Continental Drift

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You sell your first ad from the back of a car in a recession, set up the first internationally renowned South African agency and usher in post-apartheid democracy by handling Nelson Mandela's first presidential campaign. After that, there is a reasonable chance that living in New York may prove a touch sedate. However, John Hunt, 48, is sanguine about the prospect. This month, Hunt swaps his 20 years as founding partner of TBWA/Hunt Lascaris in Johannesburg to move to TBWA in New York as worldwide creative director.

He leaves behind an agency that redefined African advertising, was several times International Agency of the Year and was South African Agency of the Year six of the last seven years. It built a reputation at the Cannes International Advertising Festival and beyond for simple, funny, frequently hard-hitting work for the likes of BMW, Nando's chicken, Bic, Aspro Clear, South African Airways, Nashua and of course, Mandela's ANC party.

Moving, he leaves behind his business partner of the past two decades, co-founder Reg Lascaris, who is also promoted to a TBWA global role, plus the splendors of his beloved South Africa, and his passions for African art, rugby and cricket. Hunt accepts that he had a great life and lifestyle in South Africa where he was "very spoiled" after 20 years running his own enterprise. So, why move? "It's a 20-year crossroads; simple as that," he explains. "You just reach a time when you think, Should I just take another step? And I am lucky enough to get on very well with [chairman/CCO] Lee Clow and [president/CEO] Jean Marie-Dru. It's not like, Who the hell are these people?" Admitting he would not have come for the New York ECD job alone, Hunt acknowledges a perception among many big clients that "how goes the New York office, goes the network." Arguing that he would "rather do than say," Hunt accepts also that New York will be a "real challenge." The New York office has never quite been the fully-fledged force that it could be, and has long lagged behind its famous West Coast sister agency. "There is no magic wand to wave," he says. "But we don't have to be pessimistic about it. I sense New York advertising is ready for something new. Maybe it's been clubbed to death a little."

But, he adds, "I don't know how to make the global creative director's job meaningful yet. I do know it's not flying around, having big lunches and acting like the Pope. I want to find a new way of creating a global culture, of energizing a global network." Arguing that he has no real advertising philosophy, he articulates one off the cuff: "If you go to Cannes, and you go to the Dairy, Fashion or Car category, it's as if some god has laid down rules that we all obey. And 90 percent of the ads are crap, quite frankly. There is a terrifying global sameness. We have so much inherent stuff to unlearn. The 3 percent or so that does stand out goes against the category norm."

Hunt is part of a mini-wave of South Africans, alongside his former employees - Tony Granger, the new ECD of Saatchi & Saatchi/London, and Matthew Bull, the new CEO of Lowe/London - that is breaking down the old Anglo-American management hegemony. "There is a feeling now that people like New Zealanders, Aussies and us grew up with a slightly different mindset, whose edges may have been smoothed off more if we were at the center," he says. "The world is saying, 'How about some cross-pollination?' You don't want to eat your own children."

So it's on to a new continent, though he's already had a lifetime of travel. Before Hunt Lascaris, after school in England, he spent eight years backpacking around the globe, joining an ad agency when he needed money, and each time also completing a novel, play or television writing assignment before moving on again. In fact, he was once named South African Playwright of the Year for an anti-censorship drama he wrote during the apartheid era. Why should he succeed in New York where so many have failed? The trick to it all, he says, is to remain naively optimistic, "to happily go where angels fear to tread."

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