John Hunt (1996)

John Hunt collects African art and the reception area at TBWA Hunt Lascaris in Sandton – a concourse of immaculate blondes and dread-locked Nike’d youth – features a wooden drum big enough to boil a missionary.

The walls, those not clad to the ceiling in undulating neo-shack zinc, are crowded with statuettes and rows of framed certificates, as sombre and regular as a military cemetery. They commemorate global ad-pageant success Just three years worth.

The rest – and Hunt says there are six or seven large crates nailed up somewhere – was cleaned out on his instruction in 1998 when this most innovative of agencies reached the ripe old age of 15 years.

“It had got so bad people battled to get into the boardroom,” he says.

Hunt, and founding partner Reg Lascaris have had an extraordinary run, from presenting to clients from the boot of a Toyota in a hotel parking lot to Advertising Age’s choice as Best International Agency of the Year and to its list of the world’s 10 best agencies in 2000. The accolades are extravagant: South African Agency of the Century, parent of the best local TV ad ever; ditto two of the Top Three; three of the Top 10 and 25 of the Top 100. For years it has led the annual creativity rankings of the creative Directors’ Forum. In 1996 Hunt was admitted to the Hall of Fame. All of this is merely the twist of lemon peel in the Martini. There are literally crates of kudos.

Tall, faintly theatrical and patrician, Hunt seems mildly offended by the glory hype. Ten Cannes Gold Lion statuettes escaped the big clean-out. They make an untidy pride on a shelf next to the VCR in his office, just below snapshots of his kids.

“These are agency awards,” says the man referred to as ‘the guru’ by cinematographer Keith Rose. “Some were mine, but with different degrees of me, as creative director or copywriter. Early in this business I realised it’s not my job to have my name on awards. My job as CD is to make other peop|e great. It’s not about ego.”

Born in Zambia in 1954 and named (his father claimed) for the leader of the first expedition to summit Everest, Hunt was schooled in England and at Parktown Boys High where he received his military callup.

He went to the army. It was a “deep and moving experience,” he says. “I arrived as a candidate officer. Within three months l was a corporal and three months after that a lance corporal. I ended as a rif|eman. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for it, but one never can be sure.”

Next stop, Wits University. He registered one morning and never returned deciding, rightly, that “sowing wild oats rather than Psychology was my proper field of study.”

He freelanced articles, so impressing the sister of a girlfriend that she gave him introductions to people in advertising. He paid for lessons from Dave Said, a doyen of the trade, and eventually got a job at Hands – and fell into the clutches of Reg Lascaris.

Theirs was a long courtship but Lascaris was patient. “In those days l would work for a year and then take off to work on my own,” Hunt recalls. “Doing what? Oh, TV scripts, writing plays, that sort of thing.”

A novel Joker in the Pack, was published, a satire on advertising. It bombed. “l remember my first royalty cheque – for $92 in the days when the rand had parity with the dollar.”

After each creative spurt he would go backpacking, a rough introduction to places in Europe, North America and the Far East. He later knew Business Class.

Finally, Hunt took the plunge. In 1983 Hunt Lascaris opened for business. “That tale of the Toyota? Yeah, it sounds kinda cool. The truth is that we cocked up badly. So much for all our big planning. We did it all, but we didn’t have offices, didn’t think people would want to check our credit or our client base before letting us sign a lease.”

They went virtual, paying a woman at the Carlton Centre to reserve a phone line for Hunt Lascaris and to act as booking agent. The car became their office so when a client insisted on seeing them at their workplace they busked it from the boot.

Their second client was Nashua and they knew they were safe. A bearded Orson Welles mumbled Hunt’s payline about ‘saving you time, saving you money,’ except it wasn’t the Hollywood heavyweight but a South African voiceover. “The perfect Orson Welles ripoff,” recalls Hunt. “We’d use him at Nashua sales conferences, playing pre-recorded stuff like: ‘And now the time has come to announce the sales manager of the year. Will Frikkie de Swardt, of Nelspruit……’ to cries of: ‘Orson, Orson!’ under a huge picture of the man. We were really shameless in those days – and Nashua had one helluva motivated sales force.”

The agency prospered and when it hooked BMW people took notice. The work was brilliant – a mouse turning the steering wheel to show the lightness of power steering; a blob of mercury showing off lines men would love to find on their car – first and sixth respectively on the industry’s list of all-time TV ad greats. The mouse, incidentally, studied at Wits, spending longer there learning life skills than Hunt ever did.

Accounts rolled in: Standard Bank, Cardies, Nandos, which brings out Hunt’s wild and wacky side: “At last some real breasts in Sandton.”

But it was their BMW work which “began to codify more and more what the agency stood for – that if you stand in the middle of the road you get run over both ways. I don’t think the problem is doing ‘bad’ advertising because then you embarrass yourself and vow never to repeat it. lf you do ‘good’ advertising you can always bullshit yourself that it’s not that bad, and you end up mediocre.

“So we have tried – not always succeeded – to deliver in the top echelon of everything we produce: client service, strategy, the works. We make sure that everyone is creative.”

Hunt likes to deal in magic, but does magic make money for clients?

“It’s complete bullshit that a great ad doesn’t support the bottom line,” he responds with asperity. “Would a client really stay if it didn’t work for them? There’d be an obvious disconnect.”

On the way out the corridor is awash with youth. Hunt loves the vitality and energy they bring and sees the agency as a university of sorts. His business card simply says: Chief Coach. A galaxy of classy talent including Gerry Human, Claire Harrison, Mike Schalit and Matthew Bull, owe something to the ethic and drive of, in the words of retired founding partner Jenny Groenewald, “a man of real integrity.”

He banters easily with Reg Lascaris. “From day one we’ve been Yin and Yang,” he said earlier. “Very different, which is maybe why it works. We wander over each others territory – I do client stuff and Reg tries to be creative. And then I smack him. But we’ve been a good team.”

In 1989 Hunt was named South African Playwright of the Year for Vid Alex, a comment on censorship, and he writes now, usually early in the morning before dropping the children at school, and also at weekends.

“Some people play golf,” he says. “Writing gives me a centre. I go to my study, sit quietly and meditate. A novel? I don’t know yet. It’s between categories.”

By Bill Krige