Author, speaker and creativity consultant
Author, speaker and creativity consultant
Education: Estcourt High School
University of KwaZulu-Natal – Bachelor of Arts
Since March 2013: Creativity Consultant
Dec 2011 — Feb 2013: Managing Director, CDM London
Feb 2011 — Dec 2011: Creative Director, CDM London
1985 — 2004: Global Creative Director, JWT
What was your career in?
I spent most of my career in advertising. I worked for JWT initially in Johannesburg. In 1994 I decided I wanted to get out of South Africa, I just wanted different experience. And I got a transfer to Mexico City.
How do you remember Mexico?
Mexico is mad, fantastic, and completely surreal. People live in a dream world. It was a wild and crazy time, and very influential too. Because, as South Africans, our references are very much limited to either American or UK culture. When I was growing up I always had a sense that I was completely cut off from everything.
Why did you feel cut off?
I spent my childhood in Estcourt, which is probably as far as you can get from cultural events of the world, as is physically possible. You get more culture in the Karoo. Estcourt was like a black hole.
And then you moved away to go to university?
[The University of KwaZulu-Natal] was a good university. All professors were from Oxford, Cambridge — they were relicts from the past. You felt as though you were getting the nineteenth century directly from the source. I loved that.
What did you study?
English and Psychology. No one knew what they wanted to do in those days. I ended up working at the SABC. Because I had a scholarship from them to get through university, I had to work for them for three years.
What did you do at the SABC?
Initially I was as a sub-editor on radio. This was a really interesting time because television was just being introduced in 1977. I went on to work in the TV newsroom from its very first day.
What did TV news-making look like in South Africa in that era?
Of course no one knew how to do television news at that time. Everyone was just kind of making it up. They had imported Australians to run it. Australians believed that everything that was news was very visual and exciting. That happened just after the riots, when the townships were still in flames, and it made really good visual news, so we were putting it on TV. It took them about a year to figure out that it wasn’t doing anyone any good.
What did you get out of that experience?
It was very formative. That’s when I became interested in media — what media does, what media says. In cultural communication in general, and how we believe in what we see. We have such a limited sense of what’s available to us, because our conception of the world is so narrow, defined by the culture that we get exposed to — the visuals, the sounds. And obviously that was a corrupt, distorted, terrible time.
How did that ‘distorted system’ work?
Every morning when we got to work, we had to check a blue book. That blue book was full of updates on the things that you couldn’t say and names that you couldn’t mention. Awful time. Steve Biko never made it to the news. I couldn’t mention his name.
How did you feel in that situation?
It was very ambivalent. I was in two completely different worlds. I was in a world of the authoritarian establishment, this evil fascist empire — that’s what I was doing it for my day job. And at night we were helping people to get across the border. It was completely weird. Very disturbing.
Then you worked for JWT in London?
I was worldwide creative director of the De Beers business. I was going around the world doing diamond advertising. It was strange as well because it had a weird South African connection. But it was a fantastic time — creating marvellous, beautiful black and white fantasies of love and romance. Eventually, I became a creative director of JWT Europe. I had 54 offices to look after and a whole bunch of huge multinational accounts like Kellogg’s and Vodafone. It was massive. It was out of control.
When did you leave?
I left in 2004, when digital was becoming a really big thing. I was regarded as an old-fashioned, television guy. And I was sidelined, because no one wanted TV anymore, everyone wanted digital.
Is digital a good thing?
The great thing is that everyone is a publisher. It’s the greatest cultural invention of all time — from a production point of view. But, from a consumption point of view it’s a swamp.
How do you perceive the landscape of digital change?
I think things have kind of settled down. That’s what happens when a new medium is invented. The first thing — everybody buys the hardware. When radio was invented, everyone had to buy a radio. Money was in the production of radios. Second thing is the consolidation of channels. Now you have Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other channels emerging — that’s the second phase. The third phase is the content. Once the channels have established themselves, then it will be about content again. And that’s when we’ll be able to engage with the Internet as a proper cultural medium.
What are you interested in at the moment?
A big obsession of mine is what do we pay attention to? Why do we pay attention to some things and not to others? Where do you experience that sense of awe in a cultural artefact? When it’s produced by someone brilliant, original, working outside of the conventions — that’s when we are surprised, that’s what excites us.
Gordon’s latest book, Managing Creative People: Lessons for Leadership in the Ideas Economy, is available on Amazon.
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