My life has been shaped by madness. Not a stare-blankly-and-dribble type of madness. More a refuse-to-be-bounded-by-convention madness. It’s why I walked away from a possible career in law, sashayed into the semi-finals of Miss South Africa, and tried my hand at selling luxury cars. The next step in madness was obvious: start my own advertising agency. I had R1 500 in my pocket, a rickety car that wouldn’t reverse, and a baby on the way! Hence the name MadWorld.
It was perhaps the madness that made me think cold canvassing companies would give me a direct line to the decision-makers and land me those accounts. Of course their PAs blocked me from every angle. I needed muscle. More importantly I needed muscle that shared my madness. Oh yes, and they had to be cheap.
I reached out and grabbed the one name that stood out: my brother Solomon. He had just returned from abroad, was in the market and immediately agreed to join me. Of course he did – I led him to believe that I had a booming agency with a hefty salary awaiting him. We worked long hours, drawing no salaries; success was imminent.
It wasn’t. For the next year, we barely scraped by. The occasional bread and butter business came our way, putting food on our plates. We moved office to a desolate building and filled it with a single computer and wall-to-wall wild ideas.
One of those ideas was a rock ’n roll anchor client – someone with so much gravitas that others would feel the pull of our vision and join the creative madness. I scribbled a wish list with one name above all, someone who held my deep respect as a business leader: Whitey Basson – CEO of Shoprite Holdings Ltd, the largest food retailer in Africa.
I remember thinking I’d give an arm and leg to help steer his creative vision, so the best way to make that clear was to give him exactly that: one arm and a leg. Not mine of course; I reckoned I would need them. Instead I packed the arm and a leg of a mannequin in a beautifully wrapped box with a letter stating “Dear Mr. Basson, I would give an arm and a leg for a moment of your time”.
I made sure it was assembled to perfection and had it delivered to the Shoprite head office, marked for his attention. I then waited confidently for the phone to ring. It didn’t. Weeks went by. I considered revisiting my list – to send the same package idea to the next big name. But no; I intuitively believed my idea – mad as it may appear – would work.
I didn’t get a call. I got something else – a big cardboard box. It was from Whitey Basson. I was intrigued, but only until I had ripped it open; because there inside was the bust of a mannequin, together with a letter addressed to me. “Thank you for the arm and the leg, but you have forgotten the most important part of the body, the heart!” It went on to say that he was eagerly awaiting the rest of the body of my proposal. It was signed: “Yours faithfully, Mr. Basson”! The little girl in me wanted to shriek with joy, but I was a newly-arrived advertising executive, so I simply beamed with Cheshire-cat like satisfaction.
Solomon and I started brainstorming. The wild ideas went into overdrive, but still remained on track with the original storyline. We decided to body-paint our creative ideas onto a slender lady and have her hide inside a coffin which we would then send back to Shoprite. The coffin missed Whitey Basson and arrived on the desk of Brian Weyers, Shoprite’s then director of marketing. Out jumped the body-painted lady, who then slowly turned, allowing him to read our ideas.
Did that land us the account? No. However it did earn us a call from a bemused Brian informing us the business was out to pitch and we should have a go. We were given just a few days to prepare our presentation and were up against SA’s top agencies. That was the least of our worries; we had no money. What I didn’t know was that a few months earlier Solomon had applied for an overdraft facility, without a shred of surety. An administrative apparently error ticked the box, and the overdraft was approved and the money committed before the fault was discovered.
Flush with cash we didn’t have, we hand-picked key staff, fired-up new computers and worked flat-out for three days! Pitch day was pure creative bedlam: A topless bus branded “Shoprite moving into Africa!” – with Mandoza’s Nkalakatha blaring from the speakers and our team dressed to the nines – bursting into the Shoprite head office car park, with a number of toyi-toying ‘mammas’ holding placards announcing: WE WANT THE SHOPRITE ACCOUNT! One of Shoprite’s founders – Barney Rogut – called the HR manager panicking that people were striking in the parking lot!
Our pitch rolled out of the bus and into their offices. It had all the bells and whistles, complete with lighting and even a smoke machine. The opening scene had a dancer pretending that she was going to perform a strip act, only to peel off her coat, and expose a bold message on her clothed derriere: “SHOPRITE IS GOING TO KICK ASS…!”
I think we had their attention. So, I got up to speak; but due to nerves and sheer exhaustion, I couldn’t utter a word. All I managed was, “Ladies and Gentleman may I introduce my brother, Solomon, who will present the strategy!” Not a particularly good move, as all the creative ideas were buzzing around in my head! But a true partnership is more than the sum of its parts; it’s a shared energy that allows any dropped insights and ideas to be caught, collected and delivered without pause. Bold and resolute, Solomon addressed the panel with aplomb, even popping out an inspired creative or two!
So, did it work? Well, no more boxes arrived. Just a call from from Maryke Visser – Shoprite’s PR and CSI director – with our first brief. Thank you Whitey! Hello… MadWorld!
The journey has been tough and I have made countless mistakes, but I have also enjoyed attracting some of the greatest minds in advertising, all willing to be part of my MadWorld.
This is the first column by Adelaide Potgieter looking at the ‘mad world’ of advertising. Follow on Twitter @MadAdvertising.
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