South Africa has just had its best year at Cannes, winning a total of 30 Lions, including a press Grand Prix for FCB Johannesburg. This is not a sudden blossoming, however - the country has been a source of eye-catching creativity since the early 90s. So what makes it so good?
Those who work in the market believe restrictively small budgets have forced South Africans to come up with more imaginative solutions. "By and large, clients' expectations have increased while budgets have remained the same," Mike Barnwell, the creative director of Grey South Africa, whose campaign for the removals company Elliot International picked up a Press Lion at Cannes, says. "This has forced us into a more disciplined way of thinking. The average budget for a TV campaign is about two million rand (roughly £190,000), which is ludicrous when you're competing against global campaigns that cost millions of dollars to create."
But he also points to the cultural diversity of South Africa, with its 11 official languages. "Many of our campaigns have to appeal to a wide range of people, so it's not surprising they capture the eye of international juries. They have a multicultural feel and tap into universal human emotions."
Mike Bosman, the group chief executive of TBWA\South Africa (which won five Lions at Cannes including a few for Pedigree, not far behind the Agency of the Year, TBWA\Paris, which won eight), is another who attributes the market's size to its creativity. "You can find yourself working on a mobile phone in the morning, toffees in the afternoon and tyres the following day," he says. "You gain experience quickly, alongside a thorough understanding of how to build a brand. I also think we naturally have a pioneering, can-do attitude."
Crucially, Bosman says, this attitude is encouraged by clients: "Not only do they not mind something out of the ordinary, they positively demand it. Let's face it, when you're working on a campaign that's not costing millions of dollars, you can afford to take risks."
South Africa's unique history and geography is another ingredient. As Zeona Motshabi, the chairman of Lobedu Communications and the managing director of Lobedu Leo Burnett, observes: "We're a small country with a big personality. I think we're conscious of the fact that we're not quite a First World country, so we can't afford to be complacent. We want to make our mark. That attitude leads to a creative entrepreneurship."
Matthew Bull, the chief creative officer of Lowe Worldwide and the founder of South Africa's Lowe Bull (which was well awarded for its Durex work this summer), also thinks the environment plays a role. "South Africans love advertising and they love British advertising. I think our advertising is a mixture of British discipline and the wildness of Africa. Plus there's a sort of positive aggression and a will to win. It's a place reinventing itself."
Bull states that black empowerment has provided "a whole new talent pool" for the industry. Most observers say there are still too few black creatives. Motshabi agrees there is a lot of progress to be made, but insists: "I think we already have a greater understanding of our cultural diversity and are speaking with a different voice."
South Africa has been well known for years to overseas commercial film-makers as a source of varied scenery and strong craft skills - all at accessible prices. Ann Nurock, the chief executive of Grey South Africa, says: "While it's no longer a cheap bet for shooting ads, our production crews are certainly among the best in the world."
Ironically, though, South Africa appears stronger in the print category than it does in film (in which it took two bronzes at Cannes). Most creatives blame tight budgets. Barnwell says: "Lack of budget tends to show more on TV. Even if the idea is great, a lack of final polishing can mean it gets overlooked at Cannes. Unfortunately, we don't yet have the post-production facilities that are available to agencies in London."
It also seems fair to point out that commercial TV only launched in South Africa in 1975. Bull says: "We are in our early twenties in terms of TV experience, and I think it shows."
Although the full range of cable and satellite options are available today, only a small segment of the population can afford them. "This means we must use other means of reaching our target audience," Motshabi says. "And, of course, as in every other market, our clients are moving spend from TV into other areas. Despite all this, though, I'd argue that some great work is being done on South African television. It may simply be that it's very local, and less likely to stand out at Cannes."
Another possible advantage for South Africa is the youthfulness of its senior staff: most agency bosses are younger than 50, and most creative directors are younger than 35. The industry is also refreshingly in touch with its female side. Women run eight of the top ten South African agencies, managing between them combined billings of six billion rand. Nobody can say for sure whether this generates more creativity, but it certainly proves that South Africa is a market apart.
SOUTH AFRICA'S CREATIVE HEROES
Matthew Bull - Cut his teeth at TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris before founding Lowe Bull; now returning to South Africa after a high-profile (but largely unsuccessful) stint at the helm of Lowe London.
Gerry Human - The executive creative director of Ogilvy South Africa. The local magazine Ad Focus describes him as "demiurgic" and "visionary". Unsuccessful career as a male model led to a move into advertising.
John Hunt - A pioneering figure in South African advertising, Hunt co-founded TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris with Reg Lascaris. Hunt is now the worldwide creative director of TBWA.
Alistair King - The group creative director of the Cape Town agency King James he founded in 1998 is also the chairman of the country's Creative Circle. His creative mantra is to make "advertising with punch".
Robyn Putter - The former executive chairman of Ogilvy South Africa is now the worldwide creative director of WPP, filling the slot vacated by Neil French. Proof that South African advertising sets global standards?
Mike Schalit - The chief creative officer of Network BBDO has been voted "the most influential ad practitioner" in South Africa for two years in a row. Never sets growth targets. "We grow with creativity," he insists.