The world needs more big ideas from small markets

—South Africa’s Joe Public is a great example of amazing work coming from scrappy agencies willing to punch above their weight, says Craig Redmond—

Being the long shot mouse tucked into bed next to the heavyweight elephant—as Justin Trudeau’s daddy once said of our geopolitical proximity to America—our nation has always had to punch way above our weight in pretty much everything. And that includes making ads.

Lilliputian budgets. Cavernous geographic divides. Multicultural complexity. It’s a miracle that, against all odds, Canadian ad agencies continue to produce some of the most revered and awarded advertising in the world.

Or is it?

I believe it’s that character-forging adversity that has impelled underdog ad industries in Canada, New Zealand, Thailand, and others to be smarter, braver, and nimbler. To pursue the big idea in lieu of the big production.

And I can’t think of a market that has had to overcome more impossibility than South Africa. The repulsive legacy of apartheid and its festering racial unrest. The economic turmoil. The cultural exile from the rest of the world. Such accumulative hardship should have all but buried the country’s ad community. Yet an intrepid few persevered.

Moons ago, I had the privilege to meet a couple of those rebels at a global Ogilvy & Mather creative conference. Theirs was one of the countless independent shops around the world bought by O&M over the years, but it was the only one permitted to keep its own logo. Which was, curiously enough, a chubby little bumblebee.

“What’s up with that?” I needled.

“The bumblebee should not be able to fly,” explained the Cape Towner. “Its weight, tiny wingspan and utter lack of aerodynamics should have it plummeting to the ground. But fly it does, against all laws of physics. That defiance is the story of our agency. And is, quite frankly, the story of the South Africa ad industry as well,” he said, smiling cheekily.

Seeing this latest work from Joe Public, another South African agency ignoring the rules of gravity in its own right, reminded me of that conversation.

I first noticed the agency’s work for a local fast-food chain called Chicken Licken last year—marvelling at its sheer oddness, but even more so at its brave bending of cultural taboos. Or what I assumed were taboos in a country once ruled by a white, Afrikaner dictatorship.

This new execution is a little less peculiar and a lot less culturally pointed. But it’s equally entertaining, and perhaps more universal in its appeal. So maybe, just maybe, it’s also a bit of a coming out party for the South African ad industry.

Which is precisely what our industry needs. More underdog markets and their rebel agency pugilists, jabbing well above their weight and taking on the old guard, industry giants.

Feel the fire indeed.