|Veronica Phua is a member of the Grand jury for the upcoming 2022 Gerety Awards, the only global creative prize to reward the best in advertising from a female perspective, of which Campaign is a media partner. This interview is one in a series of interviews of Gerety jury members in APAC by Campaign contributor Barry Lustig.
Veronica Phua is one of the brightest and most passionate independent content creators and opinion leaders writing about Singapore’s vibrant foodie scene. Before her transformation into a culinary influencer, Phua founded Plum Ideas, an early Singaporean independent agency that offered a competitive alternative to international network agencies.
In her candid interview, Veronica lends insight into her experience starting off at an international advertising agency and how she succeeded in starting her own agency. She also shares her views on the importance of trust and honesty when brands engage social media influencers, like herself. Finally, she gives some straightforward advice to agencies about what it takes to attract and retain creative people.
How did you first get into advertising? What did you like about it?
I didn't want to wake up in pain at the thought of going to work. Very early on, and I knew I wanted to do something creative. Funnily enough my parents had a friend who was a supplier for the international ad agencies that were just kind of getting established in Singapore. I got an internship. Advertising looked so fun. The guys looked as though they were having so much fun at work. They came in slippers and shorts. They put their feet on their desk. At the time, it was mostly expats in senior creative positions. I wanted to be like them.
When I joined Batey, my first agency, our biggest client was Singapore Airlines. At that time, John Finn was my mentor. He created Singapore Airline Girl which is now rather controversial. The contemporary view is that it objectified women. But at the time it worked and there were so many other airlines that emulated it. I personally didn’t have an issue with it because if something works then you just roll with it. I thought the “Singapore Girl” was very beautiful, looked glamorous, she had this alluring air about her, and she made air travel romantic.
What were your motivations to start a new agency? What opportunity did you see in the market?
I was very happy working at international agencies, actually. But it was a timely move due to company restructuring around a new ECD and my copywriter partner from the Philippines wanted to move back home. My husband was the one who actually suggested starting an agency. He said, "since you are such an industrious person, why don't we try and open our own little boutique agency?"
At that time, there was a little gap in the Singapore market. There were these huge multinational agencies and at the top full of expats. Very talented people. At the same time, they were expensive. Advertising agencies were charging an arm and a leg. On the other hand, there were small local design studios, usually owned by Singaporeans. They tended to be more visual-led and they were mainly just about making things look pretty. There wasn’t an agency in-between that had the exposure and learnings from a large international ad agency but had a less expensive rate. So, we wanted to fill that gap.
How did you start your new agency?
It was just me and my husband. He is also an art director by training and worked for Ogilvy & Mather. That's how we met, because in advertising we have no life. It was just the two of us for a little while. Then we had some freelancers and got them on as full-timers. At our largest, we were no more than 10. I refused to become a big agency. I wanted to keep it small. I loved the nimbleness of it.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned in running your own agency?
Luck plays a big role in it. Running a business is very different [than being an employee]. You really need to think it through. You need to have a lot of things set up like backend, finance and human resources. All of the things you don't see. It is very important to keep things running smoothly. Cashflow, and all that other stuff nobody wants to talk about, matters!
You also need to make sure to keep an eye on your team; making sure that they're happy. When you have a good team, you have a very little turnover. A small stable team is easier on the creative director, or the boss, because you know they have your back. You don't have to start from scratch in terms of reminding them about your expectations, what this client is about, what the client is expecting and that kind of thing. And if you don't have a happy team, you also don't get good work.
Now you have become a well known social influencer in the Singaporean food scene. So many brands are keen to engage social influencers like yourself. How can they best do this effectively?
Paying someone to endorse something is not the way to go anymore. It rarely works because authenticity is so important in a world where everything can be faked. When a brand chooses an ambassador, it should not just be someone who looks good in front of a camera or who can talk when given a script. That person genuinely has to believe in the product or use it themselves. The way they talk about it, the way they share about it, it can’t be driven by, “because I'm being paid to do this.” [Rather you want them to endorse you because they] wholeheartedly believe this is something that can improve your life.
I have always been very transparent when I’ve hosted a tasting event or something like that. When I do paid sponsorship, I declare that it is paid content or sponsored post. People accept that, and it is fine because I am honest about it. I won't be harsh, and I won't be mean. But I will be honest. When the client gets too involved and they tell you what we need to see, it becomes a very hard sell. And it's a huge turnoff. It has to be real.
How should brands engage social-media influencers?
That's the thing, brands need to engage influencers for what they are already known for. You need to trust that they know their followers; that they know what buttons to push to make sure their followers actually enjoy their content and believe what they say. Trust that person and the reason why their followers to keep on following them. They can’t put up content that their followers will go, "What?!."
Every agency is looking to hire content creators. How can agencies best hire and retain them?
Pre-Covid, I would say a really cool office is great, right? Now, it has to be something to do with the stability and growth. What can the agency give me? Obviously a salary. What are the other benefits though? What is the potential for me, in two years? What I can hope to look forward to? Agencies have to plan out a little bit of a career path now.
Now, I am speaking from experience: agencies hire people, work them to death and spit them out. Then they go and hire some fresh talents. People get burnt out and don’t stay when they are unhappy. So I think [it’s important to keep] staff happy and have good benefits.
Is there any advice you’d like to give on hiring and retaining creative talent?
Paper qualifications, whichever university someone went to, doesn't matter as much as life experience or the person themselves. When I was running an agency, I would hire people who were genuinely very passionate and curious in general. They were always reading things, looking at things, just interacting with everything around them. I wanted to hire the kind of person who would say, "Oh, I taught myself how to edit or I taught myself how to….” Those are the kind of people you want because you don't need to push them. They will be pushing themselves damn hard and they will be bringing so much more to the table then you could ask them to bring. They create more energy and fun. They make everybody a little bit competitive, and this creates better work.
Hire fun people, curious people. Everything else can be learned on the job. That little extra energy though, that spark… either you have it or you don't.