The Life Interview with Gillian Tan

The Life Interview with clicknetwork founder Gillian Tan: Tapping a whole new world

Television producer Gillian Tan started Web video venture clicknetwork to make reality- based shows free of interference

Ms Wendy Cheng, who is better known by her blogging handle Xiaxue, is holding a small purple object. She taps an app on her phone. The purple thing buzzes. The host of the Web video series Xiaxue's Guide To Life is demonstrating a Singapore-designed, app-controlled vibrator.

"I'm praying nobody used this," the host says as she pulls the sex toy out of the box.

Episode 192 of her show typifies the style that made its producer, clicknetwork, the most subscribed among Singapore labels making Web videos: It is unscripted, saucy and short.

Clicknetwork next year celebrates its 10th year in business. When it launched in 2007, it had the market to itself and for good reason: There was no money in it.

But its founder Gillian Tan, 36, made the videos anyway.

"It was financially difficult. No advertiser would put money into it. The platform didn't have a lot of viewers, it wasn't tried and tested," she says.

Casting the right host is important. Most of the time, I am not casting the host to fit the show. I am producing a show to fit the host.

I look for hosts with strong personalities. Xiaxue has a strong personality and there are a lot of people who dislike her, but there are a lot more people who like her.

MS GILLIAN TAN, on striking a balance when looking for hosts

Her first foray into video production was through her company Munkysuperstar Pictures, a production house which in the mid-2000s was making shows for Mediacorp. The broadcaster was looking for shows with an edge. Ms Tan, fresh from a stint in an advertising firm in San Francisco, showed up with bold ideas.

Displaying a trait that would later become the signature of her online videos, she leaned towards programmes fronted by women, for women.

Her shows featured extroverts such as Ms Cheng, then a blogger with a large following, and deejay Rosalyn Lee. In the Channel 5 series Girls Out Loud, the pair waded into plastic surgery and pole dancing.

Similarly outspoken women were wooed by men in the dating show Eye For A Guy, and in the model competition S Factor, women competed to be bikini models in a men's magazine.

The public reaction was swift.

Letter writers to The Straits Times shamed the women on Girls Out Loud for their lack of modesty. Others accused the S Factor women of setting back the clock on the women's movement.

"We showed a nose job on national TV and people were shocked," says Ms Tan.

There is a double standard on television, she thinks. "We never wanted to be role models. In shows from the West, we see Westerners doing things and we think this stuff is okay. Because we are an Eastern culture, people think we cannot be doing this stuff," she says.

Mediacorp scrapped plans for a second season of Girls Out Loud.

"We were disappointed. But that's just how it is. That is the reality of it," says Ms Tan.

For a lark, she uploaded a video she had shot of Ms Cheng and Ms Lee on a holiday in Malaysia. The footage won positive comments and requests for more.

She sensed an opportunity. "It made me think, 'If I can't do it on TV, why don't I do it online?' This is a whole new world, untapped."

She is speaking to The Straits Times at the Tanglin Road apartment she shares with her husband Bryan Chow, 45, a Taiwanese- American engineer she met in the United States. He runs an IT company here. They have no children.

She started clicknetwork as a subsidiary of Munkysuperstar. It was a loss-making venture, born of the desire to make reality-based shows free of interference and propped up by revenue from the television side of the business.

But YouTube's popularity exploded and, with it, came the Web video business model. By 2010, the positions were flipped: Online income outstripped television income.

She no longer makes shows for broadcast television. Instead, her company produces eight Web shows, fronted by 10 hosts.

A team of seven full-time producers release up to three episodes a week.

She makes videos she enjoys

While the channel started life with shows that emphasised stunts and pranks, it is today dominated by tutorials and product reviews.

"When I was younger, I thought you needed controversy to get the eyeballs," she says. The statistics proved otherwise.

Her channel's beauty tips and life hacks shows get the most views. Just as importantly, sponsors prefer to be associated with the safer material. For the hacks and beauty shows, which feature non-localised content, up to 30 per cent of views come from the United States.

Tried And Tested, hosted by actress Oon Shu An, puts beauty products through its paces.

On Budget Barbie, blogger Qiu Qiu (real name Ang Chiew Ting) looks for retail deals and on Hack It, model Rebecca Tan offers tips on doing everyday tasks better.

While YouTube pays top content producers a fee based on views, the bulk of Ms Gillian Tan's revenue comes from companies who pay to have products featured. Clients have included L'Oreal (cosmetics and skincare), Sephora (cosmetics retailing), Asus (computers) and the National Arts Council. She declined to state her earnings, but says that online income exceeds anything she made from television work.

All episode ideas are first pitched to her by producers, for her to tweak, approve or set aside. She watches every video before it goes live and she is also involved in editing.

Her chief concern is whether someone from the channel's main demographic - women aged between 18 and 34 - will be interested in the content.

She says she understood early on that likeability is a cornerstone of the channel's success, and likeability comes from authenticity. Each show is not just unscripted, it also has to come across as spontaneous with the host's asides, bloopers, hors, lahs and occasional light swearing kept in the final edit.

The channel's host, Ms Cheng, 32, says that the tone of the videos did not happen by accident.

"It's centred on Gillian's sense of humour. She makes videos that she will watch and enjoy. She's a calm person who doesn't let things rattle her. But, at the same time, she's collected a motley gang of people that she's tickled by."

Ms Cheng adds that when critics took potshots at Ms Tan's television work, instead of giving up reality- based content or reining in the hosts, she founded clicknetwork as a way to continue doing work she enjoyed, surrounded by people she liked.

Ms Tan reckons she had good business advice from her parents. They are Mr Tan Eng Soon, 68, chairman of listed motor industry firm Tan Chong International, and Madam Wee Beng Yan, 66, of fashion retailer Tyan Fashions.

"My dad tells me that the most important thing about the people you hire is attitude. Talent and experience can be learnt. Attitude is hard to change," she says.

Growing up, she says her parents trusted their children to make the right choices in matters both large and small, never dictating options.

Older brother Glenn Tan, 38, is executive director of Tan Chong International. She has two younger sisters, Gayle, 30, and Genna, 28. Gayle is a director at Tyan, while Genna runs content development firm Great Eight Writing and lifestyle portal

Ms Tan's storytelling streak was present from a young age. At Singapore Chinese Girls' School, she was involved in the drama club and she volunteered to write and direct every production. She went on to major in communications at Santa Clara University, a private institution close to the Silicon Valley heartland of San Jose in California. The first-year course in television production proved to be pivotal.

"I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do," she says, and specialised in the subject.

She moved to nearby San Francisco after graduation, taking on a variety of video-related jobs, before landing one with advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day, in the broadcast department, editing commercials. She was awed by the calibre of the talent there, which included people who created award- winning work for Apple, Levi's and Adidas.

But she always planned to return to Singapore, which she did in 2003, after three years working in the US. She searched for a job with a local advertising firm, but the bulk of them were focused on print campaigns, not video.

Mediacorp, too, was out - she had interned there while in school and found the broadcaster's management style restrictive.

"My parents, because they are entrepreneurs, suggested I start something of my own."

She founded Munkysuperstar in 2003, with the help of $10,000 from her mother and a digital camera from her father. Her first workspace was a room in the Tyan office.

Reality shows were popular then and she thought it was time Singapore had its own dating competition.

So she called in favours from male friends, who agreed to compete for a date with a woman, another friend. She filmed their antics, edited the footage on a Mac laptop and showed it to Mediacorp, who had to be convinced that Singaporean contestants could be uninhibited enough to make for good television. With that, Eye For A Guy was born.

She has come a long way since, as has the scene. Where potential clients used to scratch their heads at the idea of a Web video, now, they are likely to devote a majority, if not all, their budgets to digital media, especially if the product is aimed at those aged 18 to 24, she says.

While work keeps her busy, she finds time to get away and travel, taking holidays with her husband in San Francisco, where they met, every few years.

They also take shorter beach resort trips to Thailand and Bali, as well as make nightlife, food and shopping expeditions to Hong Kong and Tokyo.

She says: "It's a tough business, and you should do it only if you have the passion. If you are in it for the money, you won't be able to sustain your interest."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Tapping a whole new world'. Subscribe