John Hunt On The Spot

TBWA’s soft-spoken worldwide cd recently cut short his two-year tenure in New York to return to his native South Africa. Hunt, 50, is now dividing his time between network HQ and Johannesburg, where he founded TBWA Hunt Lascaris in 1983. With Brett Gosper now heading TBWA’s New York Group, Hunt says he’ll have more time to focus on his global duties—and more room to roam. “I had been a little New York bound,” he explains. Here he talks about his big judging gig at Cannes next year, why he left New York, working with Nelson Mandela and why advertising is Darwinian.

You’re serving as president of the 2005 Film and Press & Outdoor juries at Cannes. Why did the job appeal to you?

Terry Savage, CEO of the festival, agreed to make free beer available to us through the two weeks of judging. … I haven’t judged award shows in a while. It’s time consuming, but Cannes is the most global. It’s a window of the world for me. Everyone enters from all corners of the earth.

How will you approach the judging?

The chairman sets a tone, tries to keep a high bar. For me, it’s very simple. Is [the work] relevant? Is it unexpectedly so?

Why move back to South Africa?

The geography has changed, not the job. It’s business as normal, but my miles will increase substantially. … That was the deal up front—two years [in the U.S.]. We’ve reset it a little to now. The original plan was [next] June. We’re a democratic family. Everyone enjoyed America, but our school year starts in January.

What was the biggest challenge in moving to New York?

Probably having had 20 years at Hunt Lascaris, where the culture is kind of your own. You are, with your partners, the culture. It’s a little more corporate [at TBWA]. The first six months was learning. We all adapt and get through—this is how it works. But I was spoiled. You know, I had the same assistant in South Africa for 15 years.

How is the Hunt Lascaris culture different from the culture of TBWA?

It’s got a lot to do with the size and budgets of America. In South Africa, we go crazier. It’s more spontaneous. We’re almost bred to do a shortcut, you know? Here, it’s a little more step one, step two, step three. Which has a good and a bad side to it.

How did you get into advertising?

It was deeply planned, very strategic. None of the above. I had written a few [newspaper] articles. And my then-girlfriend’s mother’s sister gave me back my own article and said I should read it—”This is quite good.” I said, “Well, ha, ha, I wrote it.” She was a copywriter. And she said, “You should think about advertising.”

If you weren’t in advertising, what would you be doing?

Writing. I’ve written a couple of plays and books, so I’ve had a bit of a parallel career. [Hunt won a Playwright of the Year award in South Africa for an anti-censorship drama.] I haven’t been able to do [much writing] in New York, because it’s been too crazy.

Who has most influenced your career?

Besides my own mother and father, it was Nelson Mandela. [Mandela’s African National Congress was a Hunt Lascaris client.] We met him six months after he’d been in prison for 28 years and just no bitterness, no anything. He would be in meetings with the ANC, and he’d keep saying, “I think you are referring to the past. Let’s turn our mind to the future.” Normally those people are such big cult figures, you think when you meet them it will only be a disappointment. Exact opposite. Having spent time with him really affected me as a person.

What did you learn from him?

Humility was the first. Also, he has a wonderful way of making anyone comfortable—he generally saw everyone as an equal. And he was so good at making a complicated thing simple. Cutting to the essence. And in a funny way, if ever there had to be a purpose behind advertising, it should be making the complicated things simple.

What’s the last ad that you made you think, “I wish I’d done that”?

It sounds self-serving, but the Adidas spot that Chuck [McBride] did out of San Francisco—[Kevin Garnett] carrying the whole world in his hands. I like the ads that make you feel happy to be in advertising.

What work are you most proud of?

Well, there’s two. All the BMW stuff [we did] for 12 years. We won every award under the sun, and to this day BMW South Africa has the highest market share in the world. Then it was working on the ANC, the first democratic election, doing the constitution, the huge, controversial AIDS campaign, where we took a lot of flack. The extreme right wing was threatening to bomb the agency, and my phones were tapped. But it wasn’t about the ads. [The work used apartheid signage to show that South Africa’s new struggle was to treat people with AIDS fairly.] You felt you were going to change the course of history. I think agency people can be involved in a sort of greater good.

You have a board in your office. Do you surf?

Lee [Clow] gave me that. I guess he thought, “South African beach boy,” and I had to tell him Johannesburg is 600 kilometers from the sea. It still has pride of place, but you won’t find foot marks on there.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in the business?

Persistence. Advertising is Darwinian. You just gotta keep on believing and doing.