We worry too much about the label.
John Hunt, Worldwide Creative Director of TBWA, an agency with more than 250 offices in 77 countries and clients such as adidas, Absolut Vodka, Apple, Henkel, Mars, Nissan, and Sony PlayStation, was born in Zambia and educated in England and South Africa. In 1983, he became Creative Founding Partner of TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris, which was established with the watchword “Life’s too short to be mediocre.” Ten years later, Hunt was intimately involved in Nelson Mandela’s first ANC election campaign. He was inducted into the South African Advertising Hall of Fame in 1996 and, a year later, received the Financial Mail’s Long Term Achievement Award. In 2003, Hunt moved to New York to assume the role of Worldwide Creative Director of TBWA. One year later, in 2004, Hunt was appointed President of the Cannes Film, Press and Outdoor Advertising Festival. In 2005, he returned to South Africa to continue in his role as TBWA’s creative leader from Johannesburg. As well as pursuing his career in advertising, Hunt is also an award-winning author of plays for TV and the theatre. Last year he penned “The Art of the Idea,” a collection of observations on the power of original thinking. Michael Weinzettl quizzed John Hunt about his dual careers in advertising and as a writer.
L.A.: Mr. Hunt, what was your motivation for writing “The Art of the Idea”?
John Hunt: I guess the motivation was twofold. First of all, I noticed there were certain “patterns” around situations where ideas seemed to float or sink. I’d always thought having an idea was a purely intuitive moment. So the observation that different things could be conducive to an idea, or block one, intrigued me. And, secondly, I wanted to explain that ideas do not have a hierarchy, nor do you have to be blessed in any special way. Anyone can have an idea.
L.A.: How would you describe the book? It’s not easily categorized.
John Hunt: I suppose it’s an ideas book in an art book format. It’s really nothing more than twenty simple observations on how, in my experience, ideas either grow or are castrated. I wanted it to be a “kept” book, something you’d stick in your drawer or backpack. That’s why I asked Sam Nhlengethwa to illustrate each observation. Hopefully, it doesn’t feel like one of those clinical business books.
L.A.: Can you tell us about your writing in general? You’ve also written for the theater and TV and were once named Playwright of the Year in South Africa.
John Hunt: Besides advertising, I’ve always liked to be involved in a parallel project. The one seems to help me to relax from the other. Some of these projects see the light of day, some don’t. I’ve written one really awful movie script that was produced, and five or six theatre plays that made it to the stage. I won Playwright of the Year for Vid Alex, which condemned apartheid and media censorship. The idea came about when a friend of mine from the BBC showed me footage from Soweto that he’d filmed that day. I then watched the exact opposite, on state TV, that night. Those were crazy days, surreal.
L.A.: How do you manage to juggle the two callings timewise?
John Hunt: I tend to work early in the morning before the advertising day starts, or on the weekend. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time in the day. My family gets a little grumpy.
L.A.: Proceeds from the sale of “The Art of the Idea” go to Room 13, an initiative by TBWA. Can you tell us about this?
John Hunt: All the profits of the book go to Room 13. It’s a terrific initiative that provides a safe place for disadvantaged children to unfurl their imagination. This is normally a “studio” attached to a school where children can express themselves through anything from painting and drawing, to drama, poetry, storytelling, etc. etc. The unique thing is they have to run it as their own business, so they don’t just express themselves through art – they also learn how to become an entrepreneur. There are now 67 Room 13s worldwide, with 16 in South Africa.
L.A.: How did you get started in advertising? You were born in Zambia. Is that also where you had your first exposure to advertising?
John Hunt: I was born on a farm in Zambia, but moved from there when I was fairly young. I can’t remember seeing a piece of advertising while I was there.
L.A.: When did you make the decision to go into this business? And how did you start out? As a copywriter?
John Hunt: I stumbled into advertising (not very strategic). My girlfriend’s mother’s sister was a copywriter who, by pure coincidence, read one of my articles. She suggested I try advertising. I had no idea a career existed where they paid you to have ideas.
L.A.: What would have been career alternatives for you?
John Hunt: I’m not sure I’d be good at anything else. I went to university to study psychology but that only lasted for a morning.
L.A.: What was advertising in South Africa like when you got started in the business?
John Hunt: Advertising in South Africa was pretty boring. I wouldn’t describe the apartheid era as the ideal environment for innovative thinking. Everyone tended to copy what they thought was the latest or greatest in America or Europe. Prob-ably, because of historic ties, we were a little more English than American, but without the self-deprecating humor.
L.A.: What was the advertising you admired when you were growing up, that made you want to go into the business?
John Hunt: In truth, advertising didn’t figure much in my life. I saw it from the
perspective of the man in the street and generally thought it was pretty crap.
L.A.: What about the role models you had for your career? Who were the advertising people that inspired you at the beginning or at various points in your career? How about Lee Clow?
John Hunt: I didn’t really have any role models in my early career. South Africa was so geographically and intellectually isolated. Thereafter, it was great to come across likeminded people. I think I was particularly lucky to end up in the same network as Lee. In a way, he projects a creative conscience that helps keep us honest.
L.A.: What is the work as an adman that you’re proudest of? Would that be Nelson Mandela’s presidential campaign, which you were famously involved in? Can you tell us a bit about that and the context in which it took place?
John Hunt: I’m enormously proud of being a part of the Nelson Mandela presidential campaign. It was a strange time. The moment we took on the account, the ANC phoned to say they had a tipoff that the agency was going to be bombed. We quickly constructed a metal fence around the entire building. My phone was tapped and, when we moved offices recently, an old rusted listening device was found between the joints of my table. In the end, it was all worth it, though. It is a unique feeling knowing we played a small part in usher-ing in democracy. Obviously, it was a privilege to have worked with Madiba.
L.A.: Would you say that hailing from Zambia/South Africa has been a strong influence on what you have brought to your work, advertising as well as writing? And how has this influence manifested itself?
John Hunt: Strangely enough, I believe not coming from a major developed country helps you think more globally. I don’t wear a particular nationality on my sleeve. Plus, I love working in developing markets – they are often less set in their ways.
L.A.: What, to you, are the most important changes advertising has gone through since you first got into the business?
John Hunt: Philosophically, probably the most important change is that we are losing our arrogance in just telling people what to do. We’re finally realiz-ing we can no longer merely interrupt them and hope repetition will do the rest. We now have to be what they choose to engage in.
L.A.: There is a huge interest in all things digital now – also in advertising, of course. Has this interest, this turn towards digital, come at the expense of other media? Creatively as well as financially? What about print advertis-ing? How do you see the future of print?
John Hunt: I guess it’s only natural that all things digital have moved to the centre of the target. When I see how my children consume media, it’s clearly different to when I was their age. This is a fundamental change as opposed to just “adding another media.” We have to rewire the way we think about communications. It’s still being baked at the moment, but advertising will never be the same again. I still think, though, you have to have a great idea at the centre of everything you do. And that idea has to be your organizing principle. Media is now really any space or place between the brand and its audience. I don’t think this marks the death of print. It will, however, reset its position in the queue.
L.A.: You once said that a great idea scatters like a spider’s web. Can you give us a recent example of a TBWA campaign that would fit that description?
John Hunt: I think a good example is the work we did for the banned Zimbabwean newspaper. It’s a classic example of the oldest form of media – hand-drawn type on paper – traveling all over the world in a nanosecond. This was because people loved the simplicity of the concept. The core idea was to use Zimbabwe’s ludicrous currency as the paper. To have the message written on $100 billion notes is the perfect articulation of how a brutal regime caused a spiraling currency to cripple Zimbabwe. Although we originally just did wild postings and billboards, people took photographs of the work and the campaign seamlessly went digital. Overnight, thousands of blogs and websites took up the cause. The wonderful thing these days is that, if the audience loves your work, they’ll happily also become your medium.
L.A.: What is some recent advertising that has impressed you?
John Hunt: I’m a big fan of the “Replay” work we did for Gatorade, out of L.A. It’s a really smart way of engaging an audience by giving people a second chance. I think the most memorable work, in the end, is usually based on a simple human truth.
L.A.: How would you describe the effect the economic crisis has had on creativity in advertising? Is there better stuff out there because creatives had to become more resourceful, or has it become worse?
John Hunt: I think the recession has been a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we have been more resource-ful. I’m a firm believer in that old chestnut, necessity is the mother of invention. On the other hand, this has sometimes led to clients playing it too safe in troubled times. It’s pitifully incorrect to deduce that the tougher the economic crisis is, the more mediocre your work should be.
L.A.: Do you think advertising – print and film – still attracts as many talented young people as it used to, or could it be that they’re going elsewhere: digital, design, etc.?
John Hunt: As individual categories, I don’t think print and film have quite the cachet they had many years ago. However, I don’t think young people necessarily see these tight categories anymore. Often, the dividing line seems to blur. Many would argue that design and digital are really part of print and film. Everything seems to intersect with everything else these days. I feel some-times we worry too much about the label instead of just celebrating the quality.
L.A.: Where does the inspiration for your work – advertising and your other writing – come from?
John Hunt: I guess I find inspiration in contrast. Too much of the same makes me feel bland.
L.A.: How do you relax? I hear you col-lect African art. What fascinates you about it?
John Hunt: I love going into the bush. I also enjoy relaxing with my family, al-though my children are at an age where I’m not sure they would say the same. I’ve collected African art since my early twenties. I love the fact that the genuine pieces were made for a purpose, not a curio shop or an art dealer. A chair was made to sit on. A spear to throw. I love art that comes out of being utilitarian.
L.A.: What advice would you give to a young ad creative starting out? Would you say this was a good time to go into advertising?
John Hunt: I think it’s critical to stay restless. Even thereafter, technique and experience shouldn’t stop you from being inquisitive. I think this is the best time ever to be going into advertising. Your playground is much bigger than in the past. I also believe it’ll help to keep your ego in check. More and more, hav-ing an idea is becoming a team sport.