Creative agency Arcade: ‘Publicis Groupe sees us as a model for the future’

Although partly owned by the French holding company Publicis, the Singaporean-based founders of Arcade still see the creative agency very much as an independent – they speak to Eleanor Dickinson about the journey so far

Creative shop Arcade was founded in Singapore seven years ago by four ex-agency execs looking to put the spirit of entrepreneurialism back into ad land. In the time since, the founders – Nick Marrett, Gary Tranter, Mark Taylor and Matt Cullen – have managed to turn Arcade from a small experimental shop to a five-office network, handling regional and global projects for the likes of Unilever, Heineken and McDonald’s.

Four years after its founding, Publicis Groupe actually bought a minority stake in the agency and the global holding company is expected to take full ownership soon. Today Arcade has 175 people in Singapore, Tokyo, Indonesia, Shanghai and most recently opened an office in Cape Town, South Africa.

Here is what the founders, plus managing director Lesley John, had to say about the agency’s journey, the state of the industry today and where things might go next.

L-R – Mark Taylor, Gary Tranter, Matt Cullen, Nick Marrett.

Arcade has been going for some time now. What are the biggest shake-ups you’ve seen hit the industry since you first started the agency?

Nick Marrett: “At the time when we founded, things were changing quite rapidly. We just felt there was a need for a different model: something that was more nimble. It seemed that there needed to be a simpler way of doing things. And now the world seems to be changing exponentially faster. Now the media is very fragmented; there are lots of ways of speaking to people. You can either look at that as a threat or see it as people needing more creativity.”

Mark Taylor: “Everyone now wants to say they can work across all disciplines, but it’s easier said than done. You need a collaborative agency model to do it, and most are not that.”

When you first started, one of Arcade’s most unique aspects was the research and development arm known as ‘Ventures’. Is that still an important part of the business today?

Nick: “It was bigger when we started. It’s probably a product of our success in growing the business that, while as much as we stay very passionate about it…”

Matt Cullen: “The spirit is still there and we used to have a lot more time. So our early success was driven by our experimentation in different products and technology: it probably won us business. It’s still a deep part of us and we would like ramp it up more, but we’ve been building our network over the past three years.”

Nick: “It is the reality that we don’t have time anymore but whenever we get a brief, the entrepreneurialism is always at the forefront of how we find solutions to problems.”

Did the acquisition of a stake by Publicis have any impact on the outlook?

Nick: “No I don’t think so. It probably accelerated our growth and redirected our focus. The best agencies in the world build things. And from a Publicis point of view, they do recognise the value of it.”

Lesley John: “There wasn’t necessarily a change of approach; we just had less time to experiment by ourselves. Fortunately now, a lot of the experiments we do are paid work.

“We built robots for Heineken and that was a massive testing phase for something like that, but it became a genuine client project: they bought into it, paid for it and it became a huge success. A lesser client may have said ‘no we are not going to spend this time and money paying for you to mess around’. But they were 100 per cent collaborative with us. The first iteration didn’t go as well, but their willingness to invest allowed us to go for it a second time.”

Heineken robot

Speaking of Publicis, do you still think of yourselves as an independent agency despite the holding company having a minority stake?

Nick: “Yes. The nature of our business is as creative entrepreneurs and we do everything from managing our own business to our clients.”

Gary Tranter: “Publicis have certainly wanted for us to keep our independence and for as long as possible.”

Nick: “The new CEO Arthur Sadoun said to us: ‘We may be less than 1 per cent of their group turnover, but we’re 99 per cent of his inspiration to change the group’. It was a clear indication to us that they see us as a model for the future.

“We now have 175 people and five offices. But what often happens when you hit 50 people and something starts to change and you turn into a bigger organisation. We often find 50 is the sweet spot [per office]. One of the things we’ve always tried to do is never build legacy. And we do that by staying small: we can adapt and move, and if we win major projects we can scale through collaboration. Big companies come with structures and departments, and with us the business runs itself – even with five offices.”

Recently there has been a lot of talk about consultancy firms eying up independent creative agencies. In Australia both The Monkeys and Thinkerbell have been snapped up by Accenture and PwC respectively. What’s your take on this kind exit?

Nick: “We’re finding we’re bumping into Deloitte and they’re sucking in digital creative directors. They are clearly coming at the industry, and the industry is going at them. We have done our best work for very senior clients and have built strong relationships with them. When you have a lot of senior people sitting at a table, in a world that demands a lot of collaboration, that’s the best way to come up with solutions to complex problems.

“My advice to any young agency is to get entry right at the top level when it comes to working with your client; work with the most senior people, and you will be successful because you’re dealing with very smart people.”

Nick Marrett: “My advice is work with the most senior people”

Gary: “These opportunities with consultants, plus those opening up with public relations agencies and Facebook is wonderful for our industry. To have that playing field is great for a young – or old – creative person. I don’t know if the old agency model is dying, but it’s certainly cumbersome. I think creatives love that sense of solving a profound, tricky business brief.”

What did you think of MullenLowe APAC CEO Vincent Digonnet’s recent comments about consultancy-agency acquisitions not working because the two are like “oil and water” and do not mix well?

Mark: “No I don’t agree. It’s about the people at the end of the day. If you can see the value in someone sitting across the table from you then why not? That ‘us and them’ mindset is so insular when there is so much to gain from different points of view. The worst thing we can do is look inwards.”

Gary: “A bit of friction is good too. With bit of oil and water, you might find some exciting stuff happening.”

Nick: “The world is moving so quickly and is so complex that you need more than one approach. That friction can work, but it does come down to the maturity of the people and their seniority. With us being senior it helps: you leave the ego at the door and you have three or four people who know you have to crack a problem. It’s going to be a trend that sweeps the world. Those consultants are very high up in the [business] chain. It’s where advertising used to be; and where advertising needs to get back to.”

Speaking of egos, your agency tends to avoid the awards scene. Why is that? Is it anything to do with the seemingly ego-centric culture that surrounds it? Or because of the prevalence of scam in Asia?

Matt: “With awards you really need the investment: maybe S$200,000 to go for all the big awards. In the early days we decided to invest that in our R&D. And then we just got used to not doing awards and investing back into the agency. We’re not anti-awards; we just took a different path.”

But has the scam culture for you poisoned the awards here? Incidents such as last year’s I-Sea scandal haven’t reflected well on the industry. 

Matt: “Awarding great work is a great thing, but doing work for awards is obviously wrong. I think a lot of [scam] was borne out of a frustration in the industry of how do you actually sell that great work and it can be like swimming upstream.”

What’s next in store for Arcade? How does the Publicis stake affect the business in the future?

Nick: “What’s definitely driving our growth is the offices in Singapore, Jakarta and Shanghai. What definitely will help our growth this year will be the development of regional relationships.

“A lot of clients try to start their global campaigns in Shanghai because if you can get it to drop successfully in China, you go a long way towards achieving your sales target. And the same applies to Indonesia; it’s huge as well. We are quite flexible though: we do global work in Singapore, but we have done it in Shanghai too. A typical network would be a lot more structured, whereas we stay fairly fluid.

“Given we’re now part of the Publicis Groupe, we probably cover most of our needs in the markets we’re in. The days of developing domestic campaigns in South East Asia are over: the budgets are just not there. There are some big domestic clients if you want to go after them, in Thailand for example, but we want to go after global campaigns.

“Publicis will soon own all of Arcade. I can’t tell you what the timeline is, but it’s imminent. We consider ourselves part of Publicis: although we like to remain independently spirited, we’re as much part of the family now.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing