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Ruby Gill on Art, Advertising, and Birdwatching


The Keep Left copywriter speaks to LBB’s Delmar Terblanche on her journey from Kwa-Zulu Nataal to Wurundjeri Country, and what she learnt along the way

Ruby Gill on Art, Advertising, and Birdwatching

I'm a writer and creative from South Africa, currently working at creative & PR agency Keep Left in Wurundjeri Country (Melbourne, Australia). My experience is mostly in STEM, finance, public health, environment and entertainment. When I’m not debating semantics, you can find me releasing music and updating my birdwatching excel spreadsheet. It is extensive. 

LBB> What kind of kid were you and was there any inkling that you would end up in your current career? 

Ruby> I have always wanted to write – a precocious baby with big glasses and a severe fringe shoving poetry and songs on anyone in my vicinity (not much has changed). I was obsessed with how languages worked, how a movie or conversation could literally change my world view, and I thought the Nando’s ads on telly in South Africa were better than most films. So I guess you could say the red flags were there. But I always swore I’d say no to a full-time desk job. So even I am still confused as to how I got here, although I suspect it’s to do with being a sucker for a poetic challenge – to climb the only ladder I’ve ever been suspicious of. 

LBB> Was there a moment where you knew creativity was for you - a specific mentor or a piece of work you encountered?

Ruby> In 2002, there was a total solar eclipse in South Africa (the rare kind that blots out all light) and thousands of space nerds travelled from all over the world to see it. My parents’ agency was working on a PSA campaign for the Department of Science and Technology and came up with the idea to hand out free cardboard solar glasses with every major newspaper in the country so that South Africans could watch the phenomenon without damaging their eyes. For an hour that day, the entire country stood still and looked up through their space-age tinfoil specs as the moon blocked out the sun. It was the simplest stunt, but it made me excited at the potential to actually change behaviours through media, and communicate complex, powerful information with a bit of creativity. 

LBB> How did you first get into the industry – was it something you deliberately tried to get into or was it more accidental? 

Ruby> I was brought up in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa by four parents and a grandmother who all worked in some kind of journalism or comms – on my dad’s side everyone was always trying to “save print media!” and “expand their radio footprint”, while my mum and step-father owned a science communication agency. When I turned 17, I suddenly went from ‘opinionated daughter’ to a full-fledged writer in their small but award-winning creative department, mostly working on public health and science campaigns. 


LBB> How did you wind up where you are now?

Ruby> I came to Australia on a music tour, thinking I would play for a while and bugger off again, but a few months here felt so expansive (and expensive) that I decided to try a job on for size. After freelancing with Keep Left as a ghostwriter on their PR team, they offered to sponsor my visa as a writer sitting across their whole client mix, and I had the chance to stick my beak into every format possible. I think the strange marriage of science nerd and rambling poet in me made my skillset malleable to any topic or department, and I enjoyed the range, but eventually the creative department won me over. Smaller words, I guess. And more permission to lie on the floor at whim.  

LBB> What was the project or piece of work that you felt really changed your career?

Ruby> A lot of South Africa’s students face a lack of teachers, not enough multilingual resources, and a general lack of funding - which makes it really hard to get excited about learning STEM. But what they don’t lack is music. So we worked on a campaign that used hip-hop to break down complex concepts for kids around the country, engaging the country’s top scientists and hip-hop musicians to run curriculum-based workshops that students had to reflect on by writing and recording songs based on what they’d learnt, the best of which were then released to the public. The initiative was picked up by the SABC (national TV) and has since expanded to hundreds of peer-run science clubs across the country. It was the most powerful example of a campaign actually making a difference I’ve known. 

After moving to Melbourne, one of my early campaigns at Keep Left was Kathmandu’s Hidden Retreat – a state-wide ‘scavenger hike’ for a tent full of free camp gear pitched in a secret forest location, designed to get people out into nature to improve their wellbeing. I spent weeks writing all these obscure clues based on birds and stories from the area, which lured hundreds of people out into the Australian bush on launch day, and reached almost four million over the campaign. In fact, organic reach on Kathmandu’s socials got so out of control that they decided to turn off their paid spend. It wasn’t anything big-budget or monumental, but it unlocked a whole new career path of experiential thinking and behaviour change work for me. 

LBB> What’s your major goal with your work? What do you want to add to the conversation?

Ruby> In all the art I’m involved in – from music to advertising – I want to add a truth to the conversation. Sometimes that feels like a paradox in our industry but I get most excited about stuff that actually reflects and disrupts the society we’ve made for ourselves; that taps into something essential to shift a behaviour or belief. This kind of work requires a level of humanity and vulnerability everyday that subverts the capitalist façade a bit, but I think when we’re real with each other, we’ll make our best work. Less cotton candy and ego, more “hey, this helped me see things differently,” “this moved me,” and “that’s so true.” 

LBB> What’s the big debate in your specialism?

Ruby> I don’t think there’s enough debate about how homogenous Australia’s advertising industry is – and maybe this is true for other countries too. 75% of professionals are men, 85% are white, and most are well-off. This does not reflect the real Australia, and it's not who we're advertising to. If we want to make work that real communities will choose to engage with, we have to ask why their perspectives aren’t in the room. Our industry cannot be a private school arts and crafts club. 

LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay fresh?

Ruby> I am an obsessive birdwatcher. Sometimes it’s more dirty and intense than fresh and relaxing, but it connects me to this planet we’re a part of, grounds me in the land I’m standing on, and waves off any nihilism that creeps in. And as they say in latin, solvitur ambulando - it is solved by walking. 

There is also so much we can learn from bird languages, societies, strength and joy. Did you know Stellar’s Jays sing to themselves under their breath? That kind of quiet art for our own nervous system’s sake is a profound reminder of the power of making things from a pure place. 

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Keep Left, Wed, 01 Feb 2023 06:53:24 GMT