Business Day

Boot camp lessons for ad­ver­tis­ing war­riors

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IAM in East Lans­ing, Michi­gan, home town of Michi­gan State Univer­sity. I’m here for the One Show Cre­ative Boot Camp called Minds (Wide) Open II. It’s a week-long pro­ject in which we men­tor stu­dents from Ger­many, Amer­ica and China. They are given an ad­ver­tis­ing brief, we guide them through the job and at the end of the week, cam­paigns are pre­sented and a win­ner is cho­sen.

East Lans­ing is a pris­tine lit­tle town, with beau­ti­ful green lawns, oak trees, ex­quis­ite gar­dens, big shiny SUVs, drive­able lawn­mow­ers and thou­sands of stu­dents. The town is green, not just with ar­bour abun­dance, but with the univer­sity’s brand­ing. All ath­letes of Michi­gan State Univer­sity are called Michi­gan State Spar­tans and ev­ery­body wears team colours and the strik­ing logo — a Spar­tan war­rior’s hel­met. The level to which the brand per­vades East Lans­ing is as­tound­ing. There are at least a dozen shops sell­ing Spar­tan mer­chan­dis­ing, the street poles are cov­ered, li­cence plates show off the logo, ban­ners hang across bridges, every stu­dent wears the univer­sity “uni­form” and even the McDonald’s bears a sign say­ing, “We love MSU”. It’s re­mark­able to see such an ex­u­ber­ant dis­play of brand love in one lit­tle town.

It’s only day three of The One Show Cre­ative Boot Camp and my mind has al­ready been pried open. I am re­minded of how fever­ish the start of any cre­ative job is. Search­ing for and grap­pling with an idea is the same in any lan­guage, across any cul­ture.

I’m be­gin­ning to love this lit­tle UN of ad­ver­tis­ing tucked away in a small room up in the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Arts build­ing. We work with a trans­la­tor for the Chi­nese stu­dents and we make do, de­spite the lan­guage bar­ri­ers.

In a process like this, there are nu­mer­ous hoops to jump through, while seek­ing out a big idea. For one, the men­tors them­selves are faced with their own in­se­cu­ri­ties and ego checks be­cause we’re all rep­re­sent­ing our coun­tries and want to do them proud. Each men­tor is paired with a men­tor from another coun­try and we quickly have to as­cer­tain each other’s men­tor­ing style. Then we re­alise it’s not re­ally about us, but about the young peo­ple we’re guid­ing. We’re all new to each other, we’re all feel­ing chal­lenged and we’re all in the mood for win­ning.

I was cu­ri­ous about the abil­i­ties and at­ti­tudes of the stu­dents I would meet, some­what bi­ased by the nat­u­ral flair, at­ti­tude and rich cul­tural nu­ances of our own South African youth, but so far I’m im­pressed and in­trigued. Each stu­dent has a pas­sion point that co­in­cides with their cre­ative skill — be it pho­tog­ra­phy, film edit­ing or writ­ing. I’m also re­lieved to know that cre­atives are, in­vari­ably, cre­atives any­where you find them in the world. They pos­sess sim­i­lar mea­sures of en­thu­si­asm and de­spon­dence at pre­cise mo­ments in the brain­storm­ing process.

But above all, I’m strangely com­forted by the dis­com­fort that comes with try­ing to crack a big brief. I’ve learnt that the ar­du­ous jour­ney to a bril­liant idea is ex­actly the same in another cor­ner of the world.

I’ve also seen that the role of men­tor is a tricky one — know­ing just when to roll up your sleeves and pitch in, and when to step back and let things hap­pen. Be­ing a men­tor seems a lot like play­ing cheer­leader, psy­chol­o­gist, nav­i­ga­tor and drill sergeant all in one day — much like the role of a cre­ative di­rec­tor.

The next few days will be in­tense. But this is an amaz­ing jour­ney, where teach­ing shakes hands with learn­ing, where con­fi­dence and hu­mil­ity are tested, and where in­cred­i­ble mem­o­ries are made.

It’s apt that we’re in the town of the Michi­gan State Spar­tans be­cause it’s al­ways true that when fight­ing with an idea, when try­ing to ham­mer out a cam­paign that is sim­ple, brave and sur­pris­ing, you need the steely wits and undy­ing en­durance of a Spar­tan war­rior.

Gord­han is a cre­ative di­rec­tor in ad­ver­tis­ing.

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