Mandate's rise from its days in the basement

Ms Chew, whose original mission was to grow the company, is now looking at building a succession team.
Ms Chew, whose original mission was to grow the company, is now looking at building a succession team.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Firm which started with in-house advertising now more of a communications agency

The gentle humming of laundry machines and the clashing of woks sat above a different kind of buzz in basement two of the Mandarin Singapore hotel in the 1970s.

Overseas Union Advertising was churning out advertisements and campaigns from the floor below the hotel's laundry area and kitchen.

The unit of Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE) and an associate company of Overseas Union Bank started out with in-house work.

After gaining experience under the leadership of executives like Ms Chew Lee Ching, the firm secured major clients over the years.

MULTI-PRONGED APPROACH

This year, we've stepped up the pace, and we're seeing results. There's no one method to reach the audience out there, you need a multi-pronged solution.

MS CHEW LEE CHING, MD of Mandate.

It changed is name in 1992 (to Mandate Advertising International), left the OUE family in 2005 and, since 2014, has been known as Mandate Communications. The firm was somewhat late banking tycoon Lien Ying Chow's baby. He founded it in 1976 for the group's advertising needs. It celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Ms Chew, who is now its managing director, recalls: "He would walk around the hotel in the evenings, and would peek into our office to see who was still there. If he saw my staff, he'd talk to them and tell them: 'You must work hard, you know?'"

Even though Dr Lien was not involved in the firm's day-to-day business, he kept tabs on it.

"Maybe he had an attachment to it, because this was the little company he'd set up and it was one of the latest then," says Ms Chew. "He'd call up and ask how the firm was doing. The directive given to me was to grow the company, and he wanted to know what was going on."

Ms Chew came from a marketing background. She was brought in to grow the firm in 1985.

The first order of business was expanding from its somewhat underground premises to the third floor of the hotel's shopping gallery to include a marketing office. Production and creative work, among others, remained in the basement.

"Dr Lien was astute enough to realise that, to be in sales and marketing, you need somewhere for people to visit without going down to the basement."

By then, the firm started to move away from printing publicity material, such as brochures for the hotel and bank, to producing ads for external clients.

Ms Chew, who is also the organising committee chairman of the Singapore Prestige Brand Award, notes that, by her third year at the then Overseas Union Advertising, more than 50 per cent of its revenue came from external business.

"Being a wholly owned subsidiary gives you security and stability, but you serve the in-house business, and in-house clients tend to find you dependent on them.

"External parties would also question if we could do it, and that was something we had to grapple with."

The firm had clients from the retail, car and tourism industries, such as Japanese department store operator Sogo, Audi, British car manufacturer Rover and the Australian Tourist Commission. "That helped us reposition ourselves as a true player in the industry," Ms Chew says.It also gave the firm the confidence to rename itself as Mandate, "to act for our clients".

In 1997, the firm recorded $18.1 million worth of billings.

In 2001, United Overseas Bank acquired OUB. Under guidelines set out in 2000, banks' non-core businesses had to be divested and Ms Chew, along with three other senior Mandate executives, completed a management buyout in 2005.

"It was disconcerting. Overnight, we were no longer family. We didn't know if the firm was going to be sold or closed down, and that was when we pooled our resources together."

Mandate, which has 32 employees, has grown to become more of a communications agency, on top of its advertising expertise. Work has expanded to include corporate branding and social-media solutions, for instance. And the client list includes the Singapore Army, ministries, malls like VivoCity and Bugis Junction, and airlines like Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.

The firm has garnered accolades at events such as the SPH iink Awards 2013, for a series of unusual ads for Lien Foundation, among others.

"This year we've stepped up the pace, and we're seeing results. There's no one method to reach the audience out there - you need a multi-pronged solution," says Ms Chew. However, she notes, Mandate's turnover took a beating in 2015, though the firm is still "profitable".

Mandate also taps a network of partners that has expertise in areas such as social media or business-to-business work.

In its 40th year, Ms Chew says: "My plan is to build up a succession team, and to learn what is coming up next and if I need to bring it in as part of our communication solutions.

"We also look at our overseas partners, and ask if we can do what they are doing. I have a partner in China that has gone into e-commerce successfully, and the question is if we should go into it? We certainly have the expertise to do it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Mandate's rise from its days in the basement'. Print Edition | Subscribe