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Values of an independent agency

GOODSTUPH 2017. Photography by Jayden Tan

Hello. To introduce, I am Pat, the founder of GOODSTUPH — Southeast Asia Social Media Agency of the Year 2017. I did not sleep with any of the judges.

When GOODSTUPH was born in March 2010, she was a humble one-woman shop, with an Ikea desk for an office housed by my good friend K at his digital production house.

“You can’t work from home. You need company for ideation.”

He reasoned with me on why I should bunk in with him and his people. I wasn’t financially capable of paying rent and I was planning to work from my parents’ home. K brushed off all attempts I made to trade for space, and asked only for me to pay it forward when the opportunity comes.

For those independents who have had a temporary residencies at GOODSTUPH, now you know why.

K taught me the first value of running an independent agency:

1. Compassion
Keep your doors and WIFI open for fellow independents in need.

For the next 6 months, I threw myself into pitch after pitch, taking on any brand who’d give us a chance. At my most productive, I churned out a total of 12 proposals in a span of 14 days. From concept to mocks to costings. I was shitface tired but I was eager to save up enough capital to hire Employee Number 1. It was important to me that I could afford to keep my employee for a minimum of 12 months even if we didn’t have new businesses coming in.

Which brings me to my next value of running an independent agency:

2. Responsibility
Your employees should not be fired because you can’t fucking count.

I had the luxury of witnessing a retrenchment firsthand when I was at a tender age of 20, in a now-defunct digital agency. In short, over 50% of the employees were asked to leave because there simply wasn’t enough cash to sustain everyone. I was spared because I was the cheapest in the agency.

I was being paid $500 per month, by the way.

Retrenchments are normal and necessary, especially during an economic downturn. However, this was the Dotcom era waaaaay before the bubble burst. We’re not talking about a 5% or 10% trimming of fat — we’re talking about over 50% employees being rendered jobless overnight because some idiot of a CEO hired too fast without the means to do so.

I lost my first friend from work that tragic day. My memory of her packing her things into a cardboard box and hugging me goodbye lingers depressingly in my mind (pardon the melodrama, I was 20).

I told myself there and then I will not be the irresponsible dickhead who spends what I don’t have. No one should have to leave when we lose an account. No one should lose their rice bowl over my incompetence.

For nearly five years we couldn’t be arsed to update our website. But when we do, we decide to kill ourselves by building it in 3D.

Today, GOODSTUPH is a 35-man strong agency, having marketed over 50 brands across 13 industries, with the likes of Singtel, United Overseas Bank, Changi Airport, Bosch, and Hewlett-Packard as retainer clients. We have defended our title as Social Marketing Agency of the Year (Local Hero) for five consecutive years, and as of September 2017, we opened our doors in Jakarta, Indonesia.

I feel obliged to only mention retainer clients for it feels like a real cop-out to say that Nike is our client (they were our first client, we did a couple of events for them, but that’s it) when the agency on record is Wieden+Kennedy. It’s like having a one-night-stand with a woman, and then bragging about it to everyone as though you’re the husband who donated a kidney to her.

Don’t let your insecurity get in the way of your dignity. Now, on the note about dignity, here’s my third value of running an independent agency:

3. Dignity
Better to lose on your feet, than to win on your knees.

I preach this like a broken record to my people, almost as frequent as a pastor about God on Sundays.

Half of us at Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Agency of the Year 2017. Photography by Jayden Tan.

As an independent agency, we have a responsibility not to undercut our competitors in order to win a pitch. We owe it to the big boys not to kill our own market. We owe it to our own local independents to not contribute to the reputation of being a cheap local sweatshop.

If you’re undercutting by over 50%, yes, you are a fucking cheap sweatshop.

The dignity of labour is a reflection of your respect for yourself, your colleagues, your competition, and your industry.

When you’re undercutting for the sake of a fancy logo to put on your website, you’re disrespecting all of the above. You are telling your own people that they are unworthy of the dignity of their work. To be precise, you’re telling them their dignity is worth 50% lower than market rate.

It is important I add this caveat:

If you’re a young 5-man shop or less, being cheaper is understandable. You have less overheads. That being said, I would argue that even a one-man shop may as well be more deservingly expensive if we’re talking about an advertising veteran with 35 years under his belt.

Circumstances make a man. James Allen disagrees. He thinks circumstances reveal him. I reckon it’s a bit of both. I believe how one embraces accountability reveals his true character.

One of the most precious values of running an independent agency is, in my opinion, Accountability:

4. Accountability
When you point the finger, you miss the point.

As Bruce D Schneider would say.

When you run an independent agency, you represent not just yourself, but all independents on a whole, whether you like it or not.

The only reason why GOODSTUPH is here is because of her predecessors who came before her. The good folks of Kinetic. The ballers of TSLA. The mavericks of Asylum.

All of them who held themselves accountable to the brands that believed in them kept the door open for us. They were from a time where most clients were suffering from a colonial hangover. They introduced the notion of hyperlocal creativity to clients and kept the door ajar for us to enter. The very least we can do is to keep the door open for the next generation to come.

On to my fifth value, one that I’m personally infamous for:

5. Honesty
Clients pay for you to bullshit. Clients pay more when you don’t.

My mentor, legendary Godmother of Advertising, Linda Locke, once offered me this word of advice:

“Use your honesty as a PR machine”

Perhaps she had long given up hope of me becoming more tactful, when I have the tendency of speaking my mind before I think.

Honesty goes above and beyond sharp words that are blunt. Honesty is a habit, a way of life, and ultimately, a show of respect to your clients.

Making a honest living matters. It means declining a brief when you jolly well know the objectives cannot be met, regardless of the billings you will yield from it.

I did just that with our former client Standard Chartered Bank 7 years ago, on the premise that we would not be capable of meeting the objectives. It was tempting to accept the job then, for it was a budget equivalent to 6-months’ worth of rent. However, the stain on our reputation was not one I could afford. They responded with “Thank you for your professionalism”, and a new brief and budget to match.

Honesty and courage are sometimes relative to each other. And hence, my final value important for running an independent agency:

6. Courage
What you choose to do when no one is looking.

Fun fact — there is a difference between Courage and Bravery.

  1. Courage: The ability to undertake an overwhelming difficulty despite the presence of fear.
  2. Bravery: The ability to confront an overwhelming difficulty without any feeling of fear.

I have a climate of fear in all four seasons of a financial year. That said, I happen to be quite an unreasonably stubborn masochist. You see, when you haven’t the 3 letters to validate your intelligence (the PhD, the MBA, the MSc), you understand very well that the experiences you acquire as a result of the demons you choose to face provide the education no university can.

Our idea of culture: The traditional group shot with the drunk boss snoring away, 2 hours into the agency’s Christmas party.

Courage is crucial for your agency’s growth in both Capital and Culture.

Have the courage to say no to an abusive client who treats your people like shit.

Have the courage to go up against the big boys on major accounts, knowing that team morale is at risk of being ripped to shreds in light of defeat.

Have the courage to explore the uncharted seas of creativity, navigating through the waves of logistical hiccups and winds of uncertainty.

Have courage.

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