by Oresti Patricios (@orestaki) This week I am breaking with convention again. I am not going to focus on a typical advertisement, but rather on a campaign that does something other than sell a product or brand.

It’s one that doesn’t have a snappy slogan or that is easily interpreted. This is an evolving story that leaves it up to the viewer to decode and draw conclusions.

The campaign is spearheaded by FoxP2, the Joburg/Cape Town-based agency whose slogan, “The freedom to mutate”, sums up much of what there is to know about the creative process.

Just as in evolution, where environmental pressures bring about mutations that result in new, improved qualities in a species, the creative process often starts with one idea, which, through the influences of all the creative minds in the agency, becomes something entirely new.

Over a year ago, at the end of December 2013, FoxP2 group CEO, Charl Thom, wrote a new year’s message on the company’s website, quoting Henry Ford saying: “A business that makes nothing but money, is a poor business.” Thom went on to consider the ways that creativity could be enhanced in the agency, by spending less on entering award shows and more on feeding the agency’s people “in a different way”, by sending them “to do inspirational things around the world”.

This, perhaps, was the spark that got the agency’s people thinking differently about the role of agencies in South African culture, and to consider ways to make something, other than money, through creativity.

The project that has emerged from the FoxP2 stable is a documentary, Project Phoenix, that’s been over a year in the making. It chronicles the life and transformation of an ex-gang member, Roger Mouton.

Project Phoenix screengrab Roger MoutonAs a member of the Hard Livings gang, Mouton’s body was festooned with tattoos that represented his membership and status in the gang. Now, with the help of one of South Africa’s top tattoo artists, Manuela Gray, these tattoos are being covered with a new, professional set of tattoos that symbolise his transformation from gang member to family man and productive member of society.

It’s a metaphor that works well in the context of this beautifully shot short film. One of Mouton’s original gang tattoos was a dragon, and this has been integrated into the new design, which is a scaled phoenix emerging from the flames.

The crude imagery has been replaced with a colourful design that turns heads. Previously, Mouton notes, people would avoid him — now they approach him to congratulate him on his ‘ink’.

Project Phoenix screengrab family sceneThe idea of a phoenix being reborn is a metaphor for Mouton’s life, as he is now in on-the-job training, married and bringing up three children. His life is truly transformed, and — like the tattoos — he has been able to reinvent himself.

The documentary, directed by Robin Goode and Karien Murray, and filmed by Robin Goode and Caleb Heymann, is artfully made. Mouton narrates the entire story. It is shot as an interview and it feels unscripted: he speaks naturally, and the intimacy of this draws the viewer in.

One gets a sense of the anxiety he feels when telling the story of how his entire family died; yet at no stage is it maudlin. He speaks matter-of-factly about gangsters shooting each other indiscriminately, and one gets a sense that life is cheap in these environments.

Images of the tattoos being reworked by Gray are intercut with recreated scenes from Mouton’s life. Ruined and desolate locations are used to underscore the poverty that he grew up in. Here, violence is implied rather than played out in graphic detail, which is an apt choice: the story in Mouton’s own voice is startlingly clear and honest, so there is no need for anything that would distract from this intense narrative.

Project Phoenix screengrab tattoo work in progressIf there is one message that comes across quite clearly, it is that those who become sucked into violence through circumstances aren’t ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. There is a sense here of people who got what they got in the birth lottery — they clearly did not choose to be born into poverty. There is understanding here, and that humans deserve a chance to be rehabilitated — to rise from the ashes of their circumstances.

FoxP2 and all who assisted with this project are to be congratulated for providing an insight into the life of those affected by poverty and gangsterism. They must be applauded for telling this story with sensitivity and in a way that offers society insight. Mostly, they must be noted for doing that which is business unusual — for starting a call to action for all agencies and companies to join the drive to do good in civil society.

Business should be about more than just making money. It should also be about crafting meaning.

Directors: Robin Goode & Karien Murray
Producers: Di du Toit & Laura Sampson
Production co-ordinator: Catherine Nicks
Cinematography: Robin Goode & Caleb Heymann
Assistant camera: Antonie Stemmet
Make-up & SFX: Lisa Wakelin
Production PAs: Karabo Likhethe & Andrew Gregory
Editing: Anthony Lee Martin
Grading & online: David Oosthuizen
Final mix: Sasha Righini
Composers: Clare Vandeleur & Raiven Hansmann
Stills: Bryan Traylor


Oresti PatriciosAd of the Week, published on MarkLives every Wednesday, is penned by Oresti Patricios (@orestaki), the CEO of Ornico, a Brand Intelligence® firm that focuses on media, reputation and brand research.

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