Brian Searle-Tripp (1995)

One of the biggest movie commercials Brian Searle-Tripp did in the 1980s was for Old Mutual, a 90-second wildlife blockbuster, a visual metaphor of life and death in violent Africa.

He was at his imperious best, orchestrating a taut integration of vivid images and sound. At the end came the message: ‘Life is the greatest gift of all, but every person on this planet gets just one life. We’d like to help you make the most of your life, every step of the way.’

People jammed the lines to their brokers; the brokers cried all the way to the bank.

The voluptuousness seems a little overcooked now, a bit like reading Steinbeck, but it was great for Old Mutual, giving the dry business of life assurance a warm and beating heart. It is vintage Searle-Tripp, but there is an irony. He has had not one life but two, both in advertising, first as creator, then as a teacher.

When Searle-Tripp quit in 1993 it was because of burnout. His doctor said if he wanted to continue he should attend diligently to his insurance portfolio. “l was a workaholic,” he confesses. “I’d been flat out for 20 years.”

When his partners at 0gilvy & Mather Rightford Searle-Tripp and Makin asked his plans he told them he intended to pass on the creative torch. He would teach.

“Someone said: ‘Why don’t we start a school? So Allan Raaff said: ‘You can’t do that on your own Brian, I’m coming with you’.”

With that the curtain rang down on one career and rose on another. Cape Town’s Red & Yellow School of Logic & Magic opened in 1994 with Messers, Searle-Tripp and Raaff the passionate pedagogues in jeans.

Passionate? Many people say so. “Brian has this beautiful voice,” recalls Velocity’s Keith Rose who directed some of the great VW ads. “He could pick up a dirty ashtray and in speaking about it make you believe it was something special.”

Searle-Tripp says that within a year he was “whole again. I felt liberated, rejuvenated.”

His speech is cluttered with phrases like that, the Rhema language of that rare creature, the reborn advertising man.

It finds an echo in a tribute paid by O&M’s chairman Robyn Putter. “Brian was always the spiritual leader of our company,” he said. “He has such amazing values as a man, as a person, that when you work under him you are not only going to know more about advertising but about life. He’s got a work ethic, is inspirational and understands how to touch and move people – how to take advertising beyond itself so that it becomes part of the fabric of society.”

Bob Rightford is more prosaic: “Brian as a person? Why, he drinks, bonks and swears a lot.” But the man jests. “He’s probably the most dedicated and honest creative that I ever worked with,” says Rightford. “His responsibility was to the brand. He was never in it for an ego massage. There is very, little ego with Brian. He was totally dedicated to moving the brand along and to designing advertising of which the agency, the client and he himself could be very proud.”

Searle-Tripp was schooled at Kingswood in Grahamstown and studied graphic design in Johannesburg and London where he began his career. He spent years shuttling between London and Cape Town where he met Rightford and copywriter Roger Makin. They teamed up in 1975. When they sold a 40 percent stake to 0&M a decade later they had a reputation as the most brilliant and dynamic of the maverick agencies based, for reasons obscure to Vaalies, in the Cape. Memorable campaigns Searle-Tripp helped drive included All Gold, Fattis & Monis, Carling Black Label and Lion Match, the agency’s first piece of new business, a flame-clear image of a match as a friend.

He is ambivalent about it now: “When you look back it was completely misdirected. lt was a fantastic campaign, but it was a white campaign, something to look back on with shame really. Why? Because we were all such arseholes. lt was a black product, this friendly little chap.” A pause: “We did wonderful print ads.”

Searle Tripp’s defining work was for Volkswagen. The agency landed the account in 1979 when the motor manufacturer was in the doldrums. Within a few years its market share had more than doubled to 21 percent. There was, he says, “great chemistry” with VW s executives who even got the agency to gee-up workers on the factory floor. Memorable ads like The Right Stuff, a spoof of the gung-ho Chuck Yeager spirit, fitted the Golf like a condom.

“Brian did amazing work for VW,” says Rightford. “He actually wrote the spirit of the brand, just as Bill Bernbach did in New York in building the ‘Spirit of the Beetle’. Brian took it to a new level, the VW family, in which everybody – manufacturers, workers, dealers and owners – was involved. Everybody contributed to the maintenance of the brand. Brian I think (did) more than anyone outside of Bernbach in building the brand.”

Bernbach is one of Searle-Tripp’s heroes, the others being Horatio Nelson and Nelson Mandela. He volunteered lists about himself. His interests include: people, dogs (but not Yorkies), lighthouses, the Royal Navy, most things nautical (he lives at Simonstown but doesn’t sail), non-fiction and classic Jaguar cars (he owns a 1965 E-Type). He dislikes: smutty advertising, corruption, toadies, politicians, political correctness, hypocrisy and American pop culture. He respects: people with courage, a strong work ethic, women, good writers and submariners. His biggest disillusionments include John F Kennedy, South Africa’s new democracy and the decline in western moral values.

Sound familiar? The reincarnation of that curmudgeonly Tory, your old school headmaster? But that’s not him at all, says Keith Rose. lt’s just that he’s passionate and committed, sees things in black and white. “He loves Elvis Pressley, hates hip-hop or rap – and I love that. He’s not conventional but rather an unusual guy with some interesting likes and dislikes.” A famously direct man Rose, hesitates before uttering treason: “I shouldn’t say this. Creatively he wouldn’t crack it in advertising now. Brian never wanted to change with the times. lf l look at his stuff it still looks okay but it feels old. In advertising you’ve got to shed old skin like a snake.”

Searle-Tripp maintains he’s still shedding skin.

Here’s Rightford on smutty advertising: “David Ogilvy always said: ‘Never produce or run an ad that you would be ashamed to show your family’.” Long before David said that l think Brian accepted those principles.

“He’s a brilliant man and a very nice one, as all the youngsters who trained under him will attest. He has produced some of the most amazing people in the industry and many have carried his ethics and commitment with them.”

Not content with two lives in advertising it seems Searle-Tripp has surrogates for several more.

By Bill Krige