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Indonesian independent Percolate Galactic: ‘We’re the X-Men of advertising’

Having moved to Indonesia at the height of the global financial crisis, Samantha and Ryan Jackson went from jobbing copywriters to running one of Jakarta's most colourful independent agencies. They share their journey with Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson

On first hearing, the name Percolate Galactic sounds like a 1970s B-movie involving laser guns, bad special effects and a bizarre mythology around inter-dimensional penetration.

While that may be the script George Lucas is glad he never wrote, it turns out Percolate Galactic is the wacky-sounding moniker of a Jakarta-based ‘marketing laboratory’, which has made waves on Indonesia’s flourishing creative scene over the last seven years.

Founded by American married couple Samantha and Ryan Jackson, who left a financial crisis-wrecked America in 2011, the agency has now grown to encompass 26 people, who handle a host of international clients from Google to GIPHY.

Unorthodox in name and unorthodox in manner, the agency sees itself as something of a haven for Indonesia’s creative ‘misfits’ who want to tackle more than just the churn of rudimentary client briefs.

In this interview with Mumbrella, the founding duo reveal their early-day missteps setting up in Jakarta, their plans for the agency’s future and why they refuse to pitch for local briefs.

First things first, what drove you from living in the US to suddenly setting up a creative business in Indonesia all those years back?

Samantha: “Basically Ryan was a journalist and I was a social worker and then the economy collapsed in America and we didn’t end up living in our parents’ basement. We ended up in Indonesia because at the time it seemed a really exciting place to be. It had a booming economy, a new democracy and it seemed all the world was looking at what would happen between the West and South East Asia.

“One of things we soon noticed was the incredible amount of creativity: artists, writers, poets and musicians. We also noticed all of those people were really under-appreciated and underpaid. In advertising if you go with one of the big agencies in Indonesia, you are actually paying the same price you would in Singapore or anywhere else, so the discrepancy between that and the wages they were paying really bothered us. So when we formed Percolate, the idea was to make it a collective so that you can be a creative and afford to have a life.”

Did you know anything about advertising before you decided to open an agency?

Ryan: “We were a bit at sea at first. I used to cover politics, which I loved, so it hurt a lot when journalism got so badly hit by the financial recession in 2008. When I came here, it was like starting over. And at first we were just writing copy about eggs.”

Samantha: “It was very copy-based at first. When we got here, we noticed a lot of advertising copy was written in English – maybe because it seemed more high-end. But the English was terrible, so we thought we could jump in there. Turns out that was a mistake because people didn’t really care about good English, so it was not a sustainable business.

“Luckily, the people we were working with kept requesting more and more services in addition to copy; so branding, art and social media campaigns. And it turned into our own creative network of people from there.”

Where did the name ‘Percolate Galactic’ come from? 

Samantha: “Our very first office was going to be above a little specialty coffee shop owned by a friend of ours, and when we were tossing around name ideas, we hit on Percolate and really liked the sound of it.

“It was a nod to the coffee shop location and also the word Percolate implied this kinetic movement of ideas through culture.

“But, to register the name with the government, we needed to have at least two words in the name back then. Ryan and I were trying to find a word that felt good with Percolate, and would also be unique enough to be memorable, have available social media handles and relatively searchable online.

“So we wrote Percolate Galactic on the application and then sent it in. A few weeks back, we got the notice that it had been approved, and we were officially “PT Percolate Galactic”.

“At first, we mostly used ‘Percolate’, but as we’ve evolved, the Galactic has started to play a bigger and bigger role in our identity. We’ll always be ‘Percolate Galactic’, but as we grow and evolve and expand internationally, there will probably be a lot more Galactic/Galaktik and a lot less Percolate.”

Was it easy setting up as two outsiders, both in terms of being foreign and new to the creative industry?

Ryan: “No. We spent the first few years getting our teeth kicked in. If we had known then some of the things we know now, we probably wouldn’t have started this journey.”

Samantha: “We quickly learnt the way things work in the rest of the world are not the way things work in Indonesia. Everything we read about advertising, we threw out and started from scratch. We learned that the industry is really opaque here. There are no networking events or collaborative groups. The community doesn’t really exist.

“From the business-side, whenever an RFP was sent out, it was often just so a client could fulfil their protocol. They nearly always already had an agency in mind. It’s never clear what the budget is, so a lot of things get asked of the agency without the possibility of them being hired.

“For a pitch, you have to create an entire campaign, which is a huge demand of time, and unless you have some kind of pre-existing relation to that client, the chances of you getting in are next-to-none. So we don’t pitch, and we’re probably the only ones in Jakarta that don’t. And that’s because we saw our pitches stolen and given to the winning agency.”

If you don’t pitch, how do you find new business?

Samantha: “We work with international businesses. Our sweet spot is those looking to break the Indonesian market. Because we have done it ourselves, we can act as a business and creative consultancy to help them adapt their brand identity to the local market. We do get other brands who don’t want Indonesian coverage, but want to work with international quality at Indonesian prices.”

Do you find being foreign, or specifically American, working in Indonesia works for you or against you?

Samantha: “With local clients, our foreignness worked against us as much as it worked for us. We could get in the door easier as we maybe seemed more interesting, but until we had our local team built up and a reputation it was: ‘It’s great to get coffee with you, but you’re white.” And I understand that. If you are an Indonesian brand, why would you hire two foreigners? You wouldn’t. Ultimately as well, it’s not the foreigner who is going to convince the client of the creativity.”

Ryan: “And anything that we achieved here, it’s through our team. We’re just lucky we managed to find such talented people who made me look. Work here is so conservative: anything that worked five years ago, still works now. So if we helped these kids go and put their creative ideas out, that’s cool.”

Samantha: “We sometimes see the work creatives are doing in their day job and it’s sad, but the clients often don’t want to take the risks here. But the amount of creative talent in Indonesia is mindboggling. And we do provide a bit of a safe haven for artistic people who are probably misfits in the corporate world, and we find clients for them.”

Ryan: “We’re the X-Men of advertising.”

You mentioned the pay in advertising is poor in the networks. Are you able to share what salaries you offer in comparison?

Samantha: “We do make all our pay scales public and we do that a bit subversively because we want people to see what they can get paid – and attract the best people. But we also want it to be there even when we’re not hiring, so it gives people a bit of leverage at their own agency. We never have unpaid interns – we pay them the local minimum wage [RS3.7m]. Starting with us, nobody is paid less than RS8m, which is more than double what most fresh graduates normally get in Jakarta. And the people who clean the office get the same as the design staff.”

What’s the independent scene like in Indonesia? Is the market thriving?

Samantha: “A lot of people think Indonesia is just one big goldmine. And I would say a lot of people who come here for that are in for a rude awakening. It’s a very insular market and very difficult to break through. The vast majority of international agencies seem to make their money through media buying: radio, billboard and print is all still the status quo, and that’s where the profit margin is. So if you come with an idea to make money, it has to be in a very specific way.

Ryan: “With the independent scene, there are some really really cool shops popping up. There’s Sciencewerk in Surabaya. POT and Kube in Bandung. And there’s a ton of kinship.”

Samantha: “We’re trying to lead the way and connect all these independent guys, so that we don’t cannibalise each other and support the independent scene. We hosted the POT team for a workshop about underselling, because that’s a problem. Don’t accept less just because you’re independent. It’s challenging because it is very competitive here, so there is this overwhelming feeling of everybody for themselves. So we want to get rid of that. Our goal for 2018 is to unite all these independent agencies and get us working together. But people are worried where their money is going to come from.”

Ryan: “It’s why I’m pushing us more towards production because if Facebook and Google are taking a huge chunk of the media budgets, then I want people to be able to come to us because we do outstanding work – not because one of our account executives can charm a certain media executive. Creativity is one of the only things in our industry that has a future.”

Final question, is there an exit plan in mind? Do you have plans to head back to the US?

Samantha: “It’s an active conversation in the office always because obviously Ryan and I aren’t Indonesia and we don’t plan on staying here forever. Ideally, we would have built something sustainable that the existing team can run for us. I don’t think being purchased would help us right now. It doesn’t work with our values.”

Ryan: “We’ve been down that road, and it asks us a number of compromises. Ideally I want us to become this weird creative behemoth that whatever I did is overshadowed by what comes after it. The kids here are going to make great creative directors.”

Samantha: “We want to be profitable so we have a nest egg to take back to the States, but we want to be sustainable so these misfits and weirdos can keep it going.”

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