Veteran ad man Calvin Soh has left R/GA where he was executive director of growth for Asia-Pacific. He has started One Kind Ideas, a consultancy that will focus on projects both professional and in areas that Soh is personally interested in.
Soh denied rumours that he will be working with his former partner Francis Wee who recently left Ogilvy Singapore as ECD.
Elaborating on One Kind Ideas, Soh said: “I am exploring a model where I can work for anyone, depending on the function and the role that the client wants. I can do it at a consultancy level and then hand it over to the agency. I am not competing with them.”
One Kind Ideas originated from ‘One Kind House’ – an urban farm and restaurant project Soh built for his mother, a former teacher, as a way of keeping her engaged post-retirement. Explaining the concept, Soh said: “One Kind Ideas came about as an evolution of One Kind House – the need to create an ecosystem of kindness and champion one of a kind ideas.”
Calvin Soh’s mother at One Kind House
He added: “Meetings happen here in a relaxed atmosphere. We come up with business ideas; not ad ideas. One of the projects is how to monetise a brand: how do you build value so that it can sell itself at a premium?
“Another one is for a charitable organisation in Singapore where the top 10 charities take 90% of funding. So how does a charity that’s not in the top 10 survive and create new business revenue sources?”
Speaking about the sort of clients he would avoid, Soh said: “If a client makes fun of Greta Thunberg, I wont work with them. If you are deliberately selling guns, if you are mean – I have fired clients who were mean to my people in the past. The world is hard enough as it is. Let us try to work with kind people on kind projects that are good for everyone.”
Some of the personal projects under One Kind Ideas include Soh prototyping a tool for measuring pain and helping his 13-year-old daughter set up her jewellery business.
Speaking of his motivations for looking past the advertising side of the business, Soh said: “We can all do the creative stuff. But frankly, people are buying less ads. Exponential change in technology is disrupting business. If your business is disrupted, and the agency suggests that you redesign a logo – for instance – that solution is of no use. Marketers need someone who looks at the fundamental business structures and models, and determine what this can evolve into.”
Soh had previously quit advertising as vice chairman and chief creative officer at Publicis Asia-Pacific in 2011 and taken a five year sabbatical, running an enterprise called Ninety Nine Percent.
He had outlined his reasons for the break in a widely shared post on social media and through the course of it, worked on several projects including creating a book with his son.
Calvin Soh and family
Asked about the impulses that brought him back to the business and R/GA in particular in 2017 he said: “While I was working a bit through my five year sabbatical, we were living off my savings. I had to cut a deal with my wife, since at some point, I had to put money back in the bank.
“There were a few offers but I took R/GA because of their reputation for being an innovation company. In Asia, they had been through a few false starts. I initially joined as ECD and then they made me regional head of growth, selling business solutions which was up my alley.”R
Reflecting on his tenure at R/GA, Soh said: “We worked on Uber but full credit to the team – I only bought wine for them.
“We did a Chinese New Year app called Huat The Face which scans your face and tells how much you should get as ang bao (cash given on Chinese New Year). It got passed around quite a lot with no advertising or influencer marketing.
“I helped pivot the agency. I was ensuring we recruit people with multiple skill sets or at least an open mindset and a propensity to learn. We didn’t hire people who said ‘This is how I do things’. We won new business like SingLife, Schroders and UOB.”
He was also proud of a brief from the ministry of health which commissioned the agency with the task of designing the hospital of the future.
Asked why he believed it was the right time to leave, Soh said: “There’s never a right time. To be fair, when you are comfortable and making money, it’s hard. But in my last five year break, I spent a lot of time with my son. I thought it was only fair that I spend time with my daughter. I took her to the ‘See It Be It’ mentorship programme at Spikes and want to expose her to more of this.”