You wouldn’t know it when first meeting him in person, but beneath the charming disposition of veteran ad man Adrian Tan is a basket of psychological maladies so numerous, it’s a wonder he’s even able to sit through a two-hour interview. But what society deems as problems have, in fact, become the 58-year-old’s edge over peers.
His laundry list of ailments includes dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
“Being dyslexic has worked out wonderfully for me, because I am always thinking differently. I see something that others won’t,” he explains. “I find that very exciting, because you have an inbuilt desire to want to challenge the norm. My greatest fear is being average.”
The towkay – as stated on his business card – is far from being average. As the founder of Ad Planet, Singapore’s largest independent advertising group made up of nine boutique agencies, Tan oversees a business with an annual turnover of more than $40 million.
Unsurprisingly, his conditions made going to school a particularly trying experience. Teachers wrote him off as a disruptive troublemaker, and he struggled to pass his exams. At some point, however, the usual narrative of a beaten-down individual rising to overcome the odds takes an unexpected turn.
While still in school, he discovered that his OCD helped him become very determined at school.
His newly found obsession with academia helped him to tackle even the most difficult of topics, and he eventually graduated from the University of Toronto with an economics degree in hand.
He entered working life, where a painful six-month stint at a bank – a desk job is no fun for someone with ADHD – drove him into the welcoming arms of the advertising industry, where his out-of-the-box thinking would become a major asset.
“Because I have ADHD, I’m very charged up all the time. Advertising is in my natural zone as it is adrenalin-driven and demands one to be in overdrive all the time. Whereas banking required me to conform, advertising needed me to break rules.”
In the 1980s, he started Ace: WS Promotions, an agency that specialised in promotions. But to operate in his new environment, he had to acquire a host of compensation skills to curb his natural tendency for saying inappropriate things or avoiding social situations.
“I forced myself to make the unnatural feel natural,” he says. Once shaking hands and making small talk didn’t feel like death, the positive aspects of his quirky make-up helped him win over clients – many, in fact.
Ace: WS Promotions’ offbeat ideas were a hit – he once organised a competition for drinkers of Beck’s beer where the prize was a racehorse – and it became profitable within a year. Wanting to grow his business without sacrificing the nimbleness and creativity of a small shop, he founded Ad Planet, a network of agencies that were individually independent yet able to share the resources of a larger group.
He was also determined to show the industry that local creatives could hold their own against the big international players. To that end, he has succeeded many times over. The Ad Planet group (through sister agency Kinetic) has collected 400 creative awards, including honours at the prestigious Clio Awards and Cannes Lions.
Tan is looking to grow Ad Planet into a regional force, even as it thrives in the new digital landscape of advertising. “We had already started going digital eight or nine years ago. What drives me is to be the first, always.”