Tuesday Mar 28

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Adeline Tan of The Talent Business

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Issue #01 - Interviews

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Adeline Tan

n an industry where headhunters spend an excessive amount of time introducing customers and talent over lengthy liquid lunches, it’s refreshing to meet one who isn’t a candidate for rehab.

Our interviewers had to draw straws to see who’d interview the enchanting Adeline Tan of The Talent Business. We asked the Head of Creative Talent, Asia Pacific, how the industry is coping with the economic crisis - and what creatives must do to keep their head above water.

Agency.Asia: Sorry to kick things off on a decidedly sour note, but it is a regrettable fact that there are many advertising agencies that have retrenched staff recently. By all reports it is going to be a couple of years before the global economy shows any significant recovery. Tell us, has The Talent Business been inundated by writers and art directors that are begging you to find them a new job?

Adeline Tan: Hello. I’ve always been inundated with CVs and books anyway so nothing’s changed much for me. Except that this time around, half the CVs are coming from the West - Europe, America as well as from Down Under. The quality of the books have been very good- I just wish there were more jobs for these people now.

The kind of briefs that we get often require specific skills, so as much as I’d like to help every creative person out there, not every skill-set is in demand these days and at the end of the day, I am still short of certain specific types of talent for some of the great jobs I have on my plate!

Agency.Asia: In your considered opinion what would be the most dangerous phase of one’s career to be in at the present time: a talented and expensive heavyweight, a less experienced but more economical middleweight or a junior who has just started their career?

Our New OfficeAdeline Tan: I’d say none of the above and all of the above. Am I confusing you?

There is no dangerous phase in a creative’s career, but rather a dangerous MINDSET of not embracing change and not being flexible. For example:

  1. Creatives who only want to work on ‘pro bono’ stuff without caring two hoots about the ‘real work’.
  2. Creatives who only want to work on ‘above-the-line’ stuff and refusing to touch anything that’s not print, TV, outdoor.
  3. Creatives who have no idea about new media/ interactive space.
  4. Creatives, who flatly refuse to work on a singular account, like a formulaic FMCG or a thorny Telco client.

I know not everyone wants to hear this, but I do think it’s better for me to be honest with my candidates. I’d rather tell them the truth and work with them on changing their expectations and re-working their book so that they can become more marketable in this changing landscape.

That said, agencies do have a tendency to hire ‘younger’ talent because they are perceived to be more ‘current’, hungry, have more energy and cost less than an expensive heavyweight. However if the more ‘mature’ candidate can prove to have all the qualities I’ve just talked about, then I’d like to see agencies hire them as well and give them as much a chance as they would a younger candidate. As a society, we’re so youth-obsessed it’s ridiculous.

Agency.Asia: You’ve been in the headhunting business for many years and seen tens of thousands of portfolios. What are the most common mistakes that folks make in presenting their work?

Adeline Tan: Whoa… this is an entire topic altogether, which will take me all day to talk about. I could go on and on but I’ll spare you the pain.

The most glaring mistakes are:

  1. Presenting work in dribs and drabs i.e. a print ad here, a DM piece there - i.e. ‘being all over the shop’ as we Singaporeans often say about people who are disorganized. I personally like work presented in a case study format: synopsis of the problem + creative solution/ rationale + execution + results. Of course, I’m referring to ‘real’ work here (snigger)
  2. Presenting work that is divided into “ATL/ BTL/ Others”: It shows that you are still trapped in the last decade where the disciplines were silo-ed. Nowadays, the best books feature integrated campaigns which are executed across a variety of media. Only then you can judge the breadth and depth of a campaign.
  3. Presenting only pro bono work. I can’t believe how many art directors and copywriters come to me with just their ‘spec’ book. Err, hello?! What do you do from 9 to 6 everyday? Working on just little ads for a bar of soap or that restaurant down the corner?
  4. Not digitizing their work. I’ve seen a few cheap-folder sorts of books with scraps of yellowed print ads in them and old dusty DM’s from the 90’s. Err, you’re an ad man/ branding guru, is this how you’d like YOUR OWN BRAND to be perceived?

At the end of the day though, a bad book is a bad book no matter how you dress it up, so if the content isn’t good to begin with, no amount of ‘presenting’ can save it.

Agency.Asia: With offices in Shanghai and Singapore and many more all around the globe, your company is renowned for being one of the first resources that agencies turn to find creative staff. For the uninitiated, how does one go about assisting them in finding absolutely the best person for the job? Adeline Tan, describe a typical day for you as a headhunter come matchmaker!

Adeline Tan: Oooh, I like the matchmaker bit. I’ve always had an ‘eye’ for people actually. When I was 15, I made my first match: I hooked my then best-friend up with a boy. It was a match made in heaven… for the first few years at least J

On a more serious note, I am very fortunate to be in the best headhunting company around. I’m not sure if I’ve told you this, but we work off a very different business model: For starters, we’re a one global P&L business, which means total collaboration between all offices. Plus the fact that we’re individually NOT remunerated by commission (The Talent Business pays all consultants a good fixed salary) makes my job a unique one: it’s singularly about identifying the best talent in the world for my clients.

  • A typical day goes like this:
  • 7.30am: crawl out of bed
  • 9.15am: arrive at work
  • Emails, phone interviews, face-to-face interviews, client and candidate catch ups punctuated by some tomfoolery in the office with my colleagues.
  • 7pm: head home.

P.S I also trim my colleague’s fringe once a week and have my manis and pedis done every fortnight.

As you rightly put, I tend not to meet people for ‘drinks’. It’s just not my style. I believe that all work can and should be done during office hours. The more balanced a lifestyle a headhunter has, the better he/she will be in the job. Did I mention I am glued to my blackberry though? - Damn, I just contradicted myself!

With colleagues on the Singapore Flyer

Agency.Asia: You jokingly wrote in your profile on one of the social networking sites, “Adeline is wondering why she is busiest when she goes on leave.” You’ve described your typical day. It must be a crazy job dealing with creatives. We love creatives, by the way. Still, nobody could deny that they can be anything from shy and self-effacing artistic types to raging egomaniacal asses. And then you have to go and bring money into the equation. Surely you must just occasionally want to strangle your wards.

Adeline Tan: What makes you think I haven’t?

Agency.Asia: The Talent Business concentrates on creatives - as a rule you don’t place “suits”. Have you guys got something against account managers, or is it just because there were too many brawls in your reception area when you left accounts people and creatives in the same room together?

Adeline Tan: It’s true I only place creatives - not suits or planners, but we’ve got a great team here in Asia headed by Charlie Thomas who place top-tier suits, planners and management folk. I’d say they’re bloody good at it.

And speaking of reception areas, we are very conscious that the industry is a tiny one and the likelihood of ad people bumping into each other remains high, however have a fool-proof system of ensuring total confidentiality so there’s nothing to worry about.

Agency.Asia: We’ve raised this with creative directors working in China and a few of the regional big shots. As it would appear that the majority of meetings are held in English, and indeed the Chinese Government wholeheartedly encourage its people to adopt the language, do you advise your clients against limiting their options? Many headhunters - not yourselves - add a palpably protectionist stipulation to their briefs - being candidates must be fluent in both English and Chinese.

Adeline Tan: It really depends on the brief.

If you’re working on a regional/ global piece of business where everything’s conducted in English, then of course you needn’t be a Mandarin speaker. Or if you’re at top management level where it’s mostly your vision and business acumen that counts, then it’s not so dire if you don’t speak Mandarin.

It’s not as if you cannot work in China if you don’t speak the language - it just makes it harder for you to fraternise with your staff, assimilate with the locals. Generally the foreigners who can speak the language tend to stay for a lot longer in China than the ones who don’t.

There is no one dangerous phase in a creative’s career, but rather a dangerous MINDSET of not embracing change and not being flexible.

Agency.Asia: Our team knows a young hotshot lawyer who had been headhunted into a legal firm in Australia. He was not, however, accustomed to drinking great quantities of alcohol and, at the intimate dinner welcoming him to the law firm, he projectile vomited across the table. Actually it was all over the wife of one of the partners. Without naming names, what is the funniest horror story that you have heard? There are many tales, so don’t pretend you haven’t heard of at least one classic tale!

Adeline Tan: I’ve heard many, many horror stories in agencies but I really can’t share any of this with you, as the incidents are so specific it would be easy to trace the source.

However I can tell you about the funniest portfolio I ever received in the mail. It came from a copywriter in India who wanted to work in Singapore. He sent me 3 loose sheets of radio scripts, all yellowed and dog-eared. In Tamil.

Agency.Asia: Completely off topic, but talking about horror, you are known to be a horror film addict - even going so far as to describe yourself as a ‘horologist’. You just don’t strike us as the “slice and dice” type [but nor do most serial killers look like serial killers]. A dark side, hey? What makes you crave being scared out of your skin - isn’t dealing with frightful egos enough for you?

Adeline Tan: You nutters! Horology is not about ‘horror’: it’s an appreciation for timepieces (watches). DOH!!!!!!!!!

Me? A dark side? Nah, I’m sweet as candy, can’t you tell? ;)

As for horror movies, I’m ironically absolutely scared of the supernatural and I pray to God I’ll never encounter a ghost one of these days. I always tell my friends, horror movies are my ‘feel good movies’: after watching them, I feel good about my life!

I like my movies dark but my books light… that brings me to your question about books.

Agency.Asia: Dare we ask - is there a particular character within the genre that you can relate to especially?

Adeline Tan: I’d say Sadako from The Ring (Japanese version). I can do a real scary face when I am pissed. As in angry.

Wanna try pissing me off?

I’m also good at doing a ‘ghost crawl’ - where you get on your hands and knees and crawl really fast with your hair all down, face covered, wearing white, across the room. The Chinese believe that ghosts crawl rather than walk or fly, which is the reason why traditional Chinese houses have thresholds at the front door - to keep the heebie jeebies at bay.

Wanna see it?

Agency.Asia: What are your favourite books of all time? Which book made you cry out loud and which made you cry with laughter? Apart from Agency.Asia, naturally, what do you read to keep your finger on the pulse of the advertising industry? Feel free to mention our competitors - we’re not precious.

Adeline Tan: I love chick-lit! My favourite authors are Marian Keyes and Freya North. Much as I love watching horror movies, I only read the light stuff or I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

I like:

  • Sushi for Beginners - Marian Keyes
  • 31 Dream Street - Lisa Jewel
  • Home Truths - Freya North
  • Tall Poppies - Louise Bagshawe
  • The Other Woman - Jane Green

As for reading materials:

Agency.Asia: When you say "Campaign", presumably you mean "Campaign Brief" - the magazine above all others - Ad! You know we always ask our esteemed guests to name one person that they imagine our readers would most like to hear from next. We felt that this was a difficult question to ask you considering that you represent a good many of the best creative people in Asia - and throughout the world. As you once had your own photographic production business, let’s ask you to nominate your favourite photographer in Asia. Easy! Adeline, thanks for chatting to us today. Dinner?

Adeline Tan: Hands down it would have to be Eddie Buay, whom I’m also married to.

He’d kill me if he knew I was plugging him shamelessly so I’d better stop now! Hey, I can answer your first question if you don’t mind. Can you interview Farrokh Madon my good friend? Go on, ask him to do a questionnaire! He’d never do it, but then again I might just eat my words as I never thought he’d dance but at Cannes last year... heeheehee.

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