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 Gerry Human.

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

Gerry Human
Global ECD, Ogilvy & Mather London
Years at Net#work BBDO: 3.5

Mike Schalit chose a fitting quote when he wrote to us about the idea for this catalogue: “Life is lived forwards yet understood backwards.” It’s so true of advertising people — most of us haven’t got a clue what we are doing, or why. Creative directing is a type of cultivated naivety. Or perhaps just plain old naivety.

Basically, not the most scientific of jobs. Apologies if you were hoping for a deep and meaningful theory here; if so, you may be better off turning the page now.

But since you are still reading, either you’re my mum or you have some spare time on your hands. In which case, may I suggest you pick up an entirely different book: Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” — a brilliant hypothesis about the factors that contribute to success. According to his “10 000 hour” rule, the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill is, to a large extent, a matter of practising the correct way, for that mind-boggling length of time.

Well, I’ve been at it for over 50  00 hours, and I still don’t know my arse from my elbow. In most jobs, people get paid to do a similar thing over and over again. The thing about advertising is that, no matter how much experience you have, you never get to do the same thing twice. We are paid to be original. Even with access to vast quantities of data, sophisticated testing methods and complex behavioural analyses, there is unfortunately, no correct way to have, or evaluate, an idea. Instead, you have to develop, and carefully hone, a certain part of your anatomy that you come to depend on. It’s not the grey and wrinkly one you’re thinking of. Or the other one. I’m talking about your gut. (No doubt there are quite a few of those amongst the esteemed members of the C#D Club.)

Because that’s what I believe it takes to be a great CD. A great gut.

So, dear die-hard reader, with the caveat that there is no truly correct way to creatively direct, here are a few suggestions that may help you develop a six-pack of your own:

  • To be the best, learn from the best. The closer you get to the epicentre of creativity, the faster you grow. I was lucky enough to learn from brilliant creative leaders at TBWA\Hunt Lascaris, Net#work BBDO and Ogilvy. John Hunt taught me that nothing is more valuable than an idea; Schalit helped me figure out how to actually have an idea, and Robyn Putter initiated me in the art of gut-trusting.
  • Build a virtuous circle, not a vicious cycle. The best people always want to be where the action is. Make great work that millions of people love and talk about, and talent will flock to you like ants to a picnic. Use your well-honed gut and pick the right ones; they will feed off each other’s energy and talent, as well as yours. Don’t build a team of yes-men/women. The work will get boring and so will you.
  • Don’t take credit; give it away. As in any leadership position, it’s your job to help others look good. Not yourself. Resist the urge to point out how clever you are.
  • Spend time reviewing ideas, not spreadsheets. Don’t get caught up in admin. There are lots of people in the agency who are paid to do that stuff. You will make the biggest difference to the bottom line if you spend your time reviewing, wrangling and discussing how to make creative work better. And it’s more fun than arguing about the dismal state of the third-quarter revenue forecast.
  • Learn to be dumb. It is crucial to have a thorough understanding of your client’s business. Repeat: crucial. Paradoxically, it also helps to be naive. Because you always need to look at things afresh. Don’t waste too much time analysing, navel-gazing and seeking strategic perfection. To make a great sculpture, all you need is a block of stone. Creativity by its nature is original; it takes people by surprise. How can you do anything new if everything is prescribed at the outset?

There, I’ve just saved you 5 000 hours. Just do it.

God is in the detail. Mies van der Rohe is probably turning in his grave but I reckon advertising is a bit like architecture. If you get one piece wrong, the whole thing falls apart. Months, and sometimes years, are spent planning and testing ideas, so it’s easy to lose sight of the important bit. Which is obviously the stage when you’re making stuff. Obsess over detail. If the whole is more than the sum of its parts, the parts had better be pretty damn good.

Do not roll over and die. At Ogilvy Joburg, I was affectionately known as the Roach, apparently because I refused to die. Charming, eh? You don’t have to fight for everything, but it’s important to stand up for what you believe in. Ironically, really good ideas are hardest to sell, because people don’t always know what they like, but they like what they know.

If you haven’t yet developed a cast-iron gut feeling, an unbreakable exoskeleton is handy.

Mike Schalit: Major achievements at Net#work and thereafter?
Gerry Human: Winning the Virgin Atlantic account was a highlight. It was in the mid-90s, but I remember the pitch like it was yesterday. We just had a lot of fun and the clients loved it. Fun is infectious. Bankable, even.

MS: Best piece(s) of work at Net#work that made you proudest?
GS: Virgin Atlantic “Gorilla Lock” print
Castrol “Doubles” TV
Fiat Uno “Icons” print

MS: Most spectacular failure at Net#work?
GS: Attempting to take on Deon Hug at vodka shots.

MS: Most-significant work/achievement post Net#work?
GS: Exclusive Books “Zimbabwe” (HarrisonHuman)
Coke “Brrr” TV/integrated (O&M Joburg)
Topsy Foundation “Selinah” TV (O&M Joburg)
Dove “Ad Makeover” social media (O&M London)
Dove “Camera Shy” TV (O&M London)
Expedia “Luggage Tags” print (O&M London)
Expedia “Travel Yourself Interesting” TV/integrated (O&M London)
28 Too Many “Flags” print (O&M London)
Kronenbourg1664 “Farmers, Le Big Swim” film/integrated (O&M London)
Philips “Breathless Choir” film/integrated (O&M London)

MS: Crazy idea that we as a C#D collective could collaborate on to make a dent in the universe?
GS: Give young people easy access to the phenomenally talented C#D Club. Host a C#D creative Instagram page. Allow a different group of learners to take over the page every month (give them the password, etc). Ask them to upload three great ideas. Ask/remind CDs to post simple comments (or even just hearts). Promote the event every month.

MS: A final provocation?
GS: It so happens that the Rugby World Cup took place in the UK in 2015. On the morning of the semi-final between South Africa and New Zealand, a South African colleague told me that a group of ex World-Cup-winning Boks would be taking an early morning jog, starting from Trafalgar Square, and that anyone was welcome to join. I’m no die-hard fan but I thought it sounded like a laugh, so I showed up (in the rain) at dawn and, together with about 300 people, followed Francois Pienaar and a pack of veterans as they trotted down The Mall, straight towards Buckingham Palace. It was pretty random. No security. No roadblocks. No organisers. Just a ragbag of fans running amok through one of the most-gentrified boulevards in the world. People were smiling, singing and waving South African flags. Afterwards, we gathered around and Pienaar made an off-the-cuff speech about the forthcoming match. Out of nowhere, the crowd, decked out in green and gold, spontaneously belted-out “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”.That rainy morning in October was a potent and emotionally charged scene that, to me, embodied a uniquely SA blend of characteristics: spontaneity, passion, imagination and irreverence (mixed together with a healthy ability to laugh at ourselves). I think it’s this lively cultural mélange that makes South Africans such exceptional creative leaders. Long may it live.

MS: A final provocation?
NM: “One who sows the seed will not enjoy the shade. The one generation sows the seed, another waters the seed, another prunes, another enjoys the shade. It is an intergenerational sacrifice.” —Unknown.

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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