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Opinion and Insight

How Ogilvy South Africa Found Its Creative Groove

Fresh from a Cannes Grand Prix high, the agency is still putting out more lovingly-created work – and nudging their way up the internal network ranks, finds LBB’s Laura Swinton

How Ogilvy South Africa Found Its Creative Groove

There’s some kind of amazing alchemy bubbling up in Ogilvy South Africa. Maybe it’s just serendipitous timing, or maybe it’s something else, but the past couple of months have seen hit after hit emerge from the agency’s Johannesburg and Cape Town offices. 

“It feels like we’re doing things that are punching above our weight – I don’t want to sound too boastful,” reflects Ogilvy South Africa Chief Creative Officer Pete Case. “From a creative point of view, of 505 offices Ogilvy has around the world we’re number seven with Jo’burg and number 11 with Cape Town… and most countries combine their cities for points. It’s good news for us; we feel like we’re in a good space. The economy’s pretty shit, clients aren’t spending much money and the agency world seems to be in turmoil… but we’re just hunkering down and continuing with something we started two years back and its finally showing dividends.”


Sing When You’re Winning


The agency’s showstopping highlight came in June, when Soccer Song for Change scooped the Grand Prix in the Radio and Audio category at Cannes Lions. The campaign was created to raise the link between alcohol and domestic violence and to urge men to call out bad behaviour among their peers. It saw a choir comprised of women who had suffered domestic violence take to the field ahead of a high-profile football match to sing the national anthem – only the lyrics had been changed to reflect the realities of partner violence. The dramatic activation was both ambitious and a logistical headache, and required months of careful negotiation.


But while most of the advertising world will, by now, be familiar with the Carling Black Label campaign that seeks to raise awareness of and change behaviour around domestic violence… Pete notes that there’s a lot more to the project that one can glean from a two-minute case study video. It’s more than just a stadium stunt. For one thing, for an alcohol brand to acknowledge and address the role drink plays in domestic violence is almost unheard of. But what’s really impressive is the way that Ogilvy has brought together AB Inbev and he South African government to work on a three-year initiative. 

“One of the key ministers stood up at a proper press launch. The brand made a pledge to stand with the government to work to reduce the number of women affected by violence over three years. Now there’s an actual forum in government that was set up, something that didn’t exist before, that’s discussing at quite a high level what are the sorts of interventions that can take place that the government can fund,” says Pete.

His hope is that the efforts will attract other brands and organisations to help achieve the goal of reducing the number of domestic violence reports in three years… indeed two as yet unnamed brands have already approached the agency with related briefs.


Getting Their Hands Dirty


Not being an agency to rest easy, a big Cannes win wasn’t about to make the team indulge in their success. The last month has seen the launch of two particularly hefty, purposeful campaigns that have been years in the offing. To honour the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Ogilvy Johannesburg created #ShaveToRemember, a deeply moving campaign that encourages South Africans to adopt ‘Madiba’s’ iconic haircut and to embody his values (you can read more about that campaign here). 


The other project that’s hitting the real world after a long incubation is The Book of Dirt, an educational project for Unilever brand OMO. The team in Cape Town have created a storybook with a story that only becomes visible when smeared in dirt – a nifty trick designed to encourage children to get up close to nature… and to encourage parents to allow their kids to get up close to nature.

Alex Goldberg is an Associate Creative Director at Ogilvy Cape Town who has been pushing the project forward for two years. It’s been a long process of research and development as they investigated the logistics of bringing the idea to life, for example with the ink. Even the illustrations had to be created to a certain specification – appealing and clear, but not too complex that they’d be lost under the dirt. (They landed on brilliant local illustrator Karabo Poppy.)
Explaining the root of the idea, Alex says that it arose from Omo’s brand ambition and the insight that the growth of technology in Africa was disconnecting children from their roots and values. While children learn from stories and fables at an early age, many of those tales are Western in heritage, so the team wanted to creative an African narrative.

There was one additional insight that tied the project together. “In Africa, one the tensions is that handwashing is still outnumbers washing machines by a lot. So, when kids come home dirty that’s more of a hinderance than anything else, rather than a great signal that they’ve learned something,” explains Alex. “The task was to change parent’s mindset. When kids come home with dirt on their clothes, we want to change from their view from to, ‘what did you learn today’. It’s changing the view that the outdoors can become a classroom.”

At Unilever there are, apparently, discussions happening internally about whether the book could be pushed into other countries. Locally, it’s hoped that the book marks the beginning of something bigger, potentially spawning sequels, and the agency is in the very earliest stages of the path to get the book adopted by the government’s school curriculum.


Punchy Pop


But it’s not all long-term, research-intensive projects – the teams have also been dancing between bits of peppy, punchy pop-culture. Case in point, this summer’s Making a Meal of it campaign for KFC that happened to coincide with a certain massive soccer competition that had the world glued to their phones and TV screens for a good few weeks. Making a Meal of it tapped into the ever-present (and growing – it definitely is getting worse, right?) phenomenon of Olivier-level on pitch dramatics and diving. A funny, fluffy bit of social humour struck a nerve and the thing went viral. CCO Pete Case says that while the team is still going through the data, at 50 million views and some insane levels of social activity, he reckons the campaign might well be the most shared campaign ever in South Africa. Not bad for a miniscule budget.



“Most of the spots that we do either sit on the heavily-crafted side of things or light humour. And this was definitely light humour. To me it was a really great media placement and opportunistic hijack and it’s certainly done better from an earned media point of view than we think anything else has done in this landscape before,” says Pete.

Another highly-shared effort has been the ongoing MTV project FCK HIV, an engage young people with South Africa’s spiralling HIV crisis. The campaign simply plays with the image of the middle finger – HIV blood tests are normally taken from the index finger, but Ogilvy decided to punk things up a bit. So far, says Pete, the campaign has ‘propelled itself around social media among the target audience’ and it’s a far cry from the usual ‘bland’ government efforts.

And another recent bit of fun that struck a chord, this time with parents, was the 'Baby Marathon'. A ridiculously cute campaign based on the insight that babies can cover up to three kilometres every day just by crawling around their home and garden.



Stoking a Resurgence


So, what’s accounting for this consistent roll of high-performing creativity? To unravel what’s going on at the agency we need to flip back the calendar by a few years and take a look at what’s going on around the Ogilvy network. 
Pete joined the agency three years ago when his own business, Gloo, was acquired. Back then he sat down with the leadership team and discussed the impending industry shifts and changes and how the agency was going to not just survive but thrive. 

“The biggest issue that we sat down [and talked about] three years ago was, if we don’t change, if we stick to the way we think things should be done, then we’re going to be in trouble further down the line,” says Pete. “So, I think the more boring, structural, business things that we’ve done in the background are really going to help us. Because otherwise we’d be carrying around that weight and that cost and we’d be much slower. The trouble is with all human beings is that we like to gravitate towards the things we know and the people we normally use, we want to use them again.”

One of the biggest changes that has been put in place has been to consolidate Ogilvy’s activities into one more fluid centre. It’s something that’s been (and will continue) happening around the network, but South Africa was one of the first Ogilvy agencies to go through the dramatic restructure.

“There’s a global reshuffle going on, but we were one of the first agencies in Ogilvy to do it, which is bringing everyone into one group. We were 15 separate businesses a year ago and we’ve literally just trashed all of that and brought it into one,” says Pete. 

Pete’s hope is that this restructure will allow for a more media-agnostic approach to client problems, and he reckons the work of recent months has shown that it’s working. “It’s allowed us to be a lot more non-traditional in our response,” says Pete. “The budget we got for this KFC piece would have ended up being some print or something pretty small, but we were able to go back to them with a targeted campaign. With Carling it was a packaging project and a stadium stunt that started the piece off. For the book, it’s very unusual for Unilever to experiment this way – it’s almost like they’re going back to print.”

On the ground, creative foot soldier Alex says he feels the change on a cultural level. “As a culture, we’ve had a really nice thing brewing over the past year and a half or so,” he says. “And every new aspect is just fuel to the fire. From the interns all the way up to the seniors, it’s all about really, really great ideas. That’s it – and not letting the briefs that land on your desk define the work that you put out in the year. It’s about being proactive for our clients and looking at the challenges they face.”

Another significant change in the agency is where they place their creative focus. Pete estimates that when he started at the agency, 80% of the best creative work they were producing were for charities and pro-bono side projects. Great for awards but not so great for clients and, in the long term, the agency. These days that statistic is flipped and 80% of the top work is for their big brand clients. “If you’re not doing your great work for big brands, you’ve got to ask yourself what’s going wrong,” says Pete.

The projects that have emerged across 2017 and 2018 have been creative, sure, but they’ve also been difficult. Asking brands to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. Negotiating with the top layers of government. Sensitively honouring beloved figures. Inventing new formats. While a key aspect of these projects’ success is the ability to judiciously choose what battle is worth fighting, probably the most important ingredient in Ogilvy South Africa’s resurgence is the very character of the people who make up the agency.

“I’d love to say we have huge teams of specialists, but we don’t. It’s about having people with a good dose of lateral thinking and tenacity,” says Pete. “Doors close all the time, you get more ‘no’s’ than ‘yesses’ in this industry. If you’re used to that and you push through, it’s amazing what’s possible."

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