So you want to be an entrepreneur?

Daryl ArnoldDaryl Arnold co-founded Profero, the world’s biggest independent digital agency, with his brother Wayne in 1998. In 2010, he went it alone to launch Newton Circus, a sustainable business innovation firm.

Arnold talks to Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks about entrepreneurship, an idea to bring ad-funded “mobile movies” to rural Asia, and why Singapore is the most creative city in the world.

Don’t you miss the ‘steady life’ at a now established agency like Profero?

A big ‘no’. Profero was never a steady life. What I enjoyed most about what we did was at the beginning – pioneering the full service model for digital agencies. We were criticised for having creative, media and technology under one roof, but I felt proud to drive that.

Up until my last year, Profero for me was always about building the business. I was less driven by the craft than by building geographically, building our capabilities and working with global clients like Apple, J&J and Unilever.

I loved building the business. I didn’t love the stuff that came with employing so many people, the management and the admin. In the end, I was spending 85 per cent of my time preoccupied with that, and 15 per cent of my time being creative. Now I spend 99 per cent of my time being creative, and one per cent of my time on admin.

And after being on 100+ flights in economy a year, you’re going to get tired, make mistakes and want to do something-else that has a greater impact.

In June, Arnold and his team, with the support of Ogilvy Singapore, won a gold mobile lion at Cannes with Project Silverline. The venture began as a charity. The idea was to collect and repurpose smart phones and run apps on them for the most isolated and under-served seniors in society. The next phase is a commercial service which will bring mobile media, community, security, health and work to seniors with more advanced apps and services in partnership with Samsung.  

What’s next for Silverline Mobile?

Silverline is not just about giving smart phones to seniors. It’s an ecosystem. We’ve spent well over $1m on building it, but it’s a billion-dollar business if we get it right. We can go to an insurance company and provide them with a powerful platform for engaging and supporting seniors, any hospital, even retailers can plug in too. Anyone can plug into it, and it will scale.

Tell us about OpenDOOR…

It’s about leveraging mobile technology to create work for the underemployed.

It can be done in a number of ways, but one opportunity for advertisers is data verification – a user with some time on their hands can check on the product prices of rivals or take a picture of advertising promotions and log the data. Users can earn between USD$2 and $5 per hour based on their skill level and efficiency. We are engaging MediaCom and TNS as partners, and have the backing of the IDA [Singapore’s IT body, the Infocomm Development Authority]. The project is almost complete.

Another venture from OpenDOOR is “Mobile Movies”. The idea is to rent mini-cinemas to entrepreneurs, schools and tea shops in rural and semi-rural parts of Asia. Showing movies, commercials, holding product demonstrations and collecting data could earn an entrepreneur $150 dollars a month if they hit the required schedule.

Arnold is working with Microsoft to support the Mobile Movies kit and Unilever for the advertising and data collection models. With the kit comes an SD memory card (containing the ads), an HD projector, speaker units, a battery pack and a Nokia 8 windows phone for the entrepreneur to collect data.

A trial of Mobile Movies has just begun in Myanmar. Watch the video:

openDOOR Mobile Movies – Myanmar from Newton Circus on Vimeo.

What sort of person do you need to be to be an entrepreneur?

People have different motivations for doing their own thing. Some observe the way something works and think they can do it better. Others are dreamers who wonder why something doesn’t exist, and go away and make it happen. Both type of people tend to be creative, passionate, curious and can take a huge amount of pain and rejection.

Who’s the most exciting entrepreneur you’ve ever met?

Every entrepreneur I’ve met has something different, unique or interesting about them. It’s about understanding what they’re good at and why, and learning from it.

Anyone who tries to do their thing I’ve got a huge amount of respect for, because it’s really hard. Anyone who tells you it’s easy is not being honest. You need to stay positive and focused and never whinge, irrespective of how much money you have in the bank, or how let down you’ve been.

Do you have any examples of projects that didn’t work to begin with?

Look at Mobile Movies. Why was this not done before? Because the reliability and price of the technology has only just got to the right point. Luckily, we had been doing a lot of leg work around another initiative that we decided to dump. We had been trying to create an online portal for single mothers or low income women to get work over the internet. We had been let down by a developer and rather than let that distract us further we jumped on Mobile Movies because we felt we could get going and it would have greater immediate impact.

How much of being an entrepreneur is about achieving ‘self fame’ and being a brand in your own right?

Zero. You need to let the product or the service you invent to do the talking. If that works, and you’ve been part of it, people will give you credit.

If you put yourself out there saying you’re brilliant, you’ll always make a mistake and people will shoot you down – and rightly so. Look at Tiger Woods making out he’s the perfect familyman. Or Lance Armstrong saying he doesn’t take performance enhancing drugs.

It was other people who made Steve Jobs an icon. He didn’t want all that admiration. He wanted Apple to be admired.

Some say that Richard Branson is the Virgin brand. But Virgin has always been very focused on being the consumer champion, and he’s the spokesperson.

What do you make of the PR stunt Branson did recently with AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes when he dressed up as a female air steward?

I’m sure he would have preferred not to have done it. But that wasn’t about brand Branson. It was just a bit of fun.

Do you get bored easily? Are you forever thinking about the next big thing?

No. I don’t get bored. I am doing my hobby day in, day out. As long as I’m doing this or playing squash [Arnold has played the sport since he was seven, is training for the World Masters, and spoke at WPP’s Stream event about why squash should be an Olympic sport] or having a few beers, I’m happy.

Do I do a lot of things at same time? Yes. I blame that on my advertising and marketing background – being conditioned to run parallel projects at the same time. That’s a criticism we get at Newton Circus. There are a lot of things going on, and we’re not 100% focused on one thing at one time.

It’s said that entrepreneurs are so focused on what’s next that they’re forever changing their minds and are difficult to work with. What’s your view on this?

I’d like to delude myself into thinking that I’m fantastic to work with, I’m always listening and understanding, I’m incredibly supportive and never flip flop – but you’d have to ask my colleagues what I’m really like.

In the early days of Profero I wasn’t that bad. But in the later days, I got more difficult to work with, as I got more frustrated and my expectations changed. I would hope that I’m a lot better now.

Now that you’re outside of the media and marketing industry, how innovative do you think our industry is in terms of how much it is thinking about what’s next?

The big challenge that the industry faces is that it is consistently responding to requests for time from clients. That’s the business model. Organisations are structured to spend 99 per cent of their time around that purpose. Any future-looking is not the core of that organisation. They might have one team that does this, but this team has to infect and inspire the rest of the model.

The industry is limited by it’s structure and is struggling to innovate. Take Mobile Movies. Why the hell hasn’t someone from the industry – a media agency, a creative agency or a company like IDEO – come up with something like that? Because they’re limited by their structure and so have limited space and time to think and innovate.

What do the established players in media and marketing have to do to ensure they’re around in the next decade?

These guys are oil tankers. They can’t go from this state to a thousand little speed boats overnight. It’s impossible. They will evolve and align themselves with new structures to suit their clients, and hopefully will do enough to survive. Some will get old, decline and disappear. That’s inevitable in any industry.

The companies most at risk of losing their identity, in my view, are digital agencies. Quite a few of them have become just like their older counterparts. Is there much difference between VML and Y&R, other than VML concentrates more in the digital space and has slightly different people? They both have creative directors, planners and suits. Eventually I am sure they will become one, with Y&R taking the lead because it has the deeper client relationships.

What’s freaky for the industry is the leftfield transformation it’s going through. For example, Data scientists are developing algorithms and models that will challenge established marketing industry methods and change how consumers are reached, and how products are sold to them.

Look at what Google has done to the classified ad industry for newspapers. It has decimated it. What we’re doing with openDOOR micro-tasking will, I believe, have a massive impact on the data collection industry.

Singapore is big on innovation. But some think the business environment could improve in terms of encouraging creativity. What’s your view?

It depends what you mean by creativity. There’s the fashionable sort – music, art, advertising and so on. And there’s what I call structural creativity – how a city operates. If you look at Singapore over the last 40 years, it is probably the most creative city in the world in that sense.

Singapore has the best airport in the world. Some people complain about the MRT system, but compared to London and New York it is amazing – the worst it gets is one 15-20 minute period during the day when you might have to wait for one or two trains to go by before you can get on.

Look at the ecosystem that’s been set up for SMEs. Look at how safe the city is. A country that built itself without any natural resources is using data as its major resource.

Singapore will always struggle to have the vibrant music industry that the UK enjoys. You’re not going to get bands like Joy Division or Arctic Monkeys cropping up. For those guys, their lives started out pretty badly. Their way out was through music.

For most of Singapore, life isn’t that bad. It’s not like in Spain where there is 50 per cent youth unemployment.

Where you have angst or tension, creativity usually follows in some form. There’s very little of that here and so it will not come naturally to Singapore to have a vibrant fashion, art or music scene. But should we create more problems to have the tension for this kind of creativity??? Not for me!


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