He’s one half of a legendary partnership that brought South Africans the Beats the Benz(ds) ad, the BMW mouse on a steering wheel ad (the most awarded ad in the history of South African advertising), the Nashua ad of the little boy handing out photocopied love letters at school, Nashua’s ’Saving You Time, Saving you Money, Putting you First‘ payoff line (which is so good they still use it today), and the original groundbreaking Nandos ads.
Not to mention the ANC’s first winning election campaign and the peace symbol of the two doves that served as the country’s interim flag following its first democratic elections and, at the time, packed more brand equity punch than Coca-Cola.
More recently Reg Lascaris has been busy writing a book about some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way, which includes stuff like how to push the boat out, how to build a reputation by riding someone else’s horse (or something along those lines) and why Rolls Royce and Toyota are not the same brands.
This is what he knows.
Cars loom large in Reg Lascaris’ story.
Somehow they keep popping up. Most obviously there are the two famous BMW adverts – the Beats the Benz(ds) one that gave South Africans their first illicit taste of competitive advertising, and the one everyone refers to as the Mouse on the Steering Wheel ad.
These commercials did much to cement ad agency Hunt Lascaris’ reputation as a disruptive force in the advertising industry, setting the stage for the seemingly endless accolades, awards and business success that followed.
But before winning Grand Prix at the Loeries and Gold at Cannes, before the glitzy high life of advertising in the 80s and 90s, before big-name clients and the rush of seeing an entrepreneurial dream materialise, there were two guys without any reputation to speak of, trying desperately to start a business. And there was a car.
“I have a very distinct memory of a dinner I once had with some really heavy hitters, at an evening that had been arranged by the guy who’d invested in the business John Hunt and I started together. The idea was that we’d meet with some influential people and hopefully impress them so they might give us business and in so doing help drive our business forward. The conversation turned to cars, and I asked the guy next to me what kind of car he drove. He replied that he drove a ‘Roller’, to which I responded that I too, quite coincidentally, drove this brand of vehicle. He asked me what colour mine was, and to his incredulity I told him it was yellow. He said he’d never seen a yellow Roller before and confessed a strong desire to see such an unusual and unique car. A little puzzled, I happily took him outside to where my yellow, battered, very second hand Toyota Corolla stood in the parking lot – at which point he informed me that a Roller was a Rolls Royce, not a Corolla,” says Lascaris.
It’s this car that lends its name to his book Lessons from the Boot of a Car.
“When John Hunt and I started the business, we didn’t have flash offices to invite clients to, which is what most agencies had. So we turned the ‘impress your clients with your offices’ thing around and told clients we’d come to them, like we were doing them a big customer service favour. Then we’d pack all our material into the boot of my car and head off to do our presentation,” he explains.
It sounds like a story of young, twenty-something year olds who had nothing to lose, but that wasn’t quite the case. Lascaris was in his mid-30s with a wife and two small children, a bond to pay, and the distasteful memory of failure and debt lurking in the back of his mind.
“My first business tanked. When I was in my 20s I started an agency called Hands, and we were doing quite well. But like most creative people we didn’t really think financial management was a top priority. At some point we thought we’d better hire an accountant, and a guy arrived who really looked the part. So we took him on. Only we didn’t check out his background,” he says.
Out of the blue, the accountant told them one day that the business was flying and they should all go out and buy themselves luxury cars (!), advice that didn’t need to be given twice to a group of young guys.
“So we bought the cars from a friend of mine who had just got a job as a sales person at a Mercedes-Benz dealership. The accountant then told us he had to go to Cape Town to see his sick sister and promptly disappeared, never to be heard from again,” he says.
It was at this point that Lascaris started receiving worryingly urgent calls from the bank about the business being in massive overdraft and owing them money.
“The accountant was a complete con-man. We never really worked out what happened but it was clear that the business was completely bust and there we were sitting with brand new Mercedes-Benzes on our hands,” he recalls.
It was a costly mistake. Lascaris swallowed his pride, borrowed money to pay off the debt, took a job in an agency and quietly packed away for another day his dream of owning a luxury vehicle.
“It took me five years to pay back the money I borrowed to clear that debt, taking it out of my salary every month. But the experience made me even more determined to be successful. I told myself that as soon as I had cleared the decks, I was starting another agency and this time it would be successful,” he says.
It’s not a typical response to failure, but determination is part of Lascaris’ DNA. He says of starting Hunt Lascaris, “I knew this was my second chance and that if this failed I was in real trouble. I had school fees to pay and a bond. There could be no thought of failure. Or rather, if there was a thought of failure it was such a scary thought that it drove me to just make it work out of sheer will and hard work. It was all or nothing.”
He also had a sense that the work they had been doing had been good, and that the company could have survived had a dodgy accountant not been fleecing the bank account.
That said, doing good work was only part of the equation. As two unknowns in an industry that was all about big-name admen, Lascaris and Hunt needed to pull a business reputation out of a hat fast.
“To build a reputation you need three things. Outstanding work. PR. And horse sense,” he says. The talent to deliver outstanding work was undoubtedly there and we’ll get to PR shortly. But horse sense?
“It’s from a book and the idea is this: If you don’t have a reputation, ride on someone else’s. In other words the key to success is to ride on someone else’s horse. We didn’t have a reputation but we did have two very connected clients, one of whom was our investor,” Lascaris explains.
It was this same investor who set up the dinner at which Lascaris committed the ‘Roller’ faux pas, and who sent out the invitations to his list of contacts when Hunt Lascaris held their launch party.
He adds, “It was such an important lesson. External endorsement is incredibly powerful and can build your reputation for you. Our investor was a former client of mine and he must have seen potential in us. Get your work seen by connected people so they can speak on your behalf when you’re still trying to make your mark. Horse sense.”
So to PR. “To get our name out there we knew we’d have to address issues that were considered controversial or ‘hot topics’, and talk about them in the press. Doing this would allow us to stand out as a ‘voice’, and if that voice was controversial enough, then the press would come to us,” he explains.
They took on work for the country’s first Aids education campaign, an undoubtedly hot topic in the 80s and, closer to home, started having conversations in the media about competitive advertising.
This ultimately paved the way for the BMW Beat the Benz ad, in which a BMW safely navigates the bends of Chapman’s Peak Drive thereby beating the Benz(ds). It followed a Merc ad in which a driver had rolled off the cliff but emerged from the wreckage unscathed.
Hunt Lascaris didn’t actually have the BMW account, but the car manufacturer liked the concept enough to give them the go-ahead to make the commercial.
“We knew it would get banned. We told BMW we’d get into trouble for it but they were fortunately brave enough to go with the idea. We ran it over a weekend when no one could pull it. On Monday the world went crazy. The ASA came down on us. It was banned outright. We went to court. Eventually it was unbanned but we never ran it again,” says Lascaris, adding, “After all the hype we felt that airing it could only be a let-down.”
The end result was that an ad run over a single weekend became one of the most talked-about, remembered television commercials in South African history. It became part of South Africa’s collective consciousness. People still talk about that ad today.
They remember it. Just like the Nashua ad of the little boy handing out photocopied love letters to all the girls in school. Just like the BMW mouse on a steering wheel ad, which earned Hunt Lascaris the first Gold at Cannes ever won by a South African agency, and is today still the most awarded advert in South African advertising history.
Changing the face of Radio advertising
Lascaris and Hunt changed the face of radio advertising too, which at the time was based on cheap and nasty product and price selling.
“We realised that the key to radio – the so-called ‘theatre of the mind’ – was to turn ads into stories. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end and no one is going to change the channel if you hook them into the beginning of a really good story. To this day we believe in stories. They are what make great ads,” he says.
Doing groundbreaking, disruptive work became their hallmark, but as Lascaris points out, they had planned to push the boat out right from the word ‘go’.
“I believe that if you have a vision or a dream, it has to be so big that you can never achieve it. Because if it’s always out of reach, you’ll always keep pushing to get there,” he says.
Hunt Lascaris’ vision was formulated over a number of beers at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Parktown: “John and I decided we should write down a vision statement for the company and what we came up with was: ‘To be the first world-class agency out of Africa.’ This was a really big deal because no agency in South Africa had cracked the international market yet. But the more we drank the more we laughed and believed in it – until of course we woke up the next morning and looked at it and said ‘What?!’”
However unrealistic it might have sounded in the cold sober light of day, it was a vision Hunt and Lascaris stuck to.
Their work got them recognised, locally at first and then internationally. After picking up the Gold in Cannes for the ‘BMW mouse’, they were named International Agency of the Year by the highly influential US-based Advertising Age magazine, making them the first agency in the southern hemisphere to ever receive the award.
It also got them noticed by the powers driving change in a South Africa on the verge of democracy. Hunt Lascaris was approached by The Peace Committee to help roll out a year-long ‘peace campaign’. The idea was to sell the concept of peace to South Africans who were threatening to tear each other – and the country – apart in the run-up to the first democratic elections.
“It had a little more riding on it than selling tins of baked beans,” says Lascaris.
Their first task was to sell the concept to the media and get free advertising space. “Essentially we told them if we didn’t get free space and free airtime they may end up not having a newspaper or a television station because the whole country was set to blow,” he explains.
It worked. They got millions upon millions of rands of free ad space and rolled out a campaign that sent a ‘peace or nothing’ message to a jittery South Africa.
“We used really tough imagery to juxtapose what lack of peace would mean, with what peace would deliver to the country. The church groups backed it up by preaching the peace message and the political parties went to their constituencies and preached non-violence. So it was a collective effort but the important thing was that people got the message.”
At the end of that year the peace campaign symbol of two doves was more widely recognised than Coca-Cola and the country adopted the two-dove peace symbol as its interim flag.
The campaign paved the way for the agency to handle the ANC’s first election campaign.
The T in TBWA
“We knew early on that a big part of building credibility would lie in tying up with a big international agency,” says Lascaris.
Just two years into the business he and John started writing to international agencies around the world.
“I got one reply – from Bill Tragos, the T in TBWA\. He replied because his grandmother’s name was also Lascaris,” he explains.
Six months later he and Hunt got on a plane to visit Tragos.
“Instead of showing him our work, we showed him a 20 minute film about South Africa which first confirmed all the bad things he’d heard about it, followed by some of the good stuff that showed the promise of what we believed the country could become. It was the precursor to the peace campaign which came later,” says Lascaris.
The TBWA\ relationship started out as a very informal affiliation and went on to become one of the most successful agency partnerships in the world.
When TBWA\ took majority they gave Hunt the job of worldwide creative director based in New York, while Lascaris set about establishing the business footprint in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Its the most fun I think I’ve ever had,” says Lascaris. Given the ride he’s had, that’s really saying something.
- Player: Reg Lascaris (co-founder with John Hunt)
- Company: Hunt Lascaris (later to become TBWA\)
- Founded in: 1983
- X-factor: Seismic disruptive force in the local advertising industry and first South African agency to be globally recognised, respected and awarded for push-the-boat-out work.
- Contact: www.tbwa.co.za