When three of the world's biggest advertising networks put their faith in South Africa's finest creative directors, it suggests the region is bursting with talent. This year, TBWA has persuaded John Hunt, the founder of TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris and the network's creative hub in South Africa, to become its worldwide creative chief in New York.
Hot on his heels is Matthew Bull, the chairman and a founding partner of Lowe Bull Calvert Pace, who is on his way to London to run Lowe's UK office. Meanwhile, Tony Granger, a former executive creative director at TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris, takes the creative hot seat at Saatchi & Saatchi London after his dramatic overhaul of Bozell New York.
While the global ad community is well aware of South Africa as a versatile and inexpensive location for shoots, the promotion of Bull, Hunt and Granger is testament to the fact that the region is full of creative hotshops, vibrant directors and clients ready to take risks to stand out from the crowd.
"It's not fair to say we're the unsung heroes of the worldwide advertising community, but the tune could do with going an octave or two higher," Bull says. "South Africa is growing in confidence all the time, and that is reflected in the way the ad business works here too. People still like to knock us, but as soon as they come and see the way this place is carving out its future, they are amazed."
Many international agencies speak of the warmth, dedication, professionalism and "can-do" attitude of film crews, facilities and production companies working in South Africa. This is equally strong within ad agencies too, according to Graham Warsop, the chairman of The Jupiter Drawing Room, which he started in 1987 with barely two years' experience in the advertising industry. "There's an adventurous spirit in South Africans that makes for lively creative thinking and a pragmatic approach to problem-solving."
The group executive creative director for Ogilvy & Mather South Africa, Mark Fisher, says his countrymen are imbued with a hotch-potch of different cultures, which means they are adaptable and creative. "We're neither from the West or the East, and have soaked up a number of different cultures throughout our history," he reasons. "There's no substitute for the chemistry you get when a group of very different people sit round a table thrashing out an idea. You get a richer stew than if everyone was the same - you can't challenge someone who thinks the same as you."
Fisher also thinks the geographical and, until recently, political isolation of the country also filters down into the way its people behave. "South Africa has had an inferiority complex for many years, and people have had an almost apologetic attitude." He is backed up by TBWA Hunt Lascaris' creative director, Sue Anderson. "We've suffered from being seen as the pariahs of the world. In creative terms, this means everyone has been overly obsessed with the work coming from the US and Europe. We've had to fight hard to be accepted," she argues.
Far from being a hindrance, that need has made South Africans entrepreneurial and go-getting, according to Fisher and Anderson, and this opportunistic spirit comes to the fore when dealing with clients holding the purse strings.
No-one debates the fact that budgets in South Africa are smaller than they are in the US or UK. The trick, according to Lowe's Bull, is not just to do the job for the client, but also fight to raise the creative ante and build a profile for the agency. The relative cheapness of production means agencies can be proactive, making ads for next to nothing on spec and selling them to the client once complete. TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris made its most recent cinema ad for BMW in precisely this manner; an interactive spot that showed the power of the vehicle's headlamps by turning them on the audience while raising the house lights to simulate a real effect.
As a foreigner, British-born Warsop is in a prime position to view the changing dynamics of both South African social and economic structure as well as its business environment. "We now have 11 official languages in the region - there are real challenges in communicating an advertising message to a maximum number of consumers." He points to the agency's ongoing branding work for Nike, which started in 2001 with the first pan-African ad. It showed an African runner being motivated by his coach, and exemplified the spirit of the region, according to Warsop. "Running is something at which Africa excels. It is also a place that excels at being ingenious, finding a solution that works. The ad sums it up without words," he says.
The agency has followed that spot with other branding work that positions key South African sportsmen as heroes for township kids.
This year's International Cricket Council's Cricket World Cup has also spawned a series of TV ads from the event itself and also its sponsors, and handed opportunities to creative agencies. Nelson Mandela starred in the ICC's branding ad for the tournament's start, through TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris, which showed him encouraging the crowds in a traditional chair-drumming routine. Another set of ICC ads used humorous scenarios to explain cricket jargon in a simple way, and so appeal to a broader audience.
Targeting a multitude of different audiences is not just done with TV.
"We have had to adapt to this, but it means that our ambient advertising is second to none, and we use simple ways to get our ideas across," Warsop says. Network BBDO's creative director, Mike Schalit, agrees, and is keen to exploit other ways in which messages can be communicated to a wide-ranging consumer base. The agency was behind the launch of Cell-C, the country's third mobile phone network. As well as churning out more than 100 ads since its launch in 2001, it explored visual and ambient tactics to build the brand in the eyes of consumers. "We took over the centre of Johannesburg, using local artists to cover ad sites and specially selected buildings with their take on the brand," he says.
Recent press and TV work by Lowe Bull Calvert Pace for Dulux also transcends language and is easily understood by all. And one execution with an image showing a colour chart of varying shades of brown alongside an image of a black male hand encircling a white pregnant belly has courted controversy, even death threats. The ad was a "proactive" or "spec" spot - a fairly common phenomenon in South Africa where an ad is made without client approval and sold (hopefully) once complete.
Indeed, many agencies have jumped at the opportunity to include the country's changing social structure into their work. Harrison Human Bates has won a string of local awards for its work on the retail chain Exclusive Books.
One recent spot, advertising the brand's short-story writing competition, uses the simple image of a typewriter and the sentence, "I have a farm in Zimbabwe" to make a direct link with the current political situation in the neighbouring country. The campaign also generated massive press coverage.
Some clients are reported to want a somewhat token casting of black people or worse still, request "cappuccino people" who they think will embrace both black and white audiences. Another problem according to Gillian Rightford, the managing director of Lowe Bull, is that clients assume targeting a broader audience means making literal ads.
"They believe sophisticated advertising might not be understood, which is not the case, as our Dulux work showed," she says.
Still, most creatives and directors endeavour to cast whoever is right for the product and target. Network BBDO's Schalit has just finished a campaign for the fast-food chain Chicken Licken using a black cast clad in 70s kitsch regalia. "The idea is based on 'soul food', and we wanted to create a character that embodied that in an appealing way to the target audience," he reasons.
Although black South Africans are represented more in the country's ads, not many of them work in advertising, according to those who work hard to nurture the next generation of creative talent. Anderson claims that a combination of high fees at the traditional ad schools, the fact that art and design were not subjects that featured widely within segregated schools under apartheid and that a career in advertising is not seen as a path to perks all add up to fewer black people forging a career as a creative. "We want more black people in this industry - they make up the majority of people in our country, and we need to reach them," she says.
This is part of a wider drive from the industry to plug the gaps left by the Bulls, Hunts and Grangers of this land. While the string of talent leaving for pastures new is undoubtedly a compliment for the environment in which they were raised, it is also a problem. Tales of creatives leaving for New York abound, but there are fewer telling of their return, Anderson says, who has taken over the creative running of TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris with three colleagues following the departure of Hunt this month.
But Bull is adamant that South African creatives do not have to leave their homeland to make the big time. "Mentally, I'm not leaving my homeland - I'm checking out for a while," he says of his own departure. Anderson adds: "People like John and Matthew are a great inspiration. It makes us proud of our country and the work we're capable of and will be a lure to those entering the business."