by Herman Manson (@marklives) Mike Schalit, chief creative officer and co-founder of Net#work BBDO South Africa, would much rather appoint a strategist than a creative to his agency today.

The majority of a modern creative director’s job is focused upon strategy, he says. They direct creatives, keeping them on track and their work relevant to the brief, brand and market. They help clients understand suggested strategies and work closely with agency planners to bring together the creative and business sides of any given strategy.

Mike Schalit
Mike Schalit

Evolution a sign of maturity

While agencies will always require and celebrate the skills of craftsmen and women dedicated to finessing creative work, Schalit sees the creative director’s evolution into a more-strategic orientation as a sign of maturity in adland that breaks old stereotypes (he’s never had a ponytail, he quips, even when he wore his hair long) and which stops advertising agencies from being pigeonholed or taken less than seriously.

Creativity isn’t an indulgence — it deserves respect — and it’s the one offering most corporations aren’t able to transfer to an in-house department. For big-picture creative ideas, the talent stays in agencies. And their strategic approach ensures willingness on the client side to sit down and listen.

Schalit had always had an ambition to own his own agency. He had joined TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris in 1985, when it was a small 15-person agency and, by 1991, he was serving as John Hunt’s deputy. The latter threw a long shadow and Schalit was keen to start his own shop. He had some offers but Hunt always convinced him to stay and see if something came along within the group.

In 1994, that opportunity finally presented itself. TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris was approached by Nissan through its global alignment with NethWork, an Omnicom-owned specialist Nissan agency, which was a joint venture between TBWA and Hakuhodo operating in the Netherlands and Japan.

But, in South Africa, Hunt\Lascaris already held BMW. It opened up a gap to create a new shop in SA, lead by Schalit and colleague Keith Shipley.

Entered local ad lore

The duo went to see Nissan after flying in planners from Europe, got the nod and set about establishing the agency in April 1994 — the month SA would hold its first democratic elections. Their first ad was a dig at Toyota’s “Everything keeps going right” advertising campaign. True to form, it was subsequently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority of SA but not before entering local advertising lore.

Net#work BBDO logo square 2015There was a snag (apart from the country seemingly teetering on the brink) in that Nethwork wasn’t the most pronounceable name, given SA accents (it sounded clumsy, like a bad lisp, says Schalit). So they dropped the h and put in #, which Shipley has spotted on one of the agency typewriters. Net#work was born and named, resulting in people literally calling the agency “Net ‘hash’ Work’” — at least in the beginning.

Schalit says the agency was optimistic about its prospects and those of the country right from the start. He quotes Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” It’s a philosophy he and the agency still hold onto 21 years later.

What was meant to be the local Nissan agency grew quickly, winning more business, and going up against TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris. Omnicom Group, which owns both TBWA and BBDO, decided it needed to strengthen its local BBDO presence (at that point it owned Berry Bush BBDO in Cape Town and a smaller shop in Jozi), rather than have two high profile TBWA agencies competing. Thus, in 2000, Net#work joined BBDO.

A 2004 peak

At its largest in 2004, the agency grew to close on 300 people and, besides the Joburg and Cape Town agencies, had four specialist shops:BBDO Consultancy, Proximity 4332 (the ‘direct’ offering), Gloo (yup, the same one) and an experimental arts/crafts lab called T#he Embassy. That year, it won 32 of the 115 advertising awards, including a Grand Prix, that were handed out at the Loeries.

As with all agencies, Net#work BBDO has seen growth and contraction (it lost Nedbank in 2012 after seven years, after losing Cell C that same year). The agency currently employs around 130 people in Cape Town (as 140 BBDO) and Joburg (as Net#work BBDO).

According to Schalit, the agency grew unfocused and thus needed to recorrect, selling off or closing its offshoots and integrating its offering, so that now it is currently enjoying a sense of renewal and rejuvenation and is winning clients again, including Virgin Money and South African National Lottery operator, Ithuba Holdings (in Joburg); and 22seven and Pam Golding (in Cape Town). It’s also slowly building out its creative hubs in East and West Africa, in Nairobi and Lagos, respectively.

Agency expansion  into the rest of the continent, says Schalit, has been all about business and less about the work. He hopes to change that by finding and nurturing talent with a focus upon creating excellent work outside of SA. He wants Net#work’s agencies on the continent to be produce vibrant African solutions and creative, with a focus on quality, rather than quantity.

Talent building

Net#work isn’t new to building up talent: some of the country’s most-regarded creative leaders have walked through its doors, including Pepe Marais (CCO/co-founder, Joe Public), Brett Morris (group CEO, FCB South Africa), Vanessa Pearson (CCO/co-founder, House Of Brave), John Davenport and Phil Ireland (CCO/co-founders, Ireland/Davenport), Rob McLennan and Graeme Jenner (CCO/co-founders, King James II), Gerry Human (CCO, Ogilvy London), Neo Mashigo (until recently ECD at Ogilvy Joburg), Mariana O’Kelly (ECD, Ogilvy Johannesburg) and Qingqile WingWing Mdlulwa (CD, FCB Joburg). The list goes on.

A personal highlight for Schalit came in 2007 when the agency received SA’s first Cannes Outdoor Grand Prix for Nedbank’s solar-powering billboard. It’s one of three Grands Prix the agency has taken at Cannes Lions (the others being for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite and Mercedes-Benz safety features). The billboard still powers a school kitchen in Alexandra, Gauteng, that offers 1200 students a hot meal every day.

MAL FoundationAnother is the MAL Foundation, which finds its inspiration in a quote commonly attributed to Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” The foundation has so far designed and built six libraries in township schools around the country.

Schalit believes successful agency/brand collaborations happen if there is management buy-in on both sides. He holds fast-food fried chicken brand, Chicken Licken, as an example of such a relationship that works well for both parties. Founder and MD, George Sombonos, still comes to agency shoots and, when an ad works, he sees a sales spike, which is fed back to the agency. Chicken Licken has grown from a small township brand into a R1bn business, with franchises across the country.

Real reward

Making a real impact upon another’s company is still what gets him excited about being in the business several decades later, says Schalit. It’s not just an award; it’s real reward.


Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of

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