/ 31 January 2014

Creativity: the great equaliser

Leon Jacobs
Leon Jacobs

The South African advertising industry has often been criticised as being slow to transform.

However, viewed from a global perspective, it has performed miracles in uplifting a creative class who, without it, would still be fighting against the downward push of the hand of poverty.

I was initially attracted to the advertising business because I understood that the only thing that mattered in it was the quality of the idea.

It is a business where anyone, even if they have no inside knowledge or contacts or tertiary education, can make a living if they are able to use that innate human ability to create new connections between previously unrelated concepts.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, how you dress, what language you speak, or what you get up to in your spare time.

As long as you can keep coming up with those elusive ideas that make the money spin, you have a place in the agency.

Advertising transformed me. I grew up in an Afrikaans middle-class home in between the mine dumps of Johannesburg’s East Rand.

My matric class, the class of 1993, was literally the final product off the long line of the apartheid government’s Christian national education assembly line.

The following year, Nelson Mandela became the first president of a democratic South Africa. I started my first ad agency job in the first March of the New South Africa in 1995, in Johannesburg.

The agency I joined had known exactly how to navigate the waters of white privilege and it had done good business trading with the spheres of business that spiralled out of a soil fertilised with brotherly bonds.

But, being deeply African, it understood that most primal of survival idioms: adapt or die.

So by the time I joined, less than a year after the queues and elections of April 27, this company was co-owned by an empowerment consortium and headed by a young English chief executive, fresh off the plane from London, an agency network man with a deep understanding of the global media business.

The agency ended up being the perfect mix of credentials, experience and global leadership.

Importantly, for the first time in my life, I started working shoulder to shoulder with young black South Africans who also had just come out of apartheid’s education system, albeit from the less fortunate side.

Our new client list reflected the positive impact these changes had made on the agency’s balance sheet. It was eerily representative of the new narrative that existed in South Africa.

Pepsi, the choice of a new generation, and the campaign that I cut my baby writer’s teeth on: the 1995 local government elections.

What better way is there to familiarise yourself with the craft of writing advertising when you have to produce literally hundreds of radio commercials, print ads and flyers informing the electorate in all 11 languages about the hows, wheres and whys of voting.

Not only did this help me develop a feel for my craft, but most importantly, it built sensitivity to what it meant to respect every man’s language and rights, no matter how big or small they might appear to be.

I realised how valuable this grounding was only 15 years later, when I was working as an executive creative director in Geneva, Switzerland, where we were handling the business of a large Swiss telecommunications company.

In my dealings there, I learned that even though I was working in one of the finest democracies on the planet, that country’s four official languages were not all equal in the boardroom.

In fact, the impenetrable Swiss German language was quite plainly used as a tool for exclusion and there was not a single mechanism to fight this violation of human rights.

This struck me deeply, as I knew that the tactics employed there would never have been tolerated back home in South Africa. Back home, there would be recourse for such bullying tactics by a large corporation.

Reflecting now, I realise that simple injustice was the first nudge in a series of events that set me on course to come home, back home to my country — struggling with many injustices, yes — but where every man’s “hello, nice to meet you” is treated with equal respect by the law.

When I did come home, after six years abroad, it was to find that the same equalising force that gave this boytjie from Boksburg gainful employment, experience and a seat at boardroom tables in New York, London, Beijing and Lagos, also elevated my peers who came from much humbler beginnings.

Today, I work alongside black creative professionals who have displayed the ability and built up the experience to count themselves amongst the best in the world.

They would make an impression on the biggest brands in the world — if they chose to.

These men and women who hail from places as far flung as rural villages in the Eastern Cape to the mega metropolises of Mamelodi, Soweto and Khayelitsha, are now taking their place as global leaders in this business.

Advertising transformed me. But more importantly, advertising transformed us. Because the idea is blind to the colour of the skin around the brain it chooses to germinate in.

And because we now live in a country where respect is the law. If we keep upholding that law, creative industries will keep transforming and uplifting the genius of our people for generations to come.

Jacobs is the executive creative director and co-founder of Joe Publicn

Vox pop

“Lots of money has been lost in the country due to high taxes and parents nowadays can’t give us as much as they want to. There are high unemployment rates so by the time I finish varsity it will be difficult for me to acquire a job.” Zakkiya Adam, 21, studying public relations at Varsity College in Durban.

This article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. Content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team, unless otherwise indicated. It forms part of a larger supplement