Willie Sonnenberg (1998)

Willie Sonnenberg has a video tape, a valedictory from friends, foes and colleagues compiled to mark his exit from the industry in February, 2000.

It’s revealing in its way, even though valedictions inevitably lean towards the good and away from the bad and the ugly.

“Forthright, honest, a man of integrity,” said Bob Rightford in a generous tribute. “The quality of his work is wonderful stuff,” said Brian Searle-Tripp.

John Hunt salvages some awkward banter between himself and Reg Lascaris with a short summation. He would remember Sonnenberg, he said, for his “laid back integrity.”

Sonnenberg left at his creative peak, having been chairman and creative director at Sonnenberg, Murphy, Leo Burnett and its immediate predecessors for 17 years. Under his stewardship – and he pioneered a trend of creatives running the show – the agency enjoyed enormous growth. He has no urge to return.

“I don’t much think about advertising anymore. My memory of it has just about gone,” he said in an interview. “Why? I dunno. I’ve a philosophy that you don’t live in the past. It’s meaningless now.”

Here is the forthrightness noted by Rightford, and an indication too of a characteristic which helped make him such an exceptional advertising figure – an ability to focus on the moment and to give it his all.

He is best remembered for a formidable body of creative work done in collaboration with Terry Murphy, a diffident Englishman who came to South Africa in the 1960s to play soccer and who was admitted with Sonnenberg to the Hall of Fame in 1998.

Between them they won everything in sight in an extended and brilliant heyday from the early 1980s to the mid 90s. It included 22 Loerie Grand Prixs and, in 1990, gold at Cannes, the first South African work to be honoured this way. That was for their Mercedes Benz ad on the safest way to plunge off Chapman’s Peak. Looking at it a decade later it exemplifies key trademarks of their creative talents: simplicity of concept, a tight focus and delivery on brand. They took the Mercedes’ boast of product safety, found an extreme real-life example which bore it out and replicated it. The result was a winner worldwide.

The fundamentals are again evident in their ‘rooftop’ ad for Continental Tyres, a car driven at pace high above the mean streets of Johannesburg. Again safety and engineering weighted the brand.

In the torrid engine room of client relations Mercedes was a tough nut. Management had never dreamed of showing a crashed Mercedes Benz. Sonnenberg showed how to make a virtue out of just such a calamity. He phoned the Chapman’s Peak idea to Mercedes’ marketing director Peter Cleary who asked Sonnenberg what he thought. “I said it was a good ad but there was a downside danger,” Sonnenberg said straight faced. “But that if it was my money I’d go for it.” And he did. It takes a brave client to show such confidence in an agency.

Unsurprisingly Cleary tops the pops as the best client he worked with.

But Continental gave him a rough ride. Even now he bristles. “We had a helluva business getting that advert through. Eventually we reached a point where we could have parted company because I dug my heels in. They wanted schmaltzy ‘sweet-cam’ vignettes with daddy coming home safely and daughter running down the driveway. I said: “Everyone is doing it. Why the fuck do you want to be doing it? How are you going to stand out? How’s your sweet-cam going to be different from theirs?’ It took us about four months to get the idea through.”

His tenacity in defence of a good idea paid off in spades for Continental which went from obscurity to market leader in three years. And they never said thanks.

Sonnenberg went from Pretoria Boys High to art school prior to joining Adverto, a forerunner of Leo Burnett. He left for J Walter Thompson, had a spell running his own outfit and then in 1978 rejoined Adverto’s successor, Darcy MacManus Masius.

Of his collaboration with Murphy he says: “We had overlapping strengths. Terry was a copywriter and I an art director. We worked well together because we weren’t neurotic about ideas. We were fortunate in that we were able to recognise a good idea and whoever had it the other would throw his weight behind it. It never degenerated into an ego struggle in a business which has massive egos.”

Murphy is unstinting in his praise: “l have absolutely no doubt that Willie was the best creative person in advertising in this country,” he said. “In all the time that we were together he was the most outstanding creative person, quite apart from the fact that he was the chairman. He still churned out ideas. He was a terrific businessman as it turned out, much to my surprise, but he was happiest creating ads.”

They produced great work, from Honda Ballade showing up the opposition as dinosaurs, to Plascon’s sun-weathered dolly who neglected to apply Woodguard, to Middelburg Steel and a game of ice hockey with a stainless steel saucepan as a puck. Asked to recall a favourite and he opts, perhaps surprisingly, for a print ad for Interflora. It had photographs of a gift, a card and a bunch of flowers. Under the gift was the tag: ‘Make her Smile’, under the card: ‘Make her Laugh’, and under the flowers: ‘Make her Cry’. Simplicity itself and done without Murphy’s input.

Sonnenberg was the FM’s inaugural Advertising Person of the Year and, in 1988 when the country was burning, the first South African to judge at Cannes. The previous year the American chairman of the judging panel declared he would automatically give nought to any SA entry.

What does he think of local advertising today? Not much, but he concedes he rarely looks anymore.

“I think by definition all advertising is supposed to do some kind of selling or influencing job, to change behaviour. I find a lot of ads don’t do anything. First of all I battle to understand them. And they don’t really sell the product or service. Maybe that’s where advertising is wrong. Or maybe it does work, but it doesn’t work for me.”

At school Sonnenberg was tutored by art masters Walter Battiss and Larry Scully. They encouraged him to paint and that is what he is doing now, mostly at his property on the Timbavati. He is also learning to play the piano. In his Johannesburg studio lined with books and memorabilia, Sonnenberg produces a couple of his watercolours, a giraffe (from the neck up) and a tortoise. Background is sparse.

Inevitably one sees the trademarks: simplicity of concept and a tight focus. Could it be he is looking to deliver on brand?

By Bill Krige