Memoirs of a Mad Man

It’s not uncommon nowadays, in Singapore, to see trophies from D&AD, One Show, the Cannes Lion and other prestigious international advertising awards adorning entire walls of local ad agencies and production houses.

It’s fair to say that Singaporean creatives and photographers have stood toe-to-toe with the best in the world. However, prior to the 1980s, that was not the case.

So how did it all start? We asked one of Singapore’s first mad men, himself a chronic multi-award winner, to tell us the story.

Written by Aaron Ang and executed by Loud Kitchen LLC on behalf of PPAS.

Victor Yeow

Photo by DesignSingapore Council

Victor came from a poor family. He loved to draw, but couldn’t afford to go to art school. He was roped into advertising by a neighbour who knew someone in advertising. They needed someone who could draw.

“I had nothing else better to do,” chuckled Victor, ” as luck would have it.”

What was the state of Advertising when you entered the scene?

There were only five advertising companies operating in Singapore when I entered the scene in the late 1960s as a junior artist. At that time, there were no schools or education centres to learn about advertising. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) was the only barely related education centre. They taught fine arts. There was nowhere you could learn copywriting.

Most of the first local advertising masters had a fine arts background. They thrived in advertising by applying their knowledge in the fine arts into advertising. In those early days, everything was hand painted, and hand reproduced. If the client ordered a hundred posters, we had to copy each one of them exactly by hand – down to writing 8 point font with a fine brush.

Full illustration for a Mooncake Box. 
Artist: S. W. Lum
Agency: Grant Advertising
Note the finesse in the brushwork.

At that time, advertising assets were drawn using various techniques. Some of the techniques became the foundation of the familiar functions we know in today’s image processing softwares. Artworks were created using layers of transparencies and developed using techniques like masking, brushing and etching, to name a few.

Once the photographer, illustrator and art director have produced the final images, we had to take photos of the final product and make films to actual size.

These films are sent to a block maker who would make blocks of molds to size. These molds are then used to multiply print. They work like rubber stamps. The molds would be inked and the image transferred to paper (or whatever medium we needed).

Colored images could be mass printed by overlaying the primary colors. However, these images were hardly detailed enough. They were limited to 55 dots per inch.

Hence, “vector” was the standard practice. These created a black and white solid drawing. Also known as line drawings, where only lines are used to draw detailed images.

The traditional way was to cut or scrape lines on a scraper board – a board coated with white plaster. We then draw an image in black paint over it and use a knife to cut into the board to make a negative image. It was extremely time consuming. Line drawing required highly skilled artists and they were highly sought after at that time.

Finished Artwork and Colour Proof. Completely hand drawn. 
Artist: S. W. Lum
Agency: Grant Advertising
Line Drawing detail. 

Those were the golden years. There were more jobs than agencies could handle and budgets were generally good.

Having said that, we were often more excited about the creative process than the budget. There have been times when we produced 2 final products at our own cost – one as briefed by the client; the other according to what we thought it should be. Most of the time the client would pick the latter. Some agencies would regularly produce 2 final products, especially if it was a new client.

In your opinion, how did locals rise in the industry? 

Local agencies popped up because locals knew they could do better.

The working environment was tough for the locals initially. Local agencies had little experience in advertising while foreign agencies had better systems and processes. However, the issue with foreign agencies then was that they were not open to hiring locals. It was the era where Asians were not well respected. Foreigners did not respect nor work well with the locals, unfortunately. There was little transfer of knowledge.

To make matters worse, most foreign agencies did not see the full potential of the Asian market. They dispatched leaders who weren’t the best in the advertising field while keeping the real talents at the home office. Only a few of better foreign agencies sent in their best to head the local office. 

In my case, I was asked to manage a new agency with 17 local advertising talents who were headhunted from an American ad agency here. But things went sideways soon after. The original founder vowed to raise over a sum of money to be pumped into the new company, but abandoned it when he failed to get it. I was left high and dry with my team. We suddenly found ourselves in limbo. 

Fully hand drawn including Typeface. Note the slight irregularities on Fonts.
Artist: S. W. Lum
Agency: Grant Advertising

Thankfully, we were already working on existing projects when this happened. One of those projects was an above-the-line project for Fujifilm. With that account, I approached the Japanese ad agency Asatsu in the hope of finding the financial support for the agency to survive. That lead to the start of Nexus-Asatsu (known as ADK Singapore today). 

We enjoyed our work to the point that money was not an important factor. 

Note: Victor lead Nexus-Asatsu for 13 years until his retirement in 2003. He worked with countless brands during his tenure there. 

Can you remember how Advertising Photography came about in Singapore?

Although photography was invented earlier, it was only much later in the 1950s that it was adopted into advertising in Singapore. In the early days, there were no professional advertising photographers. Advertising companies would hire photographers from photo salons instead. 

A photo salon is the place you would go to have a portrait taken of yourself our your family. The skills of the first photographers were mediocre, given that it was a relatively new medium here in Singapore. 

All photos were shot and printed in black and white. To produce colored images for ads, artists had to airbrush color paint over a weakly printed black and white image. The finished Master would then be sent to the blockmaker.

However, if the final media needs to be larger than A1 size, reproduction needed to be done by hand, which involved airbrushing each copy one by one. So if the client ordered 50 adverts, you had to airbrush 50 copies by hand. With the hours we put into airbrushing such ads, if you told any art directors of my time to reproduce a photorealistic illustration of a car today, they probably could!

Final print made from the illustration above. Typeface was also hand drawn.
Artist: S. W. Lum
Agency: Grant Advertising

Given the limited capability of photography at that time, how did advertising companies distribute their budgets between photos and illustrations?

Things that could not be shot would be illustrated, but photos were usually preferred. They were faster to produce, more accurate (to real life) and relatively cheaper to mass produce as well. There were challenges though.

The main challenge was that there just weren’t any good commercial photographers around.

Back then our main option was to approach photo salons. We had them do mostly product shots. They did the black and white shots (purposely overexposed to make very light prints) that we used as the base for airbrushing in colour. However, sometimes products would still be illustrated either because the photo salons didn’t have the skills for a certain shot, or if we decided to use a well-known illustrator.

If you take a look at the older Khong Guan biscuit tins, you’ll noticed that their logo and biscuit images are illustrated. You can probably still see some of these in Indonesia!

Even so, good illustrators were hard to come by. Sometimes, depending on the look we wanted, we had to fly commercial photographers in to do the job. 

My left hand drawn with my right – The irony of this is, I was born left handed but had to switch to my right because of my Primary 2 school teacher, who strongly believed that we should write with the right hand. I still remember the pain from her ruler. Though I can’t draw or write with it, I handle most tools with my left hand.

Why was it also the Golden Age of photography in Singapore?

Budgets were very high. I’ll give you an idea – back then you could buy a full meal for less than S$2, drink included, but the billing for photography was typically in the 5 figure range. Per shot. In fact, we once had a campaign billing of S$127,000 for 5 still photos. That was a lot of money in those days.

We could afford to hire top photographers and fly them into Singapore, but soon after, some notable local photographers started making a presence here. Among the initial batch, names like Winson Photography, Picture Farm and Mun and Wong grew faster than the rest. 

We started using local photographers more because firstly, it was cheaper and faster than flying a big name foreign photographer in, and secondly, our local guys were showing some very good skills. 

I remember a beer ad that we did that required a beer bottle to be shot. The foreign creative director insisted on using a famous product photographer in the UK but I insisted the local guys could do it just as well. After some heated discussions, and because the budget was good, we agreed to have the ad shot by both and compare results. We ended up using the one shot locally. There was no question!

These early commercial photographers passed down their knowledge and experience to their assistants, some of whom became top photographers in their own right. Of course there were some big names who were self-taught and earned their place through hard work and dedication too.

It was ultimately during the 1980’s, some 3 generations after, that Singaporean photographers sealed their place firmly on the world stage, and from what I see, this torch of honour is still carried and passed down from generation to generation. 

Victor’s journey

  • 1962: Advertising Outdoor Services – Apprentice Artist
  • 1969: Grant Advertising – Visualiser
  • 1975: Grant Kenyon & Eckhardt – Art Director
  • 1980: Bozell Advertising – Creative Director
  • 1991: Nexus Asatsu Advertising – ECD/Snr Partner
  • 2003: Retirement
My grandson and I