Own your journeyby
Mad for it:
It’s hard to miss the man. Sitting at his usual spot outside Gem Bar, a gritty-looking watering hole on Ann Siang Hill, Gary Tranter is a permanent fixture; literally—the first initial in “Gem” is an eponym of his first name. It could be his ripped, Fight Club-styled, build or it could be his usual pint of vodka soda—with a dash of lime juice and a cherry on top—that stands out. We’d go for the latter. Perhaps if he could be any drink, it’d be a vodka soda by the pint with a cherry on top.
All of this sounds like some well-planned advertising. Tranter should know, he cuts an imposing but charming figure—a Brad Pitt/Edward Norton mesh—as though the Gods had made this specimen specifically for the billboards. But destiny had other plans. Tranter puts people on the billboards.
Tranter has always been an ad man and he’s been mad for it. “I remember coming into the industry in the ’90s and the older guys were saying that I missed the party,” Tranter says. “‘You should’ve been here in the ’80s, things were nuts then, advertising is too tame now!’ Well, looking back at the ’90s, the noughties and even now (the teenies?) I couldn’t disagree more. It’s been a crazy, wonderful ride and I think it’s only going to get better.
7 years ago, and with 20 years of industry experience heading the creative departments at JDA, Batey Ads and Ogilvy & Mather, Tranter and three other partners set up Arcade in Singapore with nothing but a handshake and a pipe dream.
“It was exhilarating. Terrifying,” Tranter reminisces. “The four of us sitting around a kitchen table with nothing. No money. No investment. No clients. Nothing. Just sitting there looking at each other and thinking, what do we do now?”
Within those 7 years, Arcade opened four other offices in Shanghai, Tokyo, South Africa and Jakarta; employed more than a hundred staff; and was acquired by the Publicis Groupe. You can’t make this one up. Here’s how it all came to be.
There’s so much bollocks in this industry that nothing is worth ruining the friendship. In our case, if friendship falls apart then the partnership is over. Nothing’s worth it; not money, not business decisions.
It has been said that the first 12 months of a startup is the most crucial. How was it like for Arcade?
We had no work because we’d obviously just opened our doors and you don’t really want to show prospective clients work you’ve done in a previous agency, it doesn’t feel right. So, you have to convince people what you have to offer, how committed you are and how much you’re prepared to do for their business.
You’re thankful to just get a meeting, over the moon if you secure a project. We had a few incredible clients at the beginning who took a chance on us when they really didn’t have to. Without those few, those brave, we wouldn’t have a shop right now.
The first 12 months were mad. You tend to have big dreams but you don’t think through the practical details; at least we didn’t! No systems or processes and as prosaic as that sounds, it’s so important because you’re doing everything yourself. Fun, sure, but a lot of work. As a bunch of Creative Directors, who have been working for 20 years, we needed to get back in touch with our basic art direction abilities. When we hired an Office Manager and a couple of suits, it was heavenly.
You mentioned that when you and your partners started Arcade, there were a few mantras to abide by. One of them was that you guys are friends first and colleagues second.
We’ve always held true to that till today. There’s so much bollocks in this industry that nothing is worth ruining the friendship. In our case, if friendship falls apart then the partnership is over. Nothing’s worth it; not money, not business decisions.
I think you have to set off on the right path. If it begins negatively with arguments and anger, it sets the tone for the agency. Some people think an agency should have tension, angst and from that comes the best work, but we reckon it should be fun, you got to have a laugh. You still have to be passionate about the work, of course, and you should be able to fight for it vociferously, secure in the knowledge that no one’s trying to fuck you.
We went through our first year without even a shareholder’s agreement, just a handshake. In the beginning, it was only us and you have visions and plans of an agency that you want to build and you’re working your arse off. Suddenly, tragedy strikes. Nothing can prepare you for that.
We had our fair share in the early days. It blindsides you and that’s when you’re really thankful for your partners. Guys who’ll take on your entire workload at the drop of a hat. In a fledgling agency, personal support is easily as important as professional support and nobody ever tells you that.
We went through our first year without even a shareholder’s agreement, just a handshake.
In an advertising industry with so many players, why did you decide to start Arcade? That’s a big leap from an agency like Ogilvy and Mather.
We did it for the same foolish, naive reasons as others. A dream of doing it differently. Creative freedom. Long lunches. It didn’t quite pan out that way. We never get long lunches.
It was definitely a hit to the old ego. People don’t know who you are and don’t care. Why should they? So, you’ve got to start over. You need the mindset that every single meeting is a pitch and you pitch hard. You do more. More than is necessary. More than you should. But that’s fair enough. You’re asking people to take a chance on an unknown agency and that’s risky for any client.
You literally have to start from the beginning and all those resources you’ve grown accustomed to are simply not there anymore. So, you need to dig deep. Learn new skills and I’m not talking coding or UX design, you need to learn how to use a fucking photocopier!
One thing you definitely learn the hard way is just how important business is and just how hard people will fight for it. Since leaving Ogilvy, my respect for them (and other big agencies) has only increased. We learnt the hard way just how good they are and just how hard they’ll fight. Going up against any of the big boys, even if it’s just one project, is tough. You can never rest on your laurels, your reputation, your client relationship. You have to be on form every time and it’s exhausting.
And it’s emotional too. When it’s your agency, everything is personal and you have to develop a thick skin (don’t read the trolls) you have to be gracious (when all you want to do is go postal) and you need to be aware that there are many factors at play and not everything is an egregious act of betrayal against your beautiful, perfect baby.
Did you ever imagine that Arcade would be acquired? Share with us how did that acquisition come about and what does that mean to you.
You’d never really imagine it as a possibility. It all seems so grown up! But it’s extremely flattering when you start getting calls. You have some dinners, lift a little skirt and before you know it, you’re talking to all sorts of important people.
We were extremely lucky that we started with a different business model and were investing heavily in our own projects. This immediately gave us some interesting work, the kind that’s unusual for a traditional creative set up. Film scripts, sporting formats, education systems and even an alternative stock exchange. More importantly it taught us to have a certain fearlessness, a somewhat intrepid approach where we took on any project with absolute belief. An old saying comes to mind: bite off more than you can chew and then chew like hell.
It’s fair to say that the acquisition [of Arcade from the Publicis Groupe] means a lot, but not necessarily for the reasons people think. There’s a profound sense of pride, building something from nothing and then have people recognise it in the most meaningful way.
An old saying comes to mind: bite off more than you can chew and then chew like hell.
Arcade is currently in the process of being acquired by the Publicis Groupe. How do you feeling about it?
Feeling great! We’ve integrated nicely and draw from the strength of the Network. We have maintained our independence and it’s been seamless. I’ve worked in companies during buyout phases and acquisitions and have seen how disruptive it can be, but the Publicis Groupe has been supportive, gracious and immensely helpful during the process. The group complement our offerings which was the whole reason for doing it.
You mentioned that you are working on a book.
The book is one of those agency projects I mentioned earlier. Currently, it’s one of a few projects we’ve invested in. The others are a documentary, an education system and a health supplement. The book is an updated version of Confessions of an Advertising Man (by David Ogilvy but minus the academic rigour). It’s an exposé—wild tales from the frontline that will read more like fiction. in fact it’s more Kitchen Confidential, but don’t worry, all names have been changed to protect the guilty.
If you could go back to when you first started out in the advertising industry some 20 years ago, what advice would you give young Gary Tranter?
Maybe think twice about getting your agency logo tattooed on your arm. You might just get bought out!
When it’s your agency, everything is personal and you have to develop a thick skin (don’t read the trolls) you have to be gracious (when all you want to do is go postal) and you need to be aware that there are many factors at play and not everything is an egregious act of betrayal against your beautiful, perfect baby.
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