Benjamin Tan enjoys making brands stand out. He has his own venture, Semicolon he started in Singapore with two school friends.
What’s your story?
Moving images have always fascinated me as a kid. They were the doorways that offered me a brief escape into imagined worlds. By 7 years of age, I was John McClane, Dr. Grant, Han Solo and Bruce Wayne all at once.
When I turned 11, I was no longer content with merely being a part of someone else’s imagination. And by 12, I had stolen an old Hi8 camera that belonged to my Dad and made my first short when I really should have been studying for my PSLE.
I suppose the medium excited me just as much as the stories themselves. And more than wanting to live an experience, I wanted to create one.
In the years that followed, I got distracted acting on the pragmatic advice of my elders. I had started my pursuit in medicine and entertained the possibility of becoming a pilot. But by the time I got round to my A levels, my conductor (I’d spent 10 years singing in a choir by then) showed me the difference between an interest and a passion and what it meant; ‘blood, sweat and tears to carve a career out of one’.
Against the wisdom and behest of my parents, I made another short in an attempt to reignite my childhood fascination with film. I fared better than I expected for my A levels, but the film I made entered a small festival in Berlin and the Media Development Authority gave me over a grant.
That festival did more than open my eyes to the medium of film as an industry. I met my first mentor who, upon my return, would offer me my first job – which I accepted. I made a friend, whose works I had long admired before I met him in person. He would later write me an immensely helpful referral for my film scholarship – which I was awarded.
And that was how I found myself as an undergraduate in film – full of passion and the curiosities of a child. On one hand, excited to be where I was and on the other, still clueless about where I was headed, unsure if this was even a viability as a career.
But curiosity has a way of keeping your eyes and mind open to the unexpected and the unassuming. It opens you up to chance. It was a combination of freelancing back in school, knowing several schoolmates who knew people, taking an elective in advertising a little too seriously and having an unhealthy obsession for directors like Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham that eventually led me on my road to becoming a director of commercials.
It broadened my interests beyond the conventional film to the moving image as a whole. I was no longer interested in merely telling stories, but also in creating experiences. Advertising, as I have found, was my way of cashing in on a passion; of making a career out of it.
That’s the story so far. Hopefully, with enough curiosity to spare, this won’t be the end of it.
What excites you most about your industry?
Each brand; each product, have vastly different stories to tell – if we listen intently enough and delve deep enough. As tellers of these stories we have the privilege of first discovering them, and later sharing them.
Unlike feature films for instance, the turnaround for each project in advertising rarely stretches beyond a month. This gives us a myriad of new experiences to explore and be a part of on a daily basis. That’s exciting.
What’s your connection to Asia?
It is where I was born. It is where I’m most familiar with.
And it is always nice to come home to the familiar; whether good or bad.
Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I wouldn’t dare say I’ve had the privilege of doing business in many parts of Asia. We’ve had a few dabblings in the Indian and Chinese markets but I’m based primarily in Singapore.
For one, I was born here. But it’s also a very convenient place to start and run an enterprise. It’s stable, it’s well connected and it’s efficient for the most part.
That being said, for a creative business, Singapore suffers from a very limited market size – both physically as well as culturally (despite its connectedness). Branching out into the region opens up new flavours to explore, different tastes, different styles and consequently different stories to tell. Each offers a unique experience and each contributes a different facet to the craft that I engage in.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
When I was a year and a half, I learnt how to climb before I could walk. As my mum would tell it, nothing they put me in could contain me. When I fell out of a cot and hit my head as a result of this, my parents thought it’d deter me from further misadventures. They found me halfway up the window the next day.
Today, she would retell the old baby stories and add, “If you feel this is what you need to do, do it. You’ll find a way and nothing will stop you. You’re stubborn that way.”
Who inspires you?
Too many people.
As a creative, I’ve come to find that inspiration is everywhere. It’s not one thing or person; it’s a combination of many.
But if for the sake of brevity I was to name one, that would be my Dad. For painfully showing me that every endeavour comes at a cost. A lesson in causality I’m just beginning to appreciate in its entirety. It’s what keeps me grounded today, both as a creative and business owner.
What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
That 1980 is as far away as 2052.
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I don’t believe in regrets; only lessons. If I had done something differently, I’d be down a different path from the one I’m on. I’d be a different person, not having learnt what I have.
Who knows which is the better path to be on or the better person to be, or if there is even a way to qualify each.
How do you unwind?
I read, write and watch a lot of films. And I eat more than all of that combined.
When time permits, I also work out. I particularly enjoy bodybuilding.
On occasion, I also believe in allowing the mind to wander, free of thoughts.
Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I tend to have moods, depending on where I am in life. Relaxation therefore tends to take on different meanings and forms for me – backpacking through northern India; eating my way through Tokyo; lying on a beach in Bali. It depends.
I’m currently between projects and I recently came back from Batam. It was meant to be cheap, short and lazy. For 2 days I lived like a slob and never left my villa, but I’m completely refreshed now.
Everyone in business should read this book:
I would recommend anything by Bill Bryson or Andy Weir and not just for the people in business. Simply because they are good reads.
Shameless plug for your business:
Semicolon was a venture started by two of my schoolmates and I. As much as we’ve branded ourselves as a boutique production house with a focus on commercials and promos, we’ve always maintained that it really is about creating new brand experiences for audiences. After all, that is and should continue to be the goal of advertising – to make brands stand out.
It is why we are always open to new mediums; new canvases and why we are always open to outrageous ideas and processes.
You can view our body of work at www.semicolon.asia. We’ve done everything from interactive installations, to concert visuals, to the familiar commercial and promotional spot.
How can people connect with you?
Through my website – www.jacmin.com
This interview was part of the Callum Connect’s column found on The Asian Entrepreneur:
Callum Laing invests and buys small businesses in a range of industries around Asia. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is the founder & owner of Fitness-Buffet a company delivering employee wellness solutions in 12 countries. He is a Director of, amongst others, Key Person of Influence. A 40 week training program for business owners and executives.
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