Gillian Tan: Unscripted Success
Gillian Tan hands me something soft and squishy to hold onto, while she is being photographed for our interview. Upon closer inspection, it’s a silicone key-holder—shaped and sized exactly like a black hand grenade. It’s a cheeky, harmless imitation of the real deal, but just convincing enough to make me wonder about her peculiar possession—and if it typifies an ‘explosive’ side to her. Gillian doesn’t seem to shy away from risk or controversy. She first started her television production company, Munkysuperstar Pictures in 2003 with a handheld video camera and a $10,000 loan from her mother. Calling in favours from 4 male friends whom she filmed competing for a date with one of her girlfriends, Gillian used the resulting footage to gutsily field her reality dating show idea, Eye for a Guy, to Mediacorp. She garnered herself a 6-episode shot at success, which turned into 2 seasons, a 2005 Asian Television Show Award, as well as a slew of other reality TV shows for the station. This included S-Factor, a bikini model competition that drew much flak from the public for its representation of women. In 2007, Gillian’s online content production company Clicknetwork was born. The loss-making subsidiary did not turn a profit until 2012, when she pushed through with the belief that online content production was the way to go. “The first couple of years after we went full-time with it in 2010 were tough. But I strongly believed that it was the right direction, despite many naysayers knocking down the idea and criticising our content. With television, you’re limited by what the network allows and gives you. It’s much steeper, exponential growth online, and you have a lot more control over the content and how much you charge since it’s the market that decides.” Today, Clicknetwork has become the group’s mainstay business with a team of seven full-time producers and 8 web shows hosted by online video giant, YouTube. They’ve garnered over 275 million views and most recently celebrated hitting one million subscribers to their channel. Recognising their achievement, Google bestowed a special 24-karat “Gold Play Button” award, placing Clicknetwork’s channel among the top 4,000 in the world. This success has not come without its share of troubles, especially in the beginning when authorities and audiences were just beginning to feel out the new medium. Clicknetwork’s edgy and youthful content which featured the casual use of expletives and same-sex kissing, ruffled feathers and brushed the fledgling company against notoriety. Yet, Gillian isn’t what one would expect of someone who produces shows with playfully ribald titles like That F word and Chick vs. Dick. Her air of understated, almost nonchalant calm is quite distinctly opposite to the characteristic, unscripted and live-wire energy of her hosts. Rarely shown laughing or in a wide smile publicly, I’m curious to see what lies behind the sphinx-like smile (or smirk?) curling at the corner of her lips.
TEO REN FENG: Congratulations on getting 1 million subscribers to Clicknetwork’s YouTube channel. How does the achievement feel?
GILLIAN TAN: I never ever thought I would be here. Never. When you start from zero, you don’t imagine ever hitting a million. We’ve just been growing very slowly, and very organically.
REN FENG: What were your strategies for growth?
GILLIAN: I didn’t have any strategy to be honest. I did what I felt people would like to watch, and kept at it. The more I did, the more people watched and so we grew.
REN FENG: Surely it’s more than just going with the flow?
GILLIAN: I think if you are consistent and keep producing new content, then you’ll keep getting more viewers. Perhaps the only strategy that I’ve used was to keep the style of our content consistent and ensure that we had regular uploads.
REN FENG: How do you know what content to produce then?
GILLIAN: Inherently, content doesn’t change—whether or not something is funny or heartwarming… perhaps the delivery differs. But a comedy that was produced ages ago like Chaplin, would still be funny to someone today. The presentation, music or production could be different, but the raw, base material remains the same. With new shows, I always ask my producers: How is this different from anything else that is out there? And does it have an edge over others in the same variety?
REN FENG: How do you rate whether a show is a success?
GILLIAN: Through feedback, like views and engagement. If viewers are leaving comments, sharing and talking about it, that shows their level of interest. However, the decision to continue a show actually lies in whether or not it makes money. If the show cannot get sponsors, we kill it because it needs to pay for itself. Even when a show is extremely popular, the revenue that we get from YouTube is very, very low as compared to what we earn through sponsorships.
REN FENG: Speaking of sponsorships, why do you think Faves Asia got so much flak for their promotional video on social media influencers?
GILLIAN: The execution and messaging were just off. The production was full of bad angles, poor audio and acting, and the way that they portrayed influencers was unfortunately just… very shallow. The owner of Faves Asia did an interview and said something about our hypocrisy for making a parody of it—and for making fun of newbie influencers and forgetting that we started out small too. But he missed the whole point: it’s nothing about being new or established. I work with and am personally close friends with many influencers, and his video just made influencers and the entire industry look shallow and superficial. It was a bad misrepresentation.
REN FENG: You watch videos as part of your research for work. What’s the worst thing that you’ve made yourself sit through?
GILLIAN: I guess videos that are supposed to be funny but are not. I can’t quite remember, I’ve seen stuff that many others enjoyed, but it wasn’t funny to me. Humour is very subjective, right?
REN FENG: What isn’t funny to you then?
GILLIAN: Crude humour or really slap-stick stuff.
REN FENG: Talking about crude humour, wouldn’t that typify the sort that Clicknetwork’s show, Numbnuts did?
GILLIAN: Not really. I mean… [pauses]
REN FENG: Did you find Numbnuts funny?
GILLIAN: Hmmm… okay, maybe “crude” isn’t quite it, but when something tries too hard to be funny. It becomes… [pauses]
REN FENG: Contrived?
GILLIAN: Yes, contrived.
REN FENG: Is there an aim behind your videos? Besides entertainment?
GILLIAN: Yes. Entertainment is always our main goal, but some of it is educational. Just maybe not on serious matters, but makeup tips or life hacks such as the best way to slice a watermelon.
REN FENG: In a 2011 interview with Tech in Asia, you said that “being a female director has its merits”, primarily in “pushing the boundaries” with female talent. What sort of boundaries were you referring to?
GILLIAN: I guess women just feel more comfortable working with other women, at times.
REN FENG: So what can you ask of them that a male director can’t?
GILLIAN: Our audience demographic is 80% female, so a lot of our content is female-targeted. For example, one of the episodes on our show, Hack It, was about bra hacks and showing girls ideas that they could try with their bras: like how to wash and hang one, and create a low back bra using a regular one. I guess if you had a male director, it might feel a little awkward for a female host. At the end of the day, I want to make sure that everyone is comfortable.
REN FENG: You started out producing television shows like S-Factor and Eye for A Guy, and subsequently, Clicknetwork has produced shows such as Bored in Bikinis and Chick vs. Dick. Ostensibly, they hinge on the classic tropes of gender difference and the male gaze, so where do you think the appeal lies for your mostly-female audience?
GILLIAN: S-Factor was different because it was a network-commissioned show and Mediacorp wanted to feature their magazine, FHM. The only show that featured bikini girls on Clicknetwork, was Bored in Bikinis. I’d met the 2 girls on the set of S-Factor, and found them to be particularly funny, which was why they became the hosts for Bored in Bikinis. They were always doing silly things and making everyone else laugh—while dressed only in their bikinis. And since S-Factor was about finding a bikini cover model—I saw humour in the juxtaposition of these girls and their antics next to the crew and everyone else around them going about their regular business in normal clothes. I never intended to attract a male audience with Bored in Bikinis. If someone wanted something like that, they could just watch porn instead of coming to my channel. It’s just girls in bikinis.
It’s not my intention to sexualise our content. The goal is to be educational and helpful to women.
REN FENG: It wasn’t an attempt to raise male viewership?
GILLIAN: No, it wasn’t. The only show I ever did to try and gain male viewership, was Numbnuts, and even then it failed because it was still more women watching than men. Maybe my sensibility is just too feminine? I don’t know. [pauses] When we did the episode on bra hacks, many people suggested using a shot of our host, Rebecca Tan, wearing just a bra, for the thumbnail photo—just to get more clicks. But Rebecca told me that she wasn’t comfortable with the idea, so we went with a different shot. It’s not my intention to sexualise our content. The goal is to be educational and helpful to women.
REN FENG: What about the video of Wendy Cheng (a.k.a. Xiaxue) and Yan Kay Kay kissing?
GILLIAN: We were all looking at YouTube together one day, and there was a video which got many views, simply because the “lesbian” word was mentioned. When we clicked on it, and there was a girl in glasses, just talking and talking about a show (The L Word). We couldn’t believe that it got so many views. So we thought, since the internet seems to love girls or lesbians, let’s experiment and see whether a video with Wendy kissing Kay Kay would get the internet’s attention.
REN FENG: That video caused a bit of a stir and eventually got banned by Media Development Authority (MDA). Did it not occur to one of you that it might not be well-received?
GILLIAN: My worldview is a bit skewed because I’m very liberal and I tend to surround myself with like-minded people. So when people react adversely to our content, it’s only then that I realise it is shocking to others.
REN FENG: It wasn’t just intended to gain viewership and bring people to Clicknetwork?
GILLIAN: Of course—when you put out a video, there’s intention to get views. We definitely did get a lot of buzz, but it also got us into trouble with MDA. [laughs] I was young back then—and I did things without thinking about the consequences, which can be both good and bad. If you asked me to do the same thing now, my response would be: No lah… we can get into trouble with MDA, you know. I’d consider the ramifications that it could potentially spiral into a big, bad controversy.
I truly believe in “to each, his own”, and if someone wants to marry their dog or walk on the beach naked every day just because he likes it, it’s fine with me.
REN FENG: What’s made you more cautious?
GILLIAN: Age? [laughs] As you get older you tend to become more cautious and afraid to take risks.
REN FENG: Is it because you have more to lose?
GILLIAN: No. As you grow older you become more measured in your actions because you’ve gone through experiences that taught you what could potentially happen as a result of your actions. And so you stop yourself. I know I was definitely more reckless and impulsive when I was younger. I used to throw caution to the wind and speed while driving, because I didn’t think of the potential problems that might occur like getting into accidents…
REN FENG: What were your toughest times with Clicknetwork?
GILLIAN: When we got into trouble with the MDA, and were told to censor all the swearing in our videos. There can be a lot of swearing and usage of the four-letter word in online content nowadays, and it’s not considered a big deal. But when we first started out, there really wasn’t anyone else, who was trying to push the envelope like us. Taking down our videos to edit would have meant losing all our views and incurring a major setback, but thankfully we reached a compromise with MDA. We just had to add a ‘profanity warning’, to preface each video.
REN FENG: Do you ever feel like giving up as an entrepreneur?
GILLIAN: Yes, of course.
REN FENG: What helps you persevere?
GILLIAN: [thoughtfully] A sense of responsibility. I do this largely because I really love the work and I can’t think of doing anything else. On bad days, however, when everything is going wrong, it is easy to get sick of it. But knowing that I made a commitment to finish a project and to my team, makes me suck it up and power through.
REN FENG: Is pushing boundaries still an objective with the content you produce now?
GILLIAN: Less so. I definitely feel that I’m pushing a lot less, which is not a good thing. I still try to do things that are a little risky, but definitely a lot less than before.
REN FENG: Why was it an objective in the first place?
GILLIAN: I never liked to stay on the safe side of things. If you want to do something, be edgy rather than safe; nobody likes to watch safe and boring.
REN FENG: Do you think nobody likes to watch boring videos or is it a personal philosophy or ethos defining your work?
GILLIAN: It’s a bit of both. Nobody likes to watch things that are mundane and something that is different pushes boundaries, which gets people excited and interested. I tend to like things that are a little bit more… I truly believe in “to each, his own”, and if someone wants to marry their dog or walk on the beach naked every day just because he likes it, it’s fine with me. Sometimes it’s not really about me pushing boundaries but more on how I perceive the world—there are very few things that I find offensive.
REN FENG: What has shaped your point of view?
GILLIAN: Living abroad when I was 16 to 23 opened my mind to a lot of things. My parents also gave me plenty of freedom to be my own person. They were not the type to tell me not to smoke or drink, never gave me curfews, and always asked me what I wanted to do or study.
REN FENG: Would you have rebelled against a stricter upbringing?
GILLIAN: If someone tells me not to do something and I don’t see a logical reason why, I will rebel. Maybe my parents could tell, so they let me “be the adult”, make decisions for myself and face whatever consequences that may follow.
REN FENG: What’s your worst trait?
GILLIAN: I’m a highly unemotional person… like, really unemotional—which is why very few things rattle or upset me. It also means that I can be a little desensitised, and don’t see why something would bother others when it doesn’t bother me. I forget that other people aren’t quite as robotically unemotional as I am. [laughs] Sometimes I say things to others and only realise later on that maybe I shouldn’t have done that. Even though I wouldn’t have cared if someone said the same thing to me, it might affect them. I might rub others the wrong way at times.
I cannot stand people who try to shove their opinions down your throat.
REN FENG: What frustrates you the most?
GILLIAN: I hate preachy people. I cannot stand people who try to shove their opinions down your throat. It’s one of my pet peeves.
REN FENG: Which would be a good majority of the people commenting online, no? [laughs]
GILLIAN: I don’t know them and they’re just commenters, so I don’t give them the same kind of weight. If I meet someone, or a friend, or family member who keeps telling me how to live my life and what’s right or wrong, I can’t stand it. I would never impose my views on others, so I get very irritated when people try to impose theirs on me.
REN FENG: Besides achieving a million followers on YouTube, what do you consider your greatest achievement?
GILLIAN: Just being happy. I’m in a very good place in my life. I don’t feel a desire to want or need more, and I think reaching this point of happiness is an achievement.
REN FENG: Is this a recent thing?
GILLIAN: Maybe in the past few years, and it comes with age. When you get older, you get more comfortable and satisfied with who you are and your life. It makes me realise: Hey! You know what? I actually have a really good life. I am fortunate because things have been so smooth for me. I’ve never really experienced any speed bumps, especially in my personal life, and for that I am extremely thankful.
REN FENG: What are your most immediate plans for the future?
GILLIAN: I don’t do plans. I don’t even plan for my birthdays because I hate organising. [laughs] I just go with the flow and it’s always been like that, even when I started my company. I hate numbers and I don’t know how to do a business plan, so don’t ask me for one. I just want to keep doing what I love.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap