Marketing podcast: Life after advertising with Omar Marks

Singapore-based sushi place Wooshi Sushi was officially launched its first outlet in the midst of the pandemic last year by Omar Marks and Raj Mulani after they stepped away from leadership positions at Maki-San in 2018. Marks was previously co-founder and CEO of Maki-San while Mulani was its director. The duo parted ways with Maki-San “different and incompatible views” with partners on how to evolve the brand, and how to take it regional. Despite their departure, their passion for sushi propelled them to launch a new brand in partnership with FreshCreations Holdings, owner of Salad Stop! and HeyBo brands.

Marks, who was formerly a copywriter with McCann, said in a previous interview that he is confident of the "invaluable backing" of its partners FreshCreation Holdings. Alongside the outlet launch was a social media campaign named "The Big Scream Off", which encouraged netizens to say the brand's name as long as they could in a single breath to win prizes. This was well-received by consumers and Wooshi created another social media contest known as "The Psycho Kim Challenge" to draw attention to its menu and recipes.

A year on, Marks shares with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE what it was like to launch a brand during the pandemic and the transferrable skills he gained during his time in the adland. 

Listen to the full podcast here.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: I can hear your passion for creativity coming through from your ad days. Are there any skills you feel you tap into often in your new world?

Marks: I love the part about advertising where it's communication - you'll find a solution for a communications problem right? I have that outsider's view of F&B has helped me a lot. It helps me find a space in F&B because there are enough people out there doing it 10 times better than I do. Everybody comes with their own kind of skill sets and a lot of relevant industry and domain experience. I'm this rookie who thinks he wants to get into the F&B world which is now considered, in Singapore especially, a high barrier to entry because of the rentals and labour issues involved.

So I have to make sure that I'm doing things the way that will keep me happy and keep me going because it is a struggle at the start. F&B throws 50 things at you in a day, seven days a week and you've got to be ready for that. And because you're not going to love every part of it, you've gotta make sure that some parts of the business you really can own and be happy about because those will take you through the times. I like the fact that everything can be broken down into a communication problem, whether it's talking to your staff, supplier, customers, whether you're selling a product or selling a service, and I've always looked at it from that approach. So that's how I analysed any issues in advertising whether it was from any brands such as, KFC, L'Oreal, that's what I adapted even in this role because I think that's my job.

The interesting part, especially Maki-San, is that we started off with one outlet and two staff. We were running it most of the time learning everything from the processes to the pricing, to making sure everything is standardised and the expectations of the customers are met. There's no way to hide in F&B because you are a customer-facing business, you need to be on the mark every time or you need to accept that you are messing up. We slowly grew to a second outlet, a third, and a fourth - at this stage I didn't even know what it meant, what growth like this means.

I was just coping with things, that every time we are growing it's bringing a new set of issues with it, I'm getting more people under me which means more layers. How do I make sure I'm connected with all these layers? It's just your feeling of how you want to run a business that eventually turns into a vision or a mission, but how is that carried forward? You can't be just writing fancy words on the wall and hoping everybody follows through on that. So you have to be there and train your next round, you've got to make sure that they are communicating the right values further down the line.

I remember at one stage, we grew to 18 outlets, we had 12 corporate outlets, six were franchised, we used to have a turnover of SG$1 million a month. It was just at a scale where I had to find my safe space because it was a big thing to run at that stage.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Tell us a little bit about how you are marketing the Wooshi brand and the role you play in it.

Marks: I always hold myself back because that is the beauty or challenge when working with artists or other creative people; you need to leave enough room in between. If it becomes too dominated by your views and thoughts, you're obviously not going to get a good artist working with you because it's about points of view right? Or if you have somebody who's yielding to you all the time and happy to do exactly what you want, then probably that artist is a little bit too commercial and not exactly going to out his heart and soul into the business. So I always saw my role as being very clear about what is the space I need to be in, once I'm comfortable with that space for my brand, leave that space for somebody else to come and populate it.

This time I made sure I didn't work with any particular agency and just one set of people throughout, it was all on a project basis and if I enjoyed that interaction we'd continue with them. So I started off the whole brand exercise with my friend Neil Flory, who is based in Sydney and Hwee Chong, a freelance art director here. I work with them individually, because the problem with agencies is they come with layers and there is a lot more to assimilate. I just felt with individuals it moves faster, we used to have our meetings at kopitiams and cafes and just get things going, trying out stuff. We created a brand that is quite open, that's why Wooshi doesn't have a specific colour, it's largely black and white.

The thinking was that if we were to collaborate with people, we don't want any clashes of colour or restrictions put on artists because of a certain colour. We kept it very virgin like that and every food brand has things it needs: design, packaging, uniform designs and social media. So you don't want to do any branding or marketing for the sake of it, it has to have functional elements. So no point doing a basic version of something and then go look for more marketable assets to turn our basic assets into buzzworthy ones. That was the whole approach and that's why we made sure our uniforms were done up by artists.

Even the packaging, all of them came from artists from Sydney, Melbourne and Singapore. All we told the artist was we want pop, we want happy. That's it. We don't want dark, we don't want a divisive or political stance on this. Happy, quirky, pop was generally the space we wanted to be in and the artists just did whatever they wanted to. I was told the artists were very surprised the client had no comments, but I wasn't going to tell an artist how to do his art. I have seen his work and know that it could work for a brand such as Wooshi and let him do what he does best. They told their friends and more friends got involved in this. For me, I got great work out of it and I had a limited budget but they were happy to work on those minimal budgets because they yearned for freedom as well. For them, it was a passion project and they did great work for me.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Do you as a CEO now count your dollars more than you did in advertising because now, it's really your money on the line and not the clients?

Marks: I wouldn't say it's a budget call, it's more of you understand the elements and how advertising works at a retail space better so you're making suggestions that are a lot more efficient. So yes, there is always a budget. It's not like open season on everything but you understand what works better, because as a client yourself, you know what you should put your energy on. I would say that's my biggest learning rather than nickel and dime-ing things.

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