The Story Of Charmaine Seah-Ong and Derek Ong, Founders of Elementary
Charmaine Seah-Ong and Derek Ong founded Elementary to fill a gap in the branding and marketing industry. They have achieved that, and more. The all-round agency has worked on diverse projects, from the sleek Philippe Starck hotel, The South Beach, to hipster chill-out spot, Lepark. The Ongs perceive the team as their extended family, steering the ship with honesty and openness. They believe that disagreements, if motivated by a common goal to produce the best possible work, will make the young team stronger. While busy running Elementary, the husband and wife duo are full-time parents to daughter Charlie Rose.
Can you tell us about your personal backgrounds?
Charmaine (C): I worked as a video producer while studying for my diploma in Interactive Media Design, and fell in love with film and video. I remained in that line for about six years, before moving on to handle marketing for Universal Studios Singapore (USS) for about five years.
Derek (D): When I started out in 2009, there were too many overqualified people in the market chasing the very few good jobs around. The economic climate resulted in me spending a bit of time going at it by myself. Being involved in a bunch of startups and projects reaffirmed my desires to start something of my own.
How did you guys meet and became partners in life and work?
C: We’ve been family friends since we were children but lost contact for many years – until the stars realigned nine years ago. We got married in 2012. A year later, after many late night conversations fuelled by alcohol and lofty dreams, we decided to start Elementary Co.
D: I think the most important part about doing business is being able to complement and get along with your business partners. I’ve seen many instances of big ambitions falling apart because the business partners were not able to be in synced. In our case, Charme and I have quite complementing strengths and interests, which is a key, but we also get along with each other naturally.
Why did you set up Elementary?
C: I worked with many large agencies during my production and USS days. As great as some of them were, the revolving door policy was always cause for much frustration. People never stayed long enough to really get to know the brands well enough. Cost wise, it was also exorbitantly expensive to get anything done. We started something of our own to fill the gap, and at the same time provide a great place that felt like a second home, a safe haven, or an extended family for people to do awesome work.
D: I have had Elementary in mind for a long time. I was just waiting for the right moment. When Charme was in between jobs, the timing felt right. We sat down and made the decision to ‘go!’ I guess there is always this feeling of serendipity when it comes to business?
What challenges did you face when starting up your own company?
C: What challenges didn’t we face was more like it! I think the biggest challenge was getting processes in place to guide the workflow and thought processes. Everyone in the founding team came from such varied backgrounds and had completely different ideas of how a boutique shop should and could work. None of us had worked in an advertising agency, which is really a blessing and a curse. We didn’t come with preconceived notions or set expectations as to how an agency ought to function. As much as we wanted everyone to have fun working together, we also needed to ensure that we were putting out work that we could be proud of and not compromising on standards just because we were small and new.
D: I don’t think getting the ball rolling was the challenging part, especially when we had a whole team bright-eyed and excited about the potential of a shiny new venture. The greater challenge to me is sustaining the whole operation. We were dealing with things that we did not plan for, such as when people became less infectious with their excitement and were starting to burn out. The fundamental challenge in starting your own company is to always be able to optimistically move forward in the face of multiple challenges. Sounds easy, but I think most would agree that it’s the hardest part of the job.
What are your individual roles in the company?
C: We both take turns to play good cop and bad cop with the team. Besides handling most of the business development, we mentor the creative and marketing teams to ensure that we meet briefs aesthetically and strategically.
D: I handle the business aspects of the company, the research and strategy work, as well as manage a few projects. Lately however, as the business and team has grown, I find myself doing a bit more “managing” – in an effort to become more productive and innovative. This is something that I am well read on and am pretty happy doing!
What is it like juggling parenthood, starting a family and running an agency?
C: Organised. Chaos. Kind of like how our walk-in wardrobe looks too.
D: I won’t lie, it is pretty tough. It was especially tough at the start. I will not forget being in Charme’s hospital room on the very day that Charlie was born, negotiating quite a big contract on two hours of sleep. I guess you learn to deal with chaos and intensity, particularly in terms of juggling time. It is a never ending learning curve to ascend, and there’s always new tricks and SOPs [standard operating procedures] to adopt as a family, but I think we’re getting to a point where we’re doing it well.
Tell us about three recent projects, and how Elementary was involved.
C: 1. The new Philippe Starck-designed hotel, The South Beach took us a year’s worth of pitching and back and forth discussions to seal the deal. We recently wrapped up the full suite of branding. From collaterals such as room key cards, luggage tags and in-room stationery to amenities such as toiletries, umbrella, bedroom slippers, water bottles and the website design. Everything was painstakingly designed by our team.
- Lepark – the rooftop carpark F&B [Food & Beverage] and events space was branded by us. This includes a super (intentionally!) retro website that drives Derek absolutely crazy because it looks so low-fi!
- Trehaus – Singapore’s first family-friendly coworking space was branded by Elementary. We had a part to play from website to marketing collaterals and interior design.
Tell us about the working culture at Elementary.
C: It’s really like working with an extended version of your family, albeit a more noisy and slightly dysfunctional one! We’re very open and honest with one another. This means that we also have our fair share of disagreements but we also get over them very quickly. I’m proud to say that the team has never shied away from doing more than their share [of work] and is always willing to pitch in and help one another. There’s very little ego involved but a whole lot of pride in delivering the best possible work, as well as a lot of willingness to pick up new skills, which we think is really important for a young team.
D: The one thing that I try my best to inculcate as a culture is a good attitude towards learning. We don’t expect everyone to be the best in the world at everything, but we do expect them to be able to become better at everything, given the time and support. This isn’t just in terms of a finite “job scope”, but in terms of all-round development.
What is your dream for the company?
C: Very simply put – that we get to continue doing the things that we love. Being paid to do it doesn’t hurt too!
D: For me, it is always for Elementary to be a great company, as well as a great place to work.
What do you love most about what you do? What matters to you?
D: I feel proudest when I see all of us growing together as a company, and as individuals.
C: The people I’m surrounded by on a daily basis makes everything I do worthwhile, especially the fact that I get to work so closely with my husband, which I feel has made our relationship and our marriage that much stronger.
Photos by The General Co