by MarkLives (@marklives) For 2019, Alistair King (@ALsparkles) has been voted as most-admired creative leader in South Africa, with Ahmed Tilly (@AhmedTilly) and Peter Khoury (@khourster) as joint runners-up, by South African agency executives.

MarkLives logoEvery year since 2012, MarkLives has been polling South Africa’s top ad agency leaders to find out what they think of their competitors, whom they see as effective managers and great creative leaders, and where they believe their future competition is likely to come from. These are the results for 2019 and this week we are running the following categories.

The most-admired creative leader

Alistair King
Founding creative partner
King James Group SA

Alistair King“It’s been a massive personal year as well as a massive creative year for the agency, for a whole bunch of reasons. Firstly, the [Loeries] Hall of Fame was kind of a key moment in my life and an accumulation of all my years in advertising. Why I mention it is because, contextually, to have won it in a year in which we [were] still firing on all cylinders for me was quite significant. It felt like it wasn’t just a nudge to get out the business and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Alistair King, King James Group South Africa co-founder and CCO.

While the agency group has a plethora of industry awards under its belt, King admits that it doesn’t chase awards as a business but is at the mercy of clients. When the latter wish to make advertising, that’s when it gets to make advertising. It’s an ebb and flow, and 2019 was fortunately very busy for the group, says King, despite its fair share of challenges. According to him, probably the most-difficult project in the agency’s history was “A Whole New World” advert for Sanlam Investments. For the team, it was a matter of editing a film with footage not yet shot with music not yet chosen, and this particular journey created a lot of back and forth during client approval.

“It’s normally a very straightforward process. When you get to the editing stage, the ad either hits you or it doesn’t. Emotionally and instinctually, you know whether it’s working or not. We never had that process here until the very last day, when it all just came together. We all nearly cried,” he says.

That emotional and instinctive knowing King mentions comes with experience and, for him, it’s materialises as a flutter in his heart at concept stage. This is when he knows that an idea is good. When he truly knows it is when the anxiety and fear, of his client not going to buy it, hit — not because the idea is too brave for the client in question but because he won’t get to see the idea come to fruition.

According to King, it’s easy to talk about originality as a defining factor but, if it’s original and doesn’t really smack you with an emotive punch, it’s just not working. It’s unique but soulless. For him, the only way to cut through the clutter is to be larger than life — larger than people’s lives. You have to be so in order to be considered by your customers. He would rather have something move him emotionally than poke him intellectually.

— Profile by Sabrina Forbes.

Previously: King took the crown in 2018, 2017, 2016 and in 2015. Chris Gotz, previously Ogilvy & Mather SA CCO, won in 2014 and again in 2013. King took the vote in our inaugural poll in 2012.


The joint runners-up

Ahmed Tilly Peter Khoury

Ahmed Tilly
Chief creative officer
FCB Joburg

Peter Khoury
Chief creative officer

Ahmed Tilly, FCB Joburg CCO, believes that creativity is more valuable now than ever before. He also believes that people tend to gravitate towards what they know, towards brands that make them feel safe, and towards messaging that make them actually feel something. He highlights the importance of branding by saying that his agency’s ultimate job is to create a specific feeling around a brand that triggers an emotional connection with a consumer, whatever that emotion might be. His job as a creative is to make people feel a certain way and, according to him, creating an emotional response is what creatives should be getting paid a lot of money for.

A large percentage of our purchasing comes from the heart and the gut, the two least-rational parts of any human. Tilly’s constant pursuit is to find the next big idea that is evocative enough to gain the attention of many and contagious enough to generate earned-media coverage. Today, he believes this goal is more exciting than it used to be, what with all the various platforms brands have at their fingertips to tell a story. A story can take multiple formats but communicate the same base message.

Big ideas are more than just advertising for him; they solve problems and, after many years at the creative helm, he believes that he’s exercised his intuitive muscles enough to know almost immediately when an idea is a good one: he gets nervous and excitement with a flutter of unmistakable butterflies in his stomach. This instinct, he says, lives inside the best creative people. It’s hard to learn and even harder to teach: “Intuition is a muscle but unfortunately creative instinct has been undervalued.”

He’s most proud of the Sunlight Since Since Laundry Bar campaign, one done in several South African languages, that speaks to the innate heritage of this bar of soap that almost every South African knows and has had an experience with. “I love that a bar of soap can mean so much to people,” he says. Other key pieces of work are Debonair’s Headless Pizza and Coca-Cola Phonetic Can.

Tilly’s advice to young creatives is to never lose that naivety because it’s in there that the magic sits; it’s in the small window that says “I can do anything and anything is possible.”

— Profile by Sabrina Forbes.

South Africa has much room for growth when it comes to creative communication, says Peter Khoury, TBWA\Hunt Lascaris CCO. While we’re good at storytelling, radio, and TV, he feels we’re lacking in 21st-century thinking: typically, we look at advertising as big idea/campaign/ execution but we should be looking to how first-world countries are packaging their communications. It’s more sophisticated, he says, and they’re getting to grips with categories we haven’t even started to look at.

For him, 21st-century thinking is that everything should be looked at in terms of platforms, formats, and versions. Platform are the communication spaces for your business activity; once you have them set, you then move onto formats. These are able to take on any form, not just campaign rollouts. Eg, a PR campaign can explode into a variety of different formats; it doesn’t have one place to be housed as it can be everywhere. Then, depending on the chosen platform, you create the versions; these are slightly tweaked and optimised pieces of content.

The agency strives to be the cultural engine for 21st-century businesses and its biggest challenge, says, is living up to this promise every day. An example is Breaking Ballet (#BreakingBallet), which won Gold at Clios, Loeries and Cannes Lions over the 2018/2019 awards season. There was no reference point to start with and the campaign changed as the team working on figuring it out right up until the final concept. Khoury believes this is creative thinking in its most-agile form and a good example of platform, format, and version. “Being a disruption company, it’s our mission to make sure we get there. This means taking your clients along with you on things you might not know how to solve, but you just try and experiment and learn,” he says.

Khoury says that the ECD role is evolving all the time. His main aim is to ensure that everyone in his department sit at the crossroads of challenge and support, saying he may challenge them to push past the benchmarks but, without support, this won’t work. The opposite is the same: you won’t grow with too much support.

Khoury’s mindset for 2020 — which he wants to filter throughout the agency and, by default, to his clients — is the balance between the-now-and-the-next. “You’ve got to be focusing on the now; that’s where your bread and butter is. It’s not an either/or decision. The now is the stuff you need to do today; the stuff your clients pay you for. When you live in the-now-and-the-next in a market place that’s changing [at] warp speed, you have to face the now minute-to-minute while the now is materialising simultaneously. It really is about the-now-and-the-next,” he says. For him, this is another 21st-century way of doing things.

— Profile by Sabrina Forbes.

Previously: In 2018, it was Xolisa Dyeshana, Joe Public United CCO. In 2017, it was Ahmed Tilly, FCB Africa joint CCO, and Sibusiso “Sbu” Sitole, The Odd Number co-founder and then creative director (now CCO). In 2016, it was Tilly. Graham Lang, then Y&R South Africa CCO, was our runner-up in 2015. In 2014, it was Pepe Marais, Joe Public founding partner and CCO. In 2013, it was Justin Gomes, FoxP2 ECD. Mike Schalit (Net#work BBDO South Africa), Chris Gotz (then Ogilvy Cape Town), Pete Case (then Gloo) and Tilly (then Black River FC) all tied as runners-up in our inaugural poll in 2012.

How the poll works

In late October 2019, we invited a panel of handpicked agency executives — in creative and management, and ranging over a wide spectrum from small- and medium-sized to network agencies — to nominate their most-admired companies and company leaders of various types of agencies. This year we conducted only a national poll, doing away with the two regional polls for Johannesburg and Cape Town. Execs couldn’t nominate their own agencies or staff members. All the nominations were then tallied up for the final result. The editors of MarkLives held two votes in the final poll and could choose not to apply these in tight races.

Note: Runner-up(s) are only named if they achieved a good nomination tally, relative to the winner’s position. Contenders are named if they stood out significantly above other nominees but weren’t able to close in on the winner’s tally. The Most Admired Agency of the Year is disqualified from the One to Watch category; votes cast in its favour in this category are discarded.

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