Alan Bunton (2002)

For many creative people life can resolve, as it did for Alan Bunton, around the conflict between wanting to produce their own work and needing to make money.

Twice Bunton broke a career in advertising – first for five years and then for three – to paint and to write. Each retreat ended with him being persuaded to come back into the agency pressure-cooker where he rebuilt a brilliant reputation.

In 2002 Bunton turned 60 and made the event a milestone. He sounded the retreat once more, retiring as chairman of O&M and resolving henceforth to paint in the mornings when Pretoria’s light is lambent, and write in the afternoons when his eyes got tired.

But this time Bunton, mellower perhaps, would not make a clean break. He directs commercial films of his choosing, giving himself greater control over their shape. In a sense he has turned his back on the collaboration of agency work – yet, paradoxically, it is precisely the sparking of quick collaborative minds and the wrestling with a blank sheet of paper, that he misses most. It’s just, he says, that the process carries too much baggage.

Bunton is not a man of contradictions. He was tutored in art at Pretoria Boys High by Walter Battiss and Larry Scully, free spirits who would shape his thinking, as they did another Hall of Fame inductee, Willie Sonnenberg. Bunton’s father wanted him to be an accountant. “He would say that with extra lessons even a baboon would get 10 percent,” the son recalls ruefully. “But I was averaging just seven percent, so that was that.”

He enrolled for a year at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp, Belgium, where he met his wife, Marijke, and revisited the unpromising issue of making a living through art. The notion of a bedsitter-studio, baguettes and a bicycle had scant appeal. The alternative was commercial art. He would give it a try. His first jobs in South Africa were in printing and packaging. For three tough years he freelanced to agencies before getting a break, as a designer at P N Barrett, the hot shop of the day.

Bunton was a gopher, doing anything and doing it well. His work began to be noticed and he was offered a job at another agency.

“In those days (the late 1960s) advertising was an old boys club run by suits,” he recalls. “Creatives didn’t meet directly with clients.” That was about to change. Dismayed at the prospect of losing Bunton’s skills, a client, the National Growth Fund (NGF) made a counter offer. It had clients with advertising needs. Damelin and Honeywell among them.

Bunton signed on, bringing with him the rich talents of Johan Hoekstra, Owen Mundel and Ian Blake. But the stock market crashed. Budgets tightened and the NGF’s marketing director, Darryl Phillips, touted the idea of forming an agency. The NGF waved them goodbye and Phillips, Bunton, Mundel & Blake was launched into rough waters.

Surprisingly it floated. The agency devised work systems that were brutally efficient. Jobs were costed to such tight margins that deadlines could not be missed. Jobs were given first to the most junior (and dispensable) staff. It was their chance to shine or, in Bunton’s euphemism, “evaporate.” lf they failed the work went to a senior creative with less time and more pressure to produce. It was ruthless and the camaraderie of the survivors was memorable. The agency built a reputation in retail, churning out an ad a day for clients such as Solly Kramer and Burmeisters camera shops.

“We grew rapidly and made money,” says Bunton. “We didn’t want to come across as a bunch of creative hippies so we dressed in dark suits, drove expensive cars and became very stylish. It was showmanship, but only in a way, because the work had to speak for itself. We were all in our twenties and when we rocked up in Saville Row gear and a Ferrari, clients were impressed. They saw us as problem solvers.” They were parodied by rivals: Fumble, Bumble, Mumble and Stumble, was a favourite, but Bunton & Co didn’t give a damn. People loved their wacky approach. They had arrived and everyone knew it.

Bunton then did something unheard of. He wrote, as he terms it, “begging letters” to the finest creatives in the United States seeking an audience. Every single one replied and extended an invitation.

It was a turning point and in New York’s quiet, unassuming Bill Bernbach, writer of the brand for Volkswagen, he found the single most important influence on his career.

Bunton returned to South Africa and built great brands, BMW among them. As the agency grew so did its ambitions. Reaching to break into the international client league, Bunton and Phillips flew to New York and did a deal with Grey Advertising.

“Why not with Bernbach? Because he was creative, we were creative where’s the advantage to either? We thought that Grey with its formidable research facilities would offer us an immediate advantage. And we as a hot, exotic agency would be a nice jewel in their crown.”

He was quickly disillusioned. Instead of going forward he was back at the start line. “It was stifling, with endless debates and research. We were a postbox. The real work was done in New York.”

In the end he did what Bernbach had previously done, he quit Grey. With their baby son the Buntons moved to a bushveld farm in remotest Limpopo (near the Moepelberge and a town named Beauty) and for five years led an idyllic existence painting, writing and savouring life without rules, deadlines or compromise, until young Stuart had to go to school.

So it was back to Johannesburg and Grey-Phillips, Bunton, Mundel & Blake, already the nation’s colossus. He wore hats as the group managing and group creative director. The reunion eventually failed and in the mid-1980s he quit, this time for good.

After three years in the wilderness (which is where he chose to be) advertising intruded in the formidable form of Robyn Putter whose strong ideas on branding coincided with his own. Bunton joined O&M as the 1980s wound down. He moved to Los Angeles for a while, returning to Johannesburg at the close of the millennium. A final spurt at O&M preceded a decision to indulge his first and truest love, fine art.

Bunton did great work on ads which remain memorable: Epol, Nedbank, John Player Special (JPS), BMW, Sun City and many others. Remember the line: Own the Night, and the extraordinary visuals of ordinary people transformed by darkness? It was for JPS a moment of inspiration as he gazed onto the freeway from his Killarney office and saw how night lent drama and purpose to the mundane.

He conceptualised it in Afrikaans: Begeer die Nag (Desire the Night) and he remembers it with affection because Rauch van Reenen, brand marketing manager of United Tobacco, was a rare bird, a suit whom Bunton calls “a patron of advertising,” someone willing to trust what he didn’t fully comprehend. He recalls trying (and failing) to explain a tricky visual concept to the UTC team round a boardroom table. Finally he stumbled, bumbled, mumbled and fumbled to a stop and Van Reenen looked up blankly and said: “Pellie, ek verstaan maar fokol, maar dit klink bedornered!” lf only all collaboration was that simple.

When Bunton was inducted into the CDF Hall of Fame Robyn Putter credited the agency Bunton founded with “starting the creative revolution in this country and proving to clients that great work works …. I know of no person anywhere in the world who has such a complete set of skills.”

Bunton, Putter said, was the man “who broke down the gate.” He should have been the first to be honoured this way.

Interviewed by Bill Krige