The World: Insider's View - New Zealand

Agencies bidding for the Tourism New Zealand account cannot afford to ignore the Maori angle, Mario McMillan writes.

As they pitch for Tourism New Zealand's worldwide account, Kiwi agencies are licking their lips. By local standards, it's a huge piece of business. It's also a chance to present New Zealand to the world, which makes it the most exciting new-business prospect for our ad industry in years. But also possibly the hardest. And not just through inheriting a winning campaign: the make-or-break issue could be navigating a question of race.

The relationship between Maori, who began settling these islands around 1,000 years ago, and those who came later has not always been smooth.

Today, with an election looming, it's hot politics. The debate is about perceived special treatment for Maori, and to what extent that is fair and desirable.

But when it comes to selling New Zealand as a tourism destination, incorporating a Maori dimension has less to do with political correctness than with well-researched opportunity. TNZ aims at a select group it terms interactive travellers - tourists who immerse themselves in their travels. They crave interaction with the place they visit and its people. They want their holidays to be different and authentic. New Zealand hits the spot, but there's a yawning gap between their wish to experience Maori culture and how much they actually do.

This leaves TNZ with two challenges - raising the development of Maori tourism (something it is working on) and representing that Maori dimension through advertising.

Right now, the five or six shortlisted agencies will be agonising over this, because you can bet your bottom dollar that TNZ has written it into the brief. The smart money's on a lot of the agencies fluffing it.

At The Department of Doing, we've worked on several projects for TNZ, both directly and via M&C Saatchi, including the issue of adding a Maori dimension to tourism. The potential for getting it wrong was very real, as evidenced by TNZ's wider dealings with agencies. All too often, the handling of Maori issues ranged from amusing to woefully embarrassing.

This isn't just about grasping the values of Maoridom. It's also about the challenge of leveraging culture in advertising. This is an issue for tourism bodies around the world: developing communication that tries to give a sense of something authentic and indigenous. A good start is to engage with the culture you're trying to advertise.

The winner of the TNZ pitch will have passed its Maori exam. But then will come the challenge of doing it for real and that's not something a "cultural advisor" can do for you. If TNZ has chosen right, its agency will have values and a culture that relate to Maori. If not, then it will have ordered fast food, when the need was for soul food.

Mario McMillan is the creative director of The Department of Doing.