Production company Robot, based in the heart of Cape Town, is a proud supporter of South African creativity. Through a series on LBB, we’ll hear from creatives who’ve worked in SA, talking about their experiences and sharing unique takes on the country’s creativity.
Today, the creative sharing their story is Jonathan Beggs, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi South Africa.
After studying undergraduate law, it seemed that a young Jonathan didn’t envision himself behind the bar. Opting to carry on with honours in English, it was his love of all things creative that landed him within the realm of advertising.
Once he decided on creativity, Jonathan started his career as a copywriter at Ogilvy Johannesburg where he had the opportunity to be mentored by people who taught him the value of paying attention to details. With a lifelong passion for music, film, art, poetry and design – but specifically, music - Jonathan has used this as a continual driving force within his life. His love of musicality has informed side projects with MTV, Channel O and DMX, which motivate him and “keep the creative fires burning.” However, also keen to crack briefs with creative solutions, it’s the energy and enthusiasm from good ideas that keep him and the rest of his team fired up.
Speaking to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani, Jonathan explains South Africa’s vibrant creativity, how he spends time with his music, and the art of a 25-minute power nap.
LBB> How did you first get into the advertising space? Was it an intentional or unintentional decision?
Jonathan> I studied undergraduate law, but after visiting a few legal firms, I was put off. I went on to study English, but without a career in mind. Like most creative people, I generally just followed my passion - all I really wanted to do was write for the NME (New Musical Express).
I always loved art, design, poetry, music, film etc, but only realised that I could have a job that riffed on these passions when I visited the offices of Orange Juice Design in Durban. It was run by African design luminary, Garth Walker, and was a hothouse of astonishing graphic art, peculiar objects, provocative ideas and interesting people. Garth suggested I go to the Red & Yellow School of Advertising, and I applied a few days later.
LBB> You started out as a copywriter at Ogilvy Johannesburg, do you remember some of the formative experiences you had? Or are there any initial campaigns you worked on that you can share with us?
Jonathan> I was lucky to learn from some incredible people. My mentors worked obsessively and cared about every detail. I learned to really listen to clients – but also to always put the audience first. For years I was very confused by the feedback: ‘That’s not an idea, that’s just a headline’. It took a few years before I could recognise ideas, and also understand their magic potency. In my first few years, I worked mostly on retail brands, which honed my commercial/selling skills. An early highlight was writing an Eno TV commercial that won a Cannes Gold Lion, as well as a coveted GSK Award.
LBB> Can you tell us about your passion for music and how that’s entwined into your creative career?
Jonathan> I am a lifelong ‘musicaholic’ and it’s been such a pleasure to draw on this passion, particularly in film and radio. I think it’s really important for creative people to have side-projects, as they keep the creative fires burning. Few people have day jobs where they’ll get to work with music legends like Johnny Fourie, Mandoza, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Lira and Hugh Masekela. I also got to work on music brands like MTV, Channel O and DMX. Finding and making great tracks for commercials has been a constant obsession. One track we worked on with composer Alun Richard ended up being performed at the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was an epic moment for all involved.
LBB> What about some recent pieces of work that you’re particularly proud of, can you share a few spots?
Jonathan> I love the ‘Friends with Purpose’ campaign for Klipdrift Brandy – a series of poignant films about real people with purposeful friendships. I also love the design piece we did for ilovecoffee, a coffee shop run by deaf baristas - ‘The Signing Cup’ is a coffee cup that teaches you sign language. Then there’s ‘Lockdown Whopper’ for Burger King – a zero-budget tactical piece that jumped out from the clutter during lockdown. And we’re busy rolling out Stimorol’s ‘Flowlab’, a dynamic platform that’s connecting young music talents to help spark their creativity and careers.
LBB> We’d love to hear your thoughts on South African advertising, what makes it a unique market to work within? What are some of the aspects that it’s getting right and what could be worked on?
Jonathan> South Africa is never boring. We have a diverse stretch of cultures and lifestyles and media habits. Curiosity, empathy and putting yourself in others’ shoes is so important here, as we are very often communicating with people who are very different to ourselves. Sadly, this reality has made our clients overly reliant on research, which can often suck the life out of creative ideas. We have a vibrant creative community that produces some incredible work, packed with our unique blend of humour and ingenuity. I think we have a way to go as an industry in protecting our authority and value as creative business partners to our clients.
LBB> What’s your favourite aspect of the creative process? At what point do you know when a piece of work is coming together successfully?
Jonathan> My favourite part of the process is ‘cracking the brief’. When a piece of work gathers genuine enthusiasm and energy during the process, you know you’re onto something special. When it makes people who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid really feel something, then it’s a winner.
LBB> Can you share the piece of work that you believe was most significant in your career, and tell us a little bit about why?
Jonathan> I have made work that has broken through into culture, become viral, triggered catchphrases, been satirised by political cartoonists and made proper noise - but the piece that is most special to me is one that had a significant impact in our local industry. ‘Young Gifted & Black’ was a pan-African Black pride anthem for Channel O, an African music channel. We had a two-day window around the Channel O Awards to devise and record parts, as well as shoot the video featuring artists from across the continent. The broader campaign had a big team and it helped bolster the careers of many young, gifted and Black creatives.
LBB> We hear you’re a master power napper. Other than that, how do you come up with and hone your creative ideas? Do you have any other tricks?
Jonathan> A 25-minute power nap gives you two days for the price of one! I guess the main trick to coming up with a great creative idea is to really really want to. Desire, ambition, hunger – whatever you want to call it – is the thing that will have you tirelessly sniffing around for new ideas, angles and opportunities.
LBB> Outside of work, how do you spend your free time?
Jonathan> Aside from being the child-herder of my two children, I mainly spend most of my free time with music – listening, playing, writing and composing. I am always tinkering with some song concept or composition. Most recently, I have been working on songs with my musician niece, Bella Latham a.k.a. Baby Queen. Check out ‘Lazy’, a track we just made - it’s a Gen-Z stoner anthem. Running and meditation kept me sane during lockdown. I don’t watch much TV or Netflix etc – my downtime is books, news, dog-walking, and a spot of tennis.