Millennial ladies in Singapore might have heard of, if not watched, sassy Web series like beauty review show Tried and Tested by actress Oon Shu An; model Rebecca Tan’s Hack It about smart shortcuts for mundane tasks; or Xiaxue’s Guide to Life by outspoken personality Wendy Cheng. They are among the most successful shows by pioneering online TV network Clicknetwork, which focuses on female-skewed content. It is the first Youtube channel in Singapore to hit one million subscribers.
But before Gillian Tan, founder of Clicknetwork and production company Munkysuperstar Pictures, created those Youtube shows, her “stars” were her family members. To fulfil her childhood dream of making videos, the then freshman at Santa Clara University in California roped in her parents and three siblings to act in reproductions of TV commercials.
The 39-year-old recalls with a laugh: “I’d get my mother to say lines like Budweiser Beer’s ‘Whassup’ for the camera.”
Today, Tan has her pick of telegenic talent to work with, including former DJ Rosalyn Lee and fitness personality Tyen Rasif. That early instinct to create unscripted, humorous and authentic content has proven to be a winning formula. Clicknetwork now has seven full-time producers and done over 40 online shows garnering over 360 million views.
After she returned to Singapore in 2003 following seven years in the United States, she began to produce TV shows such as bikini modelling reality series S Factor and dating show Eye for a Guy. Although they did well, viewers complained about what they perceived as provocative content and one of the shows was cancelled.
At that point, she went on a road trip with friends and posted video clips she made with her camera on Youtube. Such spontaneous online videos were unheard of in the mid-noughties and viewers loved them. “It was raw and authentic, and people wanted more,” says Tan.
She sensed an opportunity in that digital medium and founded Clicknetwork to create online content as a “side thing” in 2007, using revenue from her TV shows. That fearlessness in taking risks and bouncing back from criticism, she says, comes from her parents, who each built successful businesses. “From my dad, I’ve learnt to invest in people and that attitude trumps experience. My mum has people skills and, from her, I’ve learnt to treat people the way you want to be treated,” she says.
Within a few years, Youtube became a global juggernaut and online content took precedence over TV shows. “When we first started, advertisers thought it was low brow and were not willing to pump in big dollars. Now online is mainstream, especially for those below 30, and digital is top of mind if you have a campaign,” says Tan. Today, her clients include L’Oreal, Sephora, Asus and Airbnb. Shows like Tried and Tested and Hack It have gone global, with up to 60 per cent of viewers hailing from countries including the United States, India and Malaysia.
In some ways, this groundbreaker has mellowed over the years. “Pushing boundaries means taking risks and, in the past, I would do things without thinking about consequences – whether something would offend people or make money, for example. Now I am more calculated and guarded because the company is more accountable to advertisers and I understand that image is important.”
Still, she finds ways to push the envelope. Clicknetwork’s latest show, Girl Band Called Girl Band, is its first scripted series. It’s also co-funded and commissioned by IMDA, a first for a local independent YouTube channel. This is an experimental project, explains Tan. “The way the story is told has a bit more high production value, is on a larger scale and is more expensive than producing lifestyle content.”
She believes this is the next step for her company, with the aim of ultimately creating content for other networks like Netflix.