Roger Makin (2002)

Roger Makin has a standard Ogilvy & Mather Rightford Searle-Tripp & Makin business card. Only his job description is Retired Old Fart.

He loves presenting his card, partly because he thinks it’s hilarious, partly because it’s an intellectual shorthand which explains that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, that he is no longer competing in the industry whose local credibility he was hugely instrumental in building, that he’s having a good time.

The card is a masterpiece of copywriting, an appropriate token of South Africa’s pre-eminent pioneering copywriter.

The creative team of copywriter Makin and art director Brian Searle-Tripp is legendary. Searle-Tripp was the first recipient of the CDF Hall of Fame, and in November 2002 Makin was formally inducted by none other than his former partner.

The two first became an item when Makin joined De Villiers and Schonfeldt agency in Cape Town after eight years moving round the country with PN Barrett and a year in England. Bob Rightford was MD and Allan Raaff creative director. Putting the two together was Raaff’s idea – before Brian, Roger was known as the hired gun. He’d move pretty much anywhere for money, although he did have his standards: “There were some creative graveyards to which I’d NEVER have considered moving,” he says.

After Brian, they moved together, and the advertising industry started cooking with gas.

In I976, Rightford, Searle-Tripp and Makin started their own agency.

“When we started in the advertising business we’d get briefs that were hell-of-a brief,” Makin says, sitting in the boardroom of the 0&M, RS-TM offices in Cape Town. “From that you’d have to do an ad, or maybe three if the campaign was running for a year.” He grins, a sly wink at the convoluted marketing machinery that typifies a big agency of today.

“Brian and I got to know strategy as we went, and sometimes we’d send a brief back and say ‘There’s no strategy’.”

In 1979 they got the Volkswagen account and opened in Johannesburg. With Bob Rightford at the helm, Makin and Searle-Tripp delivered the product that set South African advertising on the road to global recognition. Lion matches’ Box of Friends. The Dunlop Dog. Wilkinson Sword’s Duel. Old Mutual’s The Greatest Gift is Life. The talking, eating, drinking, laughing, singing, sharing wine. (Graca.)

Eventually the agency became part of the Ogilvy & Mather international group. It is still acknowledged as being the company which provided the impetus that put South African creativity on the world map. Makin is proud of this, and of his personal achievements, but he isn’t reverent.

“I go into the office every day rather like a Victorian gentleman used to go to his club. I’m attached to this building and my name is still on the door, even though I no longer have shares in the business,” he says of the company premises in Roeland Street, where he has been for 20 years now. “It’s also a useful place to park in town, and there is someone to wash the car,” he adds. “I work a little. lf there’s a retirement annuity campaign Old Mutual will say, ‘Let Roger do it. He should understand the brief.’

“I’m in the studio with a lot of the babies and they ask me how to spell things, or to check their grammar when they’re having an argument. Then they can say ‘Roger says it’s right and he has a degree from Oxford so it must be true’.” And Makin smiles beatifically.

Tolkien was one of his lecturers at Oxford. He likes to detour into anecdote: “Tolkien lectured Middle English. He did Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and he acted out all the parts. Everybody loved it, even the engineering students used to come to Middle English,” Makin reminisces.

He cultivates the image of an old codger but actually, he’s very shrewd. He is very conscious of what the babies are up to and fascinatingly maps the changes that have occurred during the time he has been in the industry.

Perhaps this need to talk to a multi-cultural market has been a primary influence in another change he observes: “l suspect the craft of writing is not as prevalent in advertising as it used to be,” he says. “A hell-of-a-lot comprises a headline and a visual.

“I don’t think the youngsters can write long copy and maybe they don’t have to. Contemporary consumers want information in bites. The creatives have ideas and if they have been to Brian Searle-Tripp’s school they know strategy.”

The most significant change in the tone of advertising in his view is that few commercials tug at the heartstrings any more. “Maybe the Telkom ad with the old man has that quality – I don’t know why Telkom has to advertise but maybe that’s splitting hairs,” he can’t resist adding.

It is relevant that the commercial he refers to won no creative awards at the Loeries. Makin’s point is confirmed in the ads that have won recently. They include the Metro FM commercial that asks what makes you black; Dulux colours; Nashua printers. These are clever concepts and they make you think, but they do not bring prickles to your eyes or raise the hair on the back of your arm.

From a personal creative perspective, Makin says the biggest change is the introduction of computers. “I wish I’d had a computer when I started. I wrote all my copy in pencil. The hardest part is to start. I’d spend hours sharpening my pencil, making coffee … With a computer you have all this start-up rigmarole and before you know it, you’ve started!

“Then you can write a whole lot of rubbish and erase it. Voila!”

He looks as pleased with the notion of erasing his rubbish as if he’d invented the delete button himself. The computer is another reason he keeps his office in town – they keep it running. For the rest, he spends his time at his house in Pringle Bay, on the Cape South Coast.

He has more than one, actually. The houses are to support his book habit. “I have three houses in Pringle Bay and I joke that one of the main reasons I have them is to house my books.”

It is not incidental that the brain that got an agency cooking is highly intellectual. Are copywriters broadening or narrowing their scope as they venture into the tumultuous waters of the emerging markets? Makin’s mind is a wonderful benchmark from which to judge the next generation of South African copywriters