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. He 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. The result? The Creative#Director (C#D) coffee table book, curated by Schalit and designed by Emma Strydom. Over the next few weeks, MarkLives will feature the pearls of wisdom from five of the 30 participants — first up is Mariana O’Kelly.

Creative#Director bookMariana O’Kelly
ECD, Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg
Years at Net#work BBDO: 7

I wanted to be the best art director in the world but then my talent let me down. What I saw on my screen was never as beautiful and clever and witty as what I had in my head. “Aaaargh. Again,” I thought every time I finished something in disappointment. I doubted every move I made with my cursor and most of the time I was drowning in my own inability to make good quick decisions and to just stick with it. The rainbow-death-ball of self-doubt.

While working on a layout I sometimes chewed the insides of my mouth till it was raw, as I wanted so desperately for it to be great but I didn’t know how to get there quicker. So I fell back on my actual talent. Sheer determination. My blood, sweat and tears would be measured in minutes, hours, days and months. This recipe got me some recognition and I managed to walk on stage a few times. I craved awards so I could feel a little better about what I made, even if it was just for the two very short minutes on stage. And then I would fall back into anxiety as I walked off stage, thinking: “Mariana, you’re just not good enough to make it.”

When I was promoted, something strange happened in a short few months. though. I realised I was able to see the wood from the trees in other’s ideas way more clearly than I was ever able to see in my own work. My instinct clearly wanted to serve others better than myself. I could get their work to places where I struggled getting my own. I was able to connect my vision to their talent seamlessly and gracefully. Finally, something that came easy for me!

So, now, my best days are the ones where I can explore with teams, play in different territories without anxiety and move blocks around without self-doubt. It’s like I get to play conductor and they get to play the beautiful music. I cannot work without them in my life; there would be no point, no sounds. Maybe that’s what it takes to be a CD, to be willing to not cling to your own way, to not try and control everything, to not rule with fear and position, to not impose your will as the only way, but to give teams the confidence and self-belief so your passion and inspiration and belief in what they do is what leads them. And they will reach places and worlds and ideas I have never ever seen. No awards needed then. Job done.

Mike Schalit: Major achievements at Net#work and thereafter?
Mariana O’Kelly: Not waking up on the red sofa with my shoes lying next to me on mornings after the May#Day parties.

MS: Best piece(s) of work at Net#work that made you proudest?
Virgin Atlantic Suite Dreams Print campaign and Cell C Art of Conversation Outdoor campaign done, with my very talented partner, Gary.

MS: Most spectacular failure at Net#work?
MOK: Every day.

MS: Most-significant work/achievement post Net#work?
MOK: It was an incredible moment when our team won Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide’s first-ever Cannes Grand Prix for Radio on Lucozade. My husband and kids were with me that year and I was able to take them onto the stage with me. The youngest little Lions ever on stage, at age 8.

MS: Crazy idea that we as a C#D collective could collaborate on to make a dent in the universe?
Maybe we can start a C#D Academy where 30 young talented creatives without the means to study at a proper college/school get identified annually and then trained/taught by us?

MS: A final provocation?
MOK: Don’t chase awards. Awards will come if you chase that voice inside you that tells you to go higher, brighter, better and simpler. Learn to listen carefully, as it’s the best creative director you will ever work for.

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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