I DON'T KNOW IF IT WAS THE SHOCK OF REALIZING I'D come upon my 10th year of hawking consumer goods or whether I was just burnt from an arduous year at Chiat/Day in New York (probably a combination of both), but when the opportunity presented itself in January '94 to work halfway around the world in New Zealand, my answer was probably something like "Uh, gimme a second, yes!"
I had just finished freelancing on New York Lotto when I got a call from Rick Slovit, a former Chiat co-worker, who had transferred to Mojo/New Zealand (formerly Chiat/Day/Mojo). He was now the managing director of the Auckland office and was looking for some international "infusion." As is the case with most geographically challenged Americans, New Zealand existed for me as a question mark, shaped by a vague notion of rolling, green hills, lots of sheep and trout fishing. And, since "The Piano" had just been released, I was able to add to my list something else: mud.
Anyway, I like all those things, and was certain they were sure to provide relief from smelly New York. I really had no idea what they'd make of me down there, or how my slightly twisted style of work would be received, but I think it's important to put yourself in situations that you're totally unprepared for every now and then, so this Kiwi deal sounded perfect.
The original plan was to go down, work for three months, and, if we all got along and avoided any international incidents, I'd hang around. The agency provided an apartment as part of my salary and made all the arrangements for my relocation. So after approximately 20 hours of breathing recycled oxygen and locking my tray table in its upright position, I was officially in the Southern Hemisphere. My first priority was to flush a toilet in order to confirm what I had heard about the water going down in the opposite direction (ask someone smart about the physics). The answer is yes, it does.
My first impression of Auckland caused some concern. I worried that I had relocated to the Minneapolis of the South Pacific; everyone was too clean, too caucasian and too calm. Fortunately, this first impression was corrected within a few days. Once I got my bearings the place began to reveal more texture. The New Zealand culture is an interesting mix of Maori and British influences. As for the physical lay of the land, the only description I can come up with right now is a beautiful combination of Scotland, Tahiti and Montana (geologists should pause here for a spit-take). Basically it's an amazing place, which I quickly bonded with, enough to extend my stay to eight months.
So, the setting was great; now there was that whole work thing that I went down there for. To put into perspective the environment of the New Zealand advertising industry, you have to understand a bit about the national economy, most of all that it's small. The country's entire population is one-third the population of New York City, so obviously the advertising industry deals with some very real limitations: small accounts, smaller budgets, often shorter deadlines, usually all negatives. But the flip side of the situation is that all of these factors combined make for a more spontaneous environment. Less turnaround time means less second guessing, so all those great topical, quirky ads we love stand a much better chance of getting produced. Also, as we all know, smaller production budgets usually mean less blue light, smoke machines and fisheye lenses, and more concept. A good deal of the work takes on a more low-tech sensibility, which to me is a very modern approach.
An example was a great little campaign created by a team I worked with at Mojo, for potato chips. It was a wordless, animated series that was virtually "homemade," written in a few days and animated by the art director, all of which gave it a fresh personality that's often lacking in typically overproduced work. The agency also produced a snack food campaign that was so beautifully bizarre it would never even have gotten near the client in the U.S. Picture giraffes with human heads grazing the treetops, where the snacks grow as if they were crunchy leaves.
The great thing about New Zealand advertising is that, while the industry itself is small, the thinking isn't. The number of talented people I worked, with in all areas, from planning to final production, was much higher than I'd anticipated. One question I had about going down there was how the style of my work would fit with the agency's. Fortunately, the transition couldn't have been smoother. In fact, I even had a few advantages, probably because I was seen as a "proven American creative." Both the agency and its clients usually gave me the benefit of the doubt, going along with ideas they weren't necessarily sure of. This was both encouraging and terrifying, especially since one of my campaigns, if executed wrong, could have turned into a real dog. Another, for a beer, would be pretty tough to screw up conceptually, but the film had to be beautiful. Fortunately I was happy with the way both turned out. At the end of the eight month period I had produced two TV campaigns and a couple of print pieces that I consider bookable, so the whole deal proved pretty fruitful.
As for the atmosphere within the agency, in addition to all the good things mentioned above the people were ridiculously easy to be around. Within a few days of meeting my co-workers I was fishing in Auckland Harbor with them (always a good sign). The Kiwis are an interesting lot; all the generalized descriptions you find in tourist guides of friendly, laid-back, salt-of-the-earth types are pretty accurate. What the guide books leave out, as I happily discovered, was the abundance of what I affectionately called freaks, whom I quickly adopted as friends.
In addition, half the creative department at Mojo were cast members of a brilliantly idiotic TV show called "Box Dog," a combination of MTV and "Saturday Night Live" combining an off-the-wall attitude with sketch humor. I became a regular guest, known as the American. By the end of my stay I had become a micro-celebrity, with people actually recognizing me in bars and grocery stores. Go figure.
Idon't know how many Kiwis would agree with me, but our cultures seem to have a lot in common. Of course, the differences can also be pretty staggering at times. This was made painfully clear by some of our fine television exports. Imagine my relief at being able to tune into "Oprah" and the always tasteful "Hard Copy" down there. It was strangely disconcerting to observe the high drama of our court cases and the goings-on of those nutty skating gals from a distant hemisphere.
New Zealand felt to me like a young, unspoiled America. It is absolutely beautiful, full of adventure and great people. The whole South Island is basically "extreme land," kind of like a Mountain Dew spot without all the goatees and piercings. I explored the great outdoors in just about every way possible: scuba diving, white water rafting, bungee jumping, heli-skiing, etc. The beach where the opening scenes of "The Piano" were shot was about a 40-minute drive from my apartment. It was endless and beautiful and nearly devoid of people.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed-but then, how could I miss one