IdeaConference

The Jupiter Drawing Room

By Published on .

If The Jupiter Drawing Room seems like an odd name for South Africa's largest independent ad agency, well, it's even odder than you think. Founder and co-creative director Graham Warsop named it, back in 1989, after the title of a Guy de Maupassant story "that concerns a house of ill repute," he explains. So is this a whore's business? Warsop will only offer, "We started in the middle of a recession. The last thing the ad industry needed was another agency in town. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from our competitors." Warsop, 41, also has a background that's sure to differentiate him from his competitors. He's an Englishman and a Cambridge University grad who was poised to become a London barrister in 1986, but he had a change of heart and left a law career to work on a novel. In 1987 he visited his brother, who was working for Procter & Gamble in South Africa, and Warsop took to the restless country. "I extended my stay and, to make ends meet, took a job as a junior copywriter in an ad agency," he recalls. The agency, O&M-owned Meridian, just happened to have P&G as a client, but Warsop says, "I'm not sure whether an ex-barrister would have found it so easy to walk into an advertising job in London. The opportunities in South Africa at the time were enormous. Can you think of another country in the world where you could be the senior copywriter on the national airline account within five months of entering the industry?" Yes, in no time at all, with the help of the right creative connections, Warsop found himself on the South African Airways business at Lindsay Smithers FCB; the following year his SAA work won a fistful of awards at the Loeries, South Africa's equivalent of the One Show; and the next year, at the age of 30, he opened his own shop, now located in Sandton, a Johannesburg suburb.

Today Jupiter, whose staff has grown from three to about 120, is the fourth largest agency in the country, billing around U.S. $70 million, and the recipient of 16 Gold Loeries in 1999, twice as many as the runner-up shop. Busting into advertising in South Africa may have been a bit like settling a new frontier. "At the time, the South African advertising industry was quite isolated from the international creative community," Warsop says. He notes optimistically that today "above 80 percent of all economically active urban blacks and whites have access to a television set" -- the TV era dawned there in 1977. Though there are 11 official languages in the country, English is the predominant ad language and 89 percent of the population is considered functionally literate, says Warsop -- meaning they can fill out a bank form. But Warsop was prepared, in his own way, for an ad life anywhere. "Although I had not worked in advertising in the U.K., I had the great advantage of having grown up on a staple diet of some of the world's finest advertising," he says. He was also profoundly inspired by Ogilvy on Advertising; "I consumed it from cover to cover in one sitting," he says, and it convinced him that "this was the industry I wanted to work in."

All well and good, but David Ogilvy didn't sell in as volatile a political climate as South Africa. Just what is advertising like in a land still grappling with what for generations were insurmountable racial divides? "Ten years ago, there were TV concepts shot for the black market, featuring a black cast, and the same concept shot for the white market, featuring a white cast," Warsop explains. "Today, five years after President Mandela took over, more so than `racial' segregation there is segregation in advertising along social class or cultural lines -- rural vs. urban or modern vs. tribal. The relevant language and situations are used to appeal to people in a particular category. For products that are consumed by a broad band of people, regardless of social background or race -- like beer -- models of `mixed' race would be used." However, Warsop is quick to add that "people in South Africa don't view an ad as `racist' based on the models the ad contains, but rather the message. We are all very aware that if a situation is not `real,' then the ad is rejected by white and black. For example: If an ad for a upmarket beer featured both black and white men, this would be accepted as a `real' situation -- in urban circles, races do mix. But if the ad was for a `traditional' beer and the ad had mixed races, this would be rejected by both races, as it's known that whites do not drink `traditional' beers."

So much for Miller Time. But a survey of some two dozen Jupiter spots turns up only one conventionally integrated campaign, for the Yellow Pages. The agency's work is in fact studded with ads that, to an outsider, may seem downright dangerous.

A spot for a line of women's jeans called Sissy Boy, for example, features a topless woman whipping a shirtless man so hard she cuts the Sissy Boy logo into his back. The man appears to be black, the woman white, though in South African terms they're both apparently what used to be known as `colored.' At any rate, "the issue was not meant to be a race issue, but rather a gender issue," says Warsop. "The whole platform of Sissy Boy was to reverse the gender roles in a country where men are still chauvinists."

Chauvinists, indeed. Another spot crackling with gender politics features South African-born actress Charlize Theron, sitting calmly in a chair addressing the camera. "People often ask me what the men are like in South Africa," she says. "Well, when you consider that more women are raped in South Africa than in any other country in the world; that one out of three women in South Africa will be raped in their lifetime . . . it's not that easy to say what the men in South Africa are like. Because there seem to be so few of them out there." This 1999 provocation was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority after complaints by some businessmen, says Warsop, but the spot was later reinstated on appeal after a public outcry.

Elsewhere on the race front, a Fresca spot features two white cops entering a raucous party of black people -- and asking that they turn the music up. This spot could be considered dangerous even in New York nowadays. "I don't think there is anything `dangerous' about friendly cops at a black party," says Warsop. At least not now there isn't. "After the concerns about whether a peaceful transition from a white to a black government could be achieved, everyone went on to breathe a huge collective sigh of relief when the elections were over," he notes. "It's a sign of how far South Africa has progressed that today we can produce an ad like this and the target market -- white and black -- responds to it positively."

However, a print ad for a music chain called Musica, which featured a black man and a white woman embracing "was designed to be contentious and aimed at all urban audiences," Warsop says. "We knew that we were pushing the boat, but felt that with a music store, we could get away with more radical communication as opposed to, say, a bank. The reaction by the majority was positive, but the small percentage that opposed the posters was so aggressive, we had to pull the campaign."

Nevertheless, Jupiter forges ahead with one success after another. Warsop was joined at the creative helm in 1993 by Ross Chowles, a native of South Africa. They each run their own portfolio of accounts, but Warsop gets the Nike plum. Jupiter pitched and won the South African Nike business in 1998, and though the account is tiny by international standards -- about U.S. $ 1.2 million annually -- the creative impact can be quite large. The Nike "Comrades" ad, for example, with 11,500 words of copy, is designed to evoke the sense of the 90k race it announces. It closes with, "Challenging to read it? Try running it." It won two Gold Lions at Cannes last year.

So what's in Jupiter's future, now that they've got the biggest bordello in town? "None of us are talking about selling out and retiring," says Warsop, who proudly notes that he bought a vintage Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud in honor of Ogilvy's classic Rolls ad ("At 60mph the loudest sound comes from the ticking of the clock"). On the contrary, "We've never been more excited about expanding our brand beyond South Africa."

Most Popular