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Mutant: 10 Years of Evolution

Ten years by any entrepreneur’s reckoning is a lifetime – and the first decade of Mutant has been scattered with struggles and triumphs. So to see the agency get to where it is today fills me with gratitude towards the friends, colleagues, and clients who have shared this journey with us.

Last week, the team sat me down to ask a few questions about what the past 10 years have been like. In typical style I completely overshared, and in typical Mutant style, they pulled out the good bits to make me sound somewhat professional. I hope you enjoy reading.

Tell us about the beginnings of Mutant. What made you want to launch an agency, and what was the initial goal of the business?

A decade ago, I was a twentysomething with zero PR, management or finance experience. With all the gusto and confidence that comes with youth, I decided to launch a PR and content marketing agency. But while my knowledge of the sector was limited, I had some experience to back it up. 

Prior to setting up Mutant, I had worked with PR agencies on a couple of different projects. The first agency I used was a big multinational who charged a small fortune for mediocre content.The second agency I used was an eager little boutique shop that couldn’t deliver on quality. 

Clearly, there was a gap – and I threw myself into launching an agency. But, I didn’t have any money, so it was tough. During the early days of the business, I worked over 90 hours a week, and didn’t take a salary. You’d find me eating chicken porridge twice a day to save money. It wasn’t easy, but it paid off. In our first year, we picked up clients like BBC, PayPal, the Singapore Yacht Show, and the rest was history. 

What are some of the biggest highlights/takeaways from this decade-long journey?

About five years ago, I started examining Mutant’s leadership structures, and realised that it needed a drastic do-over. I was increasingly stretched, the company was evolving, and it became more difficult to implement the processes required and work hands on with each team, while also working on growing the business.

Lina Marican, an ambitious Account Director at the time, identified this and pitched to become Managing Director. It turned out to be one of the best business decisions I have ever made. We challenge each other in an uplifting way that leads to better outcomes. 

Stress has been a constant bedfellow and learning to manage it without being paralysed has been important. Poor cash flow or market outlooks no longer leads to the same sleepless nights it once did. 

Another key learning is how and when to apply your competitive mindset. The saying, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ is often true, but is not always bad — this is true both personally and professionally. A number of small agencies launched at the same time as Mutant, and I regularly fixated on benchmarking ourselves against them. Since then, many have closed down, some have hardly grown, and a couple of others are similar in size, or even larger.

Wanting to be the biggest or best agency can be a great motivator. But it can also be all-consuming, and not in a helpful way. Not all business models are like ours, not all have the same focus on quality, staffing, culture and business outcomes, which makes it difficult to truly compare. 

I’ve also come to appreciate how no matter how good, easy, or successful someone may appear, it’s rarely a painless journey. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve understood that everyone has struggles. Life is hard.

Is there anything throughout Mutant’s ten years that you wish you did differently? And if so, how would you change your approach?

I don’t have a lot of regrets. I just think if I was to do it again, I’d be able to build it faster. I would have outsourced the stuff better suited for other people, like finance. I would have hired more senior people earlier, but this is easier said than done when you’re cash-strapped.

Where do you see Mutant in a decade’s time?

Our goal to become one of the largest independent agencies in Southeast Asia still remains. I’d like to think we are well on our way to achieving that over the next few years. In 2023, we hope to open in the Philippines, followed by Thailand and Vietnam over the next couple of years. Beyond SEA it’s hard to make a call, but Australia, New Zealand and India probably make sense from a strategic point of view.

My focus is on sustainable growth, and maintaining our culture and quality of service. I’m not in a rush to pin flags on a map. As long as we consistently move forward, do kick-ass work, and look out for our team, I’m happy. 

Who and what has kept you going throughout these years?

Early on it was youthful motivation, but discipline and drive helped me sustain my vision. No one can be highly motivated 100% of the time — especially for over a decade. 

My family has also been a constant pillar of strength. When I started Mutant, my wife Rebecca Lewis (then girlfriend) supported me both emotionally and financially. Not only did she encourage me to follow my dreams, but she also paid the rent while I did it. We have weathered many storms together, and she was unwavering in her support. 

Domestic life has been key in keeping me grounded, refreshed, and ready for anything business or life throws my way.

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