Crystal Fong — This is your Captain Speaking

Posted on February 24, 2015

A few words from the chair of Apostrophe, Crystal Fong.

Chapter one — Tokyo business(wo)man.

‘Oh-su-su-me nan deska?’

That’s my fail-safe phrase when I can’t read the menu.

‘Tiramassssssss,’ recommends the dude with the happy nod. He’s left off the ‘u’ but I know what he’s talking about — a caffeine-infused feast, served with a tiny spoon. It’s 10pm in the backstreets of Daikanyama, Tokyo, and I have a brand story to finesse.

I’ve come here from Melbourne on business, which is funny because I never dreamt of being a businesswoman. Entering adulthood I thought, ‘business — yuck’. That’s for people who run on autopilot and artificial sweetener, and get released once a year from 336 days in captivity to remember they have children and skin to tan.

That wasn’t me. I wasn’t that. I was cheeky and free-spirited; far too curious and bullheaded to live life in a template. Plus, I liked my tan.

Turns out I was ridiculously naïve about what business can be. Having one of my own has given me all the things I desperately tried to hunt down in other jobs — freedom, adventure, independence, travel, creativity, lateral thinking and a better understanding of the the human psyche.

The liberty to experiment with life and the opportunity to ‘fail forward’
I’m the co-founder and ‘chairwoman’ of a 30-strong copywriting collective. I love my job. I love the people I work with and right now I have the good fortune to experiment with a pop-up office in a city I worship.

I’d like to say my business is the realisation of a pre-teen dream, born after years of struggle and toil. But that would be a lie. Truth is, there was no grand plan. None of Stephen Covey’s ‘beginning with the end in mind’.

It took a job I hated to try and create one I adore.

Chapter two — the academic flirt.

I was a solid commitment-phobe from the age of 17. Only not in the way you’re thinking. While most girls were dating boys, I was flirting with university degrees. Design, architecture, psychology, philosophy… maybe law? Or perhaps I’d skip the knowledge factory altogether and become a pilot.

‘Good morning passengers. This is Captain Fong speaking.’

I gave two of those six a go, but they didn’t last long. Instead I gave the homework to my metaphorical dog and auditioned for what I considered a respectable mélange of everything above — a Bachelor of Communication, Creative Advertising.

Chapter three — when love turns to hate.

Starting a job in an advertising agency goes like this (or at least it did for me):

You begin as a junior, devilishly hungry to create. Then you get thrown a brief, one that squeals for an all-nighter and you forage for your nearest lifeblood — award books and caffeine.

Weeks pass and you think, ‘Wow, my creative brain is severely underdeveloped’.

You struggle with basic functions like understanding acronyms — B2B, CRM and EOD — let alone proper lateral thinking.

Trees of notes later, your subconscious starts to fuse with that of your work partner. He says apple. You say pear. He says banana. It’s a beautiful Bernbach riff that ends in a winning idea. ‘Yesss!’

Only your Creative Director doesn’t agree, and you stare at a blank page once again.

Days pass, except you haven’t seen them. Midnight is marked by pizza delivery, and mental exhaustion by your sensitivity to bright lights.

The time comes to present again and with a moshpit in your chest you wonder if your idea will get through this time. Reams of concepts are cut, save for just two ideas. One belongs to you, the other to another team. There were two in the bed and the little one said, oh you’d better roll over.

Finally. Finally. Finally, your idea runs a marathon past the powers that be — Executive Creative Director, Creative Director and a smallish room of suits. You hold your breath, then sigh with a magnificent smile when you hear the client — Tim Burton — has applauded the idea that fell out of your brain.

You pick up some medals and life is grand.

Until it all unravels again.

Chapter four — the incredulous power of salami.

For me, every brief held a lesson.

And it wasn’t in the goods being sold.

Instead, it was in the process.

Edward De Bono’s theory of lateral thinking is the deliberate search for alternate ways of seeing things to synthesize new ideas.

Sure, his philosophy taught me lots of things. Like how to negotiate a parking fine and do my job well, but most of all, how to question everything; especially my own life. Was I happy? Did I feel fulfilled?

With that in my subconscious, and with each fluorescent-lit dawn, it became clearer — I was in a place I didn’t want to be.

Within weeks, my own thoughts whacked me square in the head, reflected by a respected figure far more senior than me. It was during this wine-soaked evening I had the most profound conversation of my five years in multinational agencies.

‘Crystal, make some money, then get the fuck out.’

I tipped my head to the left.

‘I missed my daughter’s first steps and words; I almost missed her birth. And for what? Bloody salami!’

It was in that moment I spoke with my future self. She was on the set of Gattaca but couldn’t talk because copywriter 339 had been called for a briefing. There’s much more to this industry than any job title suggests; an all-consuming subculture that was choking my idea of a happy and fulfilled life.

And I couldn’t commit myself to it any longer.

To quote Paul Jun, ‘anything worthwhile to your heart will elicit fear and self-doubt, and this is your cue to proceed.’

So with that in mind, I quit.

Chapter five — what’s that, fool?

To some, leaving a job without another is the definition of foolish.

But staying in a job you hate holds the same definition for me.

With 30% of our lives spent working and 33% snoozing, there was no chance in hell I’d spend the remaining 37% whining about my unhappiness at work.

This was the chance to build something better.

Yes, I may have had bills with pretty red stamps, a newly-unaffordable apartment and a forced fascination with the menu options of brown rice.

But it was A-OK, because I had great faith in an embryonic business idea with a friend named Stef, based on a recently discovered copywriting niche.

Chapter six — literary Frankenstein.

$10K is a wad of an investment for a 26-year-old; especially one who spends all her extra coinage in Morocco, Jamaica or some equally exotic point of disembarkation.

But ‘hey’, I said ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ We’d end up exactly where we are now, with an action-packed story to tell.

And so it began, the safari toward a self-employed future.

Apostrophe Copywriters — Melbourne’s first copywriting collective.

In the beginning, we were a multi-disciplined pair. Just the two of us.

But soon we were four. And then six.

We spent most days collaborating with design, digital and branding agencies. Those who could see absolute value in hiring a copywriter.

We knew they couldn’t justify paying one full time. And even if they could, they’d struggle to find the literary Frankenstein needed to work across all tasks. So, our adaptable, multi-disciplined model was the perfect antidote. We’d be their off-site copywriting arm.

We became 10, then 15.

After 18 months, Stef moved on to other ventures. It was then I became the most masterful ‘slashie’ of all. Director / editor / list writer / pep talker / lawyer / chief of coin /cleaner on the weekends.

Fact is, I am good at understanding the human species and their needs (clients, writers, strangers in the street), but still very much a space cadet. I’m the girl who occasionally misaligns her blouse buttons and always forgets the milk. Stef was the organised one, so I had to teach myself — fast.

I learnt a lot. Perhaps most importantly, I learnt how to pick the perfect writer for a job, beyond pure talent. Match to match. Just like Greg Evans, I got to know the writers better: ‘Tell me what you do outside of work. What gets you up in the morning?’ As it turns out there was a trained environmental scientist, rock musician, naturopath and ex-entrepreneur among the award-winning collective.

We became 18.

The enquiries that followed left me speechless with wonder and pretty entertained:

‘So Kraft is becoming Mondelez International and we need someone who understands internal comms…’
‘We’re reviving Nokia’s old MeeGo system in Helsinki — are there any tech nerds in the house?’
‘We’re talking to the Asian market — can you write in Chinese?’
‘We’re shipping in body building products from the U.S. We need someone who’s had real life experience with serious muscle. Beefcake anyone?

We became 30.

It was here I hired a team of business coaches and changed my title to chairwoman (a woman who sits in a chair).

So, now to end with the beginning in mind.

If I’d been told three years ago I’d be experimenting with my own business in Tokyo, I may have poked the poor person in the eye. I wasn’t expecting adventure, independence, travel, creativity and most importantly freedom, to become part of my every day.

All I was focused on was kaizen — tiny steps for a better way of being.

I admit, I was ridiculously naïve about what business can be, and probably still am, but I never run on autopilot and hardly ever on artificial sweeteners. I am still a cheeky and free-spirited person — far too curious and bull-headed to live life in a template.

Starting Apostrophe has taught me a lot of things, but most of all, how to see a shitty situation as a favour, because I’ve had the liberty to experiment with life and the opportunity to fail forward.

It took a job I adore to write this story.

Crystal Fong studied at RMIT University.

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