Host boss Dan Gibson on being Singapore’s newest indie, moving into a massage parlour and why scam is depressing

Dan GibsonMumbrella was in Singapore to catch up with Dan Gibsonthe MD of Host Singapore, the latest addition to the citystate’s increasingly crowded independent agency scene.

In this Q&A, Gibson tells Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks about the first seven months in business, dealing with conservative clients and Singapore’s “depressing” scam culture.

You’re seven months into life as Singapore’s newest independent agency. Things are going well [Host won a place on the Unilever roster recently]. But is there anything you would have done differently if you could have started again? 

I don’t think so – we’re really happy with the way things are going so far. What we’ve set out to do has worked, and there have been no major mistakes just yet (fingers crossed).

Host Singapore's front door

Host Singapore’s front door (click to enlarge)

Any regrets about opening an office where there was once a massage parlour?

We’ve had some very interesting people knock on our door – someone broke the door down, in fact. He clearly really wanted a massage. But seriously, it’s a great space, and it’s great being in a shophouse in a busy part of town. Yes, it gets a bit noisy. But clients like it. It’s better than being in a business park in Jurong.

Host is a big name in Australia. But had anyone heard of the name before you set up?

There was some brand recognition – we were pleasantly surprised. What really helped was the grand prix win at Spikes Asia in the branded content category for Air New Zealand. It was perfect timing.

We’ve been a local Australian agency until the start of the year, so you wouldn’t expect us to be well known. And in a way it’s nice to be unknown. It allows you to tell your story, with no preconceptions or baggage.

Your client list is already enviable [Coca-Cola, Unilever, Tourism Western Australia and Google]. Is Host going to bother going after more local clients?

Yes. Definitely. We’re already working with Wing Tai retail, which runs the Top Shop franchise, and SMRT [Singapore Mass Rapid Transport, the subway operator]. We want to be an agency with Singaporean roots, and that means a foundation of local clients. We don’t want to be like some others who basically rent office space here to service international clients. We want a healthy mix.

Agencies in Australia often moan about the conservatism of clients, which they say stops them from doing great work. Then they come to Singapore. What’s your view on the nervousness among clients to take creative risks in this market?

This may well be true, although I would not blame any individuals for this. And I would say that I understand why it’s harder to get really big, edgy work out of the door in Singapore. Why? Because any work locally has to address at least three different cultures and three different languages, so that limits what you can do tonally. And regional work has the same issues on a broader scale. This is why work is often not as sharp as mono-market advertising.

The Host ShopHost set up a shop selling trinkets to tourists in the heart of Chinatown, where your offices are on Sago Street. What was the idea behind a B2B company selling directly to consumers. And did it make any money?

It was a three-day thing that wasn’t about making any money. The idea was mostly to show how we work as an agency, which is based on the principle of collaboration. It was a statement for who we are and who we want to be. We teamed up with four boutique stores to sell boutique products, because – so my Singaporean colleagues tell me – the stuff they’re selling around here is not representative of what is most interesting about Singapore, or its culture.

And you know what? We had several new business meetings off the back of our little venture. And we also got a bunch of CVs from people who wanted to work with us.

Singapore has the ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’ label, and a reputation for being tightly controlled. Is it easy to be creative in an environment like this?

You’d really have to ask Noah [Regan, Host’ ECD]. I’ve never heard any creative person complain that Singapore is a restricture creative environment. Is it as easy to be creative in Singapore as it is in Mumbai or Manila, where there tends to be more chaos and unpredictability? I’m not sure. But I would imagine that there are things going on in those cities that would distract you from creative thought. Singapore is right in the heart of Asia, with so much access to so many different cultures. There is no shortage of creative inspiration.

There have been demonstrations on the streets of Singapore over the number of foreigners here. Do you feel pressure to hire local talent?

The boring answer is that, from a regulatory point of view, there are a certain number of locals you have to hire. But the bottom line is, we want to hire the best people. The Singaporeans we have working for us are the best in the industry at their level. We don’t just hire Singaporeans who are cogs in an ang moh run machine. They are fantastic and challenge me daily on every level of how I run the business, from strategic business development to the work.

Singapore has a problem with scam to the extent that it’s almost an accepted part of adland culture. What’s your view on the problem?

I find the culture of scam to be depressing, if it is purely about winning awards. But the lines are blurring between what is scam and what is not, and I don’t think it’s a black and white issue anymore.

Look at the big Cannes award-winners this year. Were they really written to a client’s brief or were they ‘initiative work’? Given the number of views they’ve accrued online, it stops being scam even if it started as initiative work – if it has a positive effect on the brand. That has to be the barometer. Is this piece of work having a positive impact on the brand or on the business? That’s the real question.

Where do you see Host Singapore this time next year?

We don’t have targets for staff numbers or revenue. If we do great, effective work, success will follow. Yes, it would be a nice problem to have if we’ve outgrown our office. Sadly, there’s no room to move upwards, so we’d have to come to an arrangement with the aunty who runs the tea shop downstairs.


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