Holding the Loerie Awards International Seminar of Creativity in Cape Town’s City Hall on 19 September could be an ironic venue for the advertising establishment. City Hall is a functioning relic where admissions of guilt are paid and lectures are delivered beneath organ pipes so dusty the first note should be a loud cough. It’s a dose of reality for this slick industry, a dirty old rag taken to a shiny veneer.
Here in this dusty hall, before descending on the shiny Cape Town International Convention Centre for the Loeries awards ceremonies that coming weekend, advertising folk were treated to the wisdom of speakers who shape the industry. Among them were two people largely responsible for South Africa’s creative reputation: TBWA World Wide creative director, John Hunt, and his protege from Hunt Lascaris days, Tony Granger, who is now global chief creative officer of Y&R.
Hunt was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award on the weekend but in this old hall he cautioned us about the modern peril of media saturation; that to stand a chance of being noticed you can no longer aim for great, you must aim for iconic, a sobering proposition for an industry that struggles ever more to persuade its clients of the virtues of such work.
This is not a local problem as speaker David Nobay, creative chairman of Droga5 Sydney pointed out. Nobay relayed five ugly truths about advertising, namely that clients don’t always want great work; that there are too many of us; that we’ve lost the exotic; that we’ve forgotten how to sell; and that we reward mediocrity.
Speaking to a few local players most of them expounded on Nobay’s point that clients don’t always want great work. King James’ chief creative officer, Alistair King said: “A major portion of the clients who say they want great work don’t know what it is when they see it. “Great’ is a word that they use with good intentions, but what they in their mind think of as great is a different thing altogether. Great, to many clients, means all the boxes ticked, all the category norms abided by, and no major feeling of discomfort involved.’
FoxP2’s creative director Justin Gomes added: “That’s why we named ourselves FoxP2 – after the creativity gene – so we would attract clients who want to do great work. It takes too much precious time and energy to change a client’s viewpoint on creativity, so we don’t go after clients who don’t share the same philosophy.’
Festus Masekwameng, creative director of 97 Mother Russia, probably said it best: “Every client gets the work that they deserve.’
Creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, Cape Town, Gavin Whitfield honed in on Nobay’s ugly truth: losing the exotic. “It seems everyone can operate some kind of basic software that allows you to (badly) put something together, or search for a reference they like or see something a 12-year-old in Tokyo has done on YouTube. The curtain has been lifted and this exposes us and our processes to a lot of back seat driving. The skill and craft of trained professionals seems increasingly undervalued. It’s something writers have been battling with for years – everyone can spell their name, so everyone thinks they can write. Art directors, directors, musicians and others are all now under the same pressure.’
If talent is spread so thin and media is so varied then naturally award shows reflect this with multitude of categories rewarding mediocre work. One of the speakers who challenged the proliferation of these categories was Alex Schill, chief creative officer of the successful independent global agency, ServicePlan. To improve the quality of work alluded to doing away with categories and simply awarding outstanding work.
Chief creative director of Y&R, Graham Lang, agrees: “Categories have exploded and award shows and agencies are taking advantage of it. Take the brilliant Be The Coach entry by Ogilvy CT. It was eligible to be entered into more than a handful of categories and received top honors across the board. The fact that one excellent piece wins across so many categories is fantastic for the agency but it suppresses other great pieces from getting rewarded.’
Like Schill, Chris Lee’s talk was punctuated with examples of outstanding, brave work. Lee is the founder and creative director of idea agency, Asylum, in Singapore, and the examples he and Schill showed breathed life into City Hall and inspired many. Theirs seemed to be another world; full of possibilities; at the forefront of the multimedia revolution.
Lee’s agency structure challenges convention made up as it is of eclectic thinkers and designers from many different spheres. It can indeed be looked at as an idea agency and thus they sidestep media silos and think purely about the core of the brand.
Although the work was very different, Schill’s approach was similarly eclectic and probably best illustrated by his unconventional work for Lego that tapped into the playful core of this brand, yet explored all media channels imaginable.
He has brave clients and the bandwidth to explore this. Sadly the limitations of our own bandwidth were illustrated when a four-way online video link up with key players from around the world, failed, leaving presenter Julie Maunder of industry website, I Did That Ad, fumbling on the stage, and frozen on the screen.
And so the audience left the municipal parquet of City Hall to prepare for the red carpet awards ceremonies in the Convention Centre that weekend.
Despite the Loerie’s Revolution theme in the build up to the event, the old tradition of the industry was still apparent in this modern setting. As another journalist pointed out to me, there was little evidence of diversity in the crowd and this was later echoed by ex-advertising man, Khaya Dlanga, in the Mail & Guardian: “The more we try to avoid the issue, the more likely we are to find the industry being hauled before the bully pulpit of Parliament to explain ourselves,’ he said.
There was even less expression of revolution when it came to the show on Saturday night as the role of MC was taken by Johan Stemmet of Noot vir Noot, a personality far better suited to hosting the Pendoring Awards. On Sunday the colour was right but the relevance was wrong as American hip-hop has-been MC Hammer took the stage to recite prescriptive lines off a teleprompter.
As lacking as the sense of revolution was during the event, Alistair King believes it is not up to the Loeries to inspire revolution: “I think the industry and the creative people in it lead the way, not the Loeries. The Loeries is just the annual snapshot of the year that was.’
Jury chairman Tony Granger stated that the work is more expressive of a South African Identity than ever before. This was particularly evident in the work out of the Nando’s stable and King adds: “They have the courage to tackle the subjects many brands are too afraid to, and that’s very South African. Ironically, I believe only a South African brand is able to talk about the many sensitive subjects we face as a nation.’
But tackling the subject of diversity does not appear to be top of mind when it comes to the structure of agencies and this reflects on the work itself. Aside from Nando’s there were few truly South African ideas.
The recently added New Voice category in radio goes a small way to changing this. Saatchi’s Whitfield praised the Snickers ad, one of the winners in this category, saying: “Nowhere else in the world would that work as well as it does here.’
A category like this makes you wonder if perhaps the Loeries can inspire a revolution. Perhaps by altering categories to recognise purely South African ideas, artists, designers, writers, directors, risk takers, and game changers, then there can be positive change.
But what is South African? As 97 Mother Russia’s Masekwameng said: “The problem may be that there still isn’t consensus on what really constitutes the South African identity, and this is not the industry’s fault. It’s just the way things are in the republic.’
If anything this republic is iconic because of its history; because of its diversity. Hunt asked the audience in City Hall, “If you aren’t trying for iconic, what are you trying for?’
Revolution! It was shouted through the Loeries megaphone, punted by game changers beneath the dusty organs of City Hall. Or was it just a loud cough?
By Anton Crone
screen africa magazine – october 2012