by MarkLives (@marklives) Instead of looking back at Net#work BBDO’s last 23-odd years, Mike Schalit, founding partner and CCO, thought it’d be more instructive to look forward and see what wisdom could be identified on what does it really take to direct creativity. The result? The Creative#Director (C#D) coffee table book, curated by Schalit and designed by Emma Strydom. Over several weeks, MarkLives is featuring the pearls of wisdom from five of the 30 participants — next up is Suhana Gordhan.

In order to create C#D, Schalit approached as many creatives as possible who’d passed through the agency’s doors since its birth, in May 1994, as the very first agency in the new South Africa, and posed six basic questions.

Creative#Director book

Suhana Gordhan
Creative director, FCB
Chairperson, Loeries
Years at Net#work BBDO: 11 months

Elisabeth Kübler Ross wrote a useful book called “On Death and Dying”. It also happens to explain what it takes to be a creative director. Much like grief, it involves five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Being made CD means suffering denial and self-doubting statements such as “Why me?”, “One day they’ll find out I have imposter syndrome” and “I’m not really a CD; I’m just a writer with a really scary title.” It means that, when you’re asked to introduce yourself in a boardroom, you’ll want to say this title of creative director really fast and somewhat under your breath like this: “SuhanaGordhan. Graveumrector.”

There will be anger because your world is quite different and the ground underfoot keeps shifting. Your anger might even allow you to meet your dictator self. You go backstage and see things you’re not supposed to see when you’re an art director or a copywriter — it’s like seeing Lady Gaga without makeup.

You have to care more about the business and adult stuff like staffing and performance reviews and fiscal matters. (Fiscal is a terrible word that no good copywriter would voluntarily use.)

Bargaining comes with avoiding the cause of grief and trying desperately to hang onto that fraying rope of copywriting skill you once owned. This could mean rewriting someone’s copy because no one can write it the way you would and you’re hoping, if you keep writing, no one will notice what a crappy CD you really are.

Depression sets in when you realise the following:

  • It’s really hard to brainstorm Bridget Jones’ style.
  • Everyone expects you to make decisions and answer questions.
  • If the creative idea gets blown up and its brain splatters all over the car, you will have to be Harvey Keitel. You are the Wolf, and you will have to put on some rubber gloves.

Acceptance comes when you finally start to understand what the role means. When you begin to see that you’re a nudger and a navigator of creative thought; when you stoke the fires and place final puzzle pieces, there is a sneaky kind of joy at the end of it all.

When I was made creative director by Ahmed Tilly, the gentle and brilliant human who had a massive impact on my career, I walked into his office with pen and paper and asked him, “What does a creative director do?”

He said, “Everything.”

He was right, of course.

There is an ‘everythingness’ to being a CD. While it may feel like you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, over time there is a pervy kind of satisfaction to be gained from standing in, and then away from the work. You realise you are to be leaned upon and that you have to lean on others. You know you have to become the gladiator of lousy ideas and the Bruce Lee for great ideas.

And so, being a CD takes a little bit of dying, some mourning and a degree of traumatic rebirth every day. Each morning is a salute to rekindling, reinventing and rejoicing after death the night before. When you let go of everything, you see little baby ideas being born and surviving, and that’s what makes it great. It’s why we still do what we do.

Mike Schalit: Major achievements at Net#work and thereafter?
Suhana Gordhan:
Though my time at Net#work was pretty short, I feel that a major achievement was the youth project that Juliet Honey and I worked on with the students from Umuzi. It started out feeling like a bit of a ball ache but resulted in something quite amazing. Through a long project called, “Don’t worry Ma”, we had the opportunity to grow and develop this young talent and walk them through a creative process. It makes me happy to know that, at the end, three of the Umuzi students found a permanent place at Net#work.

MS: Best piece(s) of work at Net#work that made you proudest?
The work that made me proudest at Net#work was the Lotto pitch. This was one of the most organised pitches I’ve ever worked on. My partner Juliet Honey and I developed some ideas that we didn’t just love, but knew we would love to make. The work from the creative teams resulted in a win, and was made in the end.

MS: Most-spectacular failure at Net#work?
Tumbling down the stairs at Loeries in front of the entire agency.

MS: Most-significant work/achievement post Net#work?
My most-significant work before my time at Net#work, was work that allowed me to piss off a dictator, and win a Loeries Grand Prix. I was creative director on a commercial called “Last Dictator Standing”, a Nando’s ad about a meal for six people. It featured a Robert Mugabe lookalike reminiscing about the old days spent with his dictator friends that are no longer. Post Net#work, my most-significant work gives me two missed calls a day, reminding me that it still awaits me.

MS: Crazy idea that we as a C#D collective could collaborate on to make a dent in the universe?
Introducing The Fixers. We create one mobile, agile agency made up of a small number of great people from across the industry. This is an agency owned by the industry. Every three months we solve one major South African problem. The members of this agency can rotate. The work is not about advertising or awards but about mighty, yet simple ideas that can help us fix what is wrong and fall in love with this country all over again.

MS: A final provocation?

A Mini Manifesto for a New Page.

We have worn the pages of this industry
Cracked our spines and made squiggly notes in the margins
Great authors have come and gone
And stories told and retold

We need a brand new page.

On this page, we love our people harder.
Look after their health and wealth
And open up space to be inspired.
We break old things
And make new words.
We tear out pitching pages
And the ones where the client has us by the balls.
We burn the pages where we make client’s ads
And erase the ones where we squash big ideas into small minutes.

We bring more people of colour
We don’t lose women because they have ovaries
We backspace on awards and
make work out of love.

There will be no space for bitching
For backstabbing
And bitterness
For threats and losses
For giving everything and being left with nothing.

We have bold ideas and brilliant humans
And we all belong on a brand new page.

See also


Mike Schalit and Emma StrydomIn order to inspire the next generation of creative leaders in South Africa, Net#work BBDO has published the Creative#Director (C#D) book — insights into the creative process by 30 of South Africa’s top creative leaders. Beautifully crafted and designed by Emma Strydom, produced by Clinton Mitri and Exhibit Print in the finest of glossy coffee-table book traditions, it’s a riot of provocation and inspiration, edited and curated by Mike Schalit, Net#work BBDO founding partner and CCO, from the responses of 30 creative directors to a few leading questions.

A finer gang of rogues you’ll be hard-pressed to find — they’ve made the Net#work journey infinitely more madcap and magical, building and reinventing brands along the way, and making a difference to bottom lines and society. Some have gone on to become CDs in their own right; some have formed their own agencies; some have simply found themselves; and some are still with the agency today. All proceeds from the special limited-edition book, which costs R995, go towards helping build a library in a disadvantaged community. Donations for the library initiative may also be pledged.

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