Opinion

Fiona Bartholomeusz on 14 years as boss of an independent agency in Singapore

Fiona BartholomeuszFiona Bartholomeusz has been running one of Singapore’s top independent agencies, Formul8, for almost 14 years as MD. 

In this interview, Bartholomeusz talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about how to survive in a tough market, dealing with local clients, and whether looks count in business.

You’ve been running Formul8 for almost 14 years. What’s been your secret to survival in what is a very tough market?

Drugs and therapy. Just kidding …really.

I’ve always believed that being resiliently stubborn helps. Everyone has talent and ambition, but very few people have the tenacity to deal with the downside of being trodden on.

Ours is an industry based on rejection and very little work/life balance. I have long learnt never to allow myself to be blind-sided by a loss or how tough it sometimes does get. I do however learn from the business we haven’t won and try never to repeat some of the mistakes we’ve made along the way.

I genuinely believe that being proud of what you do, who you are and what you stand for as an agency is everything. If you know you bring something of value to the table, then it’s not hard to be bullish about staying the distance, because clients do love a sense of energy from their agency and they do buy into that. The name on the door might matter, but it’s the people behind that door who matter more.

The truth is, there are a lot of crap agencies out there, and I simply choose to not be one of them. As a team, we have worked exceptionally hard to even be here and we don’t take defeat lying down. As I have always said… we’ll live to fight another day.

Success doesn’t come to the ones who only have big dreams or goals. In this industry it happens to the ones who are shameless at networking, are unafraid of failure and not driven purely by the money.

Everyone assumes that an owner-led agency is all about one person. That is so far from the truth. A general is only as good as his army and I have been lucky to have worked with some truly amazing people who never fail to make me feel humbled every day. I just nitpick, bitch and moan. They do all the hard work!

What’s been your best moment and your biggest disappointment over the years running Formul8?

I felt the proudest when we officially launched the integrated development Meydan in 2010. It was a two year run up to the event of the year in Dubai. We had over 80,000 guests. Elton John, Sting and Santana played. We worked alongside an amazing group of clients to launch the first phase of a 200m sq ft development.

We handled everything from ATL/BTL/Web/PR and there were only 10 of us in Dubai. They flew me and my GM to Royal Ascot and we watched the races with Sheikh Mohammed and the management team from his racing suite, so that we could learn more about the world of thoroughbred horseracing.

Moments like those are truly priceless, and more so when two of the top agencies in the world had flown down to meet the client to pitch for their business and they chose us because they liked how invested we were in their business. It was ironic that a Dubai client had enough faith in us to pull this off, while we would almost certainly never have been considered for something of that scale if it had been launched in Singapore. And we’re still working with them, which is fantastic.

Having said that, we’re just about to launch a new integrated campaign for a listed property client here, and they’ve simply been such a joy to work with. Supportive, open to ideas and decisive, I wish all our clients were half as motivating as they are. If I could stand in their sales gallery and sell apartments for them, I would, because we’re not just their agency, we’re a part of their team.

My biggest disappointment was an occasion when we let a client down. We failed in delivering a website on time for a key client and it was a day late in launching. It was a combination of several factors, but we messed up and it was the first and only time we’ve ever been late in delivering a site.

It was especially painful as my team had worked tirelessly and we were onsite for the last 72 hours prior to the launch and we still couldn’t fix a glitch on time. I can deal with losing the business if it happens. But is not part of my DNA to not live up to what I have promised professionally.

My team was pretty devastated as the client is a lovely person and we felt even worse for having let him down. I do not expect to have this repeated ever again and it is a lesson I don’t expect to ever forget. We’ve learnt from it, but it’s still a huge regret that stings to this very day.

If you could start over again, what would you do differently?

I probably would have started our office in Dubai earlier. It’s not good to get too comfortable in Singapore, which can be a proverbial goldfish bowl at times. We’re way too coddled here and frankly the scale of things in the UAE is extremely different. Dubai has been an eye-opener and also has allowed us to challenge ourselves and understand how different a foreign advertising landscape can be. Besides, it’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone. Contrary to popular misconceptions, I’ve never had an issue working in the Middle East and I’ve made some exceptional friends there.

The clients have a profound respect for work/life balance and they never call you after 6pm or on the weekends. Plus they love Singaporeans and how focused we are at work and how we deliver.

Plus, I am pretty sure they don’t quite know what to do with an extremely opinionated female, which is actually quite advantageous.

What’s the most frustrating thing about dealing with local clients in Singapore?

Few of them treat us like partners. You’re very often at best a “vendor” and it’s commonly all about price. I don’t know where in the life cycle of the advertising business it became okay for marketers to treat their agencies like second class citizens. But we’ve encountered some who have absolutely no idea of how to treat an agency with respect.

It’s so myopic. They don’t seem to realise how we can pull out all the stops to do amazing work to nail a campaign for them, or go through the motions just to get the project over and done with.

What’s the hardest job to recruit for in Singapore?

Copywriters. The number of CV’s I get from people who can’t spell, whose grammar is poor, or who don’t have an iota of style or taste astounds me. And we’re not talking newbies here. I don’t believe you need to have a Phd in English Literature to be a good writer. You just need to love the English language and immerse yourself in the things that inspire you.

Sadly, some copywriters here think that bombastic hyperbole = great writing. One more bad line about ‘the sybaritic, luxury lifestyles by a cerulean sea’ …and I just might be prone to violence.

Who do you admire the most in Singapore’s adland at the moment and why?

Terrence Tan

Terrence Tan

Terrence Tan from ICE Inc. Anytime anyone leaves a senior role in advertising to rough it out on his own and is such a help to peers while staying humble and earnest, is someone to be respected.

There are too many egos in the industry. It’s actually refreshing to meet someone who genuinely cares about his work, his clients and isn’t afraid to admit his follies. I meet too many who are driven by money or narcissistic delusions of grandeur. I have far greater respect for people with integrity than those who go on the assumption of their own talent.

You’ve been courted a number of times by the big networks. What would convince you to sell?

They all tout the same lines. We love what your agency is. We won’t change you. But how many buyouts have resulted in the agencies actually flourishing within the network or staying beyond the earn out?

I think honesty about their expectations, less B.S., a line of reporting to someone who is a mentor, and an acute understanding that the reason why I started my own agency was so I didn’t have to report to an idiot. I don’t work for the money, I don’t value a corner office with a view, but I do care about respecting the people I work with. Shouldn’t that be as basic as it gets?

We’re in an industry where looks can account for a lot. What’s your view?

Looks are a double edged sword. In any industry, not looking like the back of a bus helps get a foot in the door. But beyond that, style becomes irrelevant and substance is what clients ultimately look for. Plus it’s really hard to look good at a 5am call time for a TVC on the back of four hours sleep!

I am a stickler however, for how our suits present themselves. Nobody short of Gisele Bundchen looks good without makeup. I do expect our suits to be groomed and properly attired for work. Whether we like it or not, appearances do matter, as do first impressions, so I do think it’s disrespectful to our clients if we walked in looking like something the cat dragged in.

I have a good day when little children look at me in the morning and don’t run away screaming (the same unfortunately, can’t be said about bad copywriters…)

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