of Indonesia-based creative shop ROMP. Advertising, however, was not Tan's first choice in career. Instead, it was science. Tan majored in chemical engineering and had a rude shock after spending time in a lab.
"I spent the worst time in a lab with people who were not similar to me. I realised I couldn't wear nice clothes to work anymore because I had to put on this white laboratory coat. Also, I will be in the lab for a long time measuring chemical agents and doing experiments. As much as I love science, I knew that was not going to be the profession I wanted to pursue," he told Marketing in the latest Connected podcast episode. Eventually, he went to Australia where he had a life-changing internship at an ad agency.
Last year, when Tan and his colleagues Roy Wisnu and Daniel Siswandi left MullenLowe Indonesia to form ROMP, they caused a fair bit of stir as it came as a shock for many. Nine months later, ROMP, he says, is still growing from strength to strength and punching above its weight as an independent agency. Among the list of clients it works with include Telkomsel, Indofood's Indomie, Google, Prudential, and Pizza Hut.
Having worked in network agencies for most of his career, Tan shares the mindset shift he had to adopt while running his own agency, his fairly controversial exit from MullenLowe and what needs to change in Indonesia's a industry. Listen to the full episode here.
Marketing: Your exit was fairly controversial, given you spent a long time at MullenLowe, and a lot of the clients wanted to work with you at your new firm. How did that make you feel, Joseph?
Tan: The word fairly, is quite an understatement. I know for a fact that our exit spawned a lot of conspiracy theories. Put it this way, I'm always aware that I've been a very controversial and polarising figure in the industry. But at the end, for the client, it's always going to be about the work. I believe a lot that my team is the industry's best. Obviously, my clients don't want to lose that positive momentum and trajectory we've collectively worked so hard to get to date.
Nevertheless, when majority of them wanted to work with us again, I'll tell you one thing. We are so bloody, awfully elated and grateful, to say the least. It really spurred us to do better work to reciprocate that trust in us. When you hear those kind words, it gives us the reassurance that we did the right thing and we had the head room to really go and expand beyond.
Marketing: How has it been like running your own agency after so many years, being part of a big network?
I think it's probably like asking Zayn Malik how he felt after leaving One Direction.
To be honest, it's like how I felt when I started my career as an account executive. In Singapore, in those days being an account executive is like the scariest job ever. The fear, the anxiety, the excitement, the uncertainty, the anticipation, the butterflies in your stomach, it's almost like you take a brief to your very scary multi-award winning creative pair, people such as Tham Khai Meng, and ask him: "Can you make this client's logo big, and price big". It is the scariest time ever.
I really miss that feeling a lot. Obviously sometimes when you're in network for a long time, you can't help but be slightly complacent when you're in a good place. But now, on the other hand, you get to create your own playbook without having to dovetail into the bigger global network play, which I think it's very, very exciting for me. Of course, at the end, you also face the constant dichotomy of like, nothing to lose, but also everything to lose. But having said that, I love it and we really revel in it.
Marketing: What's the mindset shift you have had to adopt now that you're running your own agency?
Tan: I think mindset really never changed that much, to be honest. I mean, we never wavered from our belief that only when we pivot, our clients business will as well. Striving to be better and the constant elevation is a given for us as professional we feel. But in terms of coming over to ROMP, the one thing we need to constantly remind ourselves the reason why we started ROMP in the very first place. If not, we are simply MullenLowe part two with a different name and that's a non-starter. Not only that, being nine months old, we don't have legacy as a company. I mean, we got no global online accounts on a silver platter. We don't have any global IP, no corporate label, no global guide.
We have to be damn bloody good in our craft, relentlessly. Not having the global network behind us will not be a handicap for us.
I keep telling our groups this, net-net on a daily basis, we need to have the underdogs spirit, but need to punch like a heavyweight champion.
Marketing: As a Singaporean, what made you stay in Indonesia and subsequently launch your business from there, instead of other countries in Southeast Asia or even Singapore?
Tan: Very good question. In the spirit of full disclosure, my Indonesian wife, she actually wears the pants at home. Let's get that out of the way. Not only that. I mean, in those early days, she had a very successful career running agencies in Indonesia. That's why for us, being in Indonesia makes a lot sense for us. Then as for me, over time I fell in love with the country, the people and the amazing food, I love the occasional chaos we face on a daily basis and you know, that immense unpredictability of the Jakarta life.
I really like that a lot, keeps me on my toes and gets my blood pumping every day without fail. Of course, all that coupled with my accumulated 16 years of experience here, you know, the equities and the context and network I have made, the know-how. I know how to navigate through the nature of the business, the amazing team that we've got, a market of 270 million people, growing middle class. So really, it's no brainer that I sit here and decide to start from here.
Tune in to our latest podcast channel on Spotify titled "Marketing Connected" for fresh content every week!
Marketing podcast: Hustle to the top with Manulife SG's Cheryl Lim
Marketing podcast: Dancing with the wolves of 1MDB
Marketing podcast: Working with Sorrell (again) and S4’s acquisition spirit with Scott Spirit
Marketing podcast: Sanity on social with Denise Keller
Introducing Marketing's new podcast channel titled 'Connected'