Fiona Bartholomeusz: 15 Lessons From 15 Years Of Running An Agency In Singapore

Fiona Bartholomeusz has just celebrated her 15th year since founding Singapore independent creative agency Formul8, which also has an office in Dubai.In this guest post, Bartholomeusz offers 15 lessons from her 15 years running an agency in Singapore, from getting over rejection and the lack of loyalty in advertising, to dealing with sexism and cost-conscious clients.

#15. It’s a business first. It doesn’t matter how creative you are or how you’re going to revolutionise the ad world if you can’t run a proper business first. I get a kick out of reading about the next person who wants to create the next award-winning/multinational/experiential/mega network in Asia when they can’t even get it right in their own backyard first.
There’s no harm in dreaming big, but walk the talk first.

#14. There is no loyalty in this business. Get used to it and get over it. Clients and staff rarely remember what you’ve done for them, but for the rare ones who do, keep them close and well fed!

#13. This is a rejection-based business. Losing is tough but there will always be another client to be won, but do learn and grow stronger from it. I try never to enter a pitch half-arsed, so if we lose one, I tell my team, it’s the client’s loss not ours. If you don’t believe in your own product, then half the battle is already lost before you’ve even begun.

#12. Learn how to drink well, this applies to any gender in the business. Alcohol and client entertainment mixed with the inability to hold down your liquor is sheer disaster!

#11. It’s not always about work. I’ve made amazing friends out of some clients, and these are things you can’t put a price on.

#10. If you care more about money than the work, go do something else. You will pull in more hours and make less than what your peers in banking/law/medicine get paid so you’ll need to have an innate love for what advertising is. People who work solely to chase money or an acquisition, have lost the plot in my opinion.

#9. Hire people with integrity, not just those with talent. People with heart and a good head on their shoulders can be taught to be great at what they do. Talent often comes with a colossal ego that obstructs the ability to see or think straight. Seen too many in this business alas.

#8. Never start your job application letter with “I have an MBA from…..” – it doesn’t matter how schooled you are, that’s not a guarantee of success in this business. Street smarts, yes. School of life, hell yeah.

#7. Just because you’re Singaporean doesn’t mean I owe you a job. You’ll have to earn it. As a Singaporean myself, I’m appalled with the sense of self-entitlement I see coming from many of the Gen Ys. I do worry about the future here if people really don’t buck up and learn to be hungry and ambitious because the rest of Asia is catching up with us. It’s really not the time to be complacent.

#6. The industry is small. So don’t lie about what you have done, whose work it was, why you left the agency and don’t list someone as a referee if they are not going to give you a good referral. Duh…

#5. Sexism exists. Use it to your advantage. Some clients just prefer not to deal with a woman or only want to deal with a female specifically. I don’t care as long as we get the work and clients remain professional and above board. The ones who are initially tougher on females end up being far more respectful once they realise you know your stuff and can’t be browbeaten. Trust me, I’ve worked in the UAE for seven years. There’s enough tales to fill a book I tell you…

#4. Winning business because you’re the cheapest agency is a death knell for the agency and industry. “Free ET and proofing/three months waiver of retainer/free creative director on the account/free creative concepts” – I’ve heard it all. It’s myopic and you’re just propagating the notion that our work doesn’t have value in the communications food chain. Why aspire to be a sweatshop, there’ll always be a cheaper agency anyway.

#3. Get out of Singapore, being comfortable isn’t good. Fly the flag high as Singapore Inc. has value overseas. Now with so many tax incentives, why not? At the worst, it can be an offshoot base for the talent you can’t seem to hire here.

#2. Be shameless about wanting the business. Clients love the passion, energy and excitement an agency has because it’s infectious. What’s the worst that could happen? You lose the pitch because you’re just too damn happy to work on the account? Yup, that’s not going to happen anytime soon…

#1. It should always be fun. Work with people you like as you’ll be spending more time with them than your partners/family. S**t hits the fan all the time, it’s stressful, staffing issues will always drive you nuts, the hours do not make any sense whatsoever but if you wake up wishing it was a Saturday, then do something that fuels you again. Life is too short to be spent doing something you dread. I’m lucky to work with an amazing bunch of colleagues and clients and they’re the reason why I still love what I do after all these years. That and a healthy dose of masochism…



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