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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Pierre Odendaal
Pierre Odendaal

pierre odendaal Pierre OdendaalChief Creative Officer
McCann Johannesburg

It’s always good to come home.

South African born and raised Pierre Odendaal started his career at a turbulent time in his nation’s history. Politics were changing, new mediums were blossoming, and things like ‘digital’ — heck, even things like ‘Photoshop’ — had little meaning to the South African advertising industry. But Pierre was a curious child, fascinated by technology and design, and that curiosity turned into a career that has spanned more than twenty years and four continents.

Despite having great successes in world-renowned ad hubs like New York and London, in recent years Pierre has returned back ‘home’ to lead McCann Johannesburg as its Chief Creative Officer. Pierre is on a mission: to raise the bar for both McCann and South Africa’s advertising industry as a whole. He’s off to a great start; he spearheaded an initiative to finally bring IHAVEANIDEA’s global Portfolio Night to Johannesburg for the very first time. The night was an unprecedented hit for the city’s entire advertising and education communities, and they are already gearing up to not only bring back next May, but also expand the evening to Cape Town.

We had a chance to chat with Pierre about his career… past, present and future.

IHAVEANIDEA: Take us back to your childhood, growing up in South Africa.

Pierre: I was born in Cape Town, which is the city in South Africa where you find most of your immigrants. My mother was of Portuguese heritage and my dad was English and Afrikaans.

Now I was born during the dark, horrible years of this country, but I was fortunate enough that my parents worked their backsides off to send me to a private school, a multiracial school, which was very weird under the apartheid regime. I didn’t really notice the oppression until I was about thirteen or so, when I started to question things like “why is it that when we leave school my friends can’t go with me on the same bus?” It was very strange, and I soon realized how things really were here during that era.

I was very blessed and lucky to have two really crazy parents. I was brought up in a very creative environment. We never really watched TV — South Africa didn’t even have television until 1976. Instead our family read a lot, listened to music, played games and chatted.

My mother has always been very artistic, and she had a hell of a lot of gay friends, which opened up a whole new world of creativity to me, from fashion to music to even the nightclub scene. I think that’s what pushed me into thinking about some sort of creative career.

IHAVEANIDEA: How did that path take you to the world of advertising, instead of say, fashion design?

Pierre: I knew I loved color and typography. I started noticing things like that when I’d go to the local newsstand. I wouldn’t be the guy buying the car magazines or whatever other kids were buying. I was picking up Number One Music Magazine and Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and I wasn’t actually really worried too much about the content. What I really enjoyed were the ads. I’d to think to myself, “Well, how did they do this? Where were they doing this?”

I think advertising had a lot more allure back then. I was really pulled in by the visual aesthetic. This was before Photoshop and all of that. People were actually going to those physical destinations to shoot and make these things! They’re on a mountain, they’re skiing, and they’re down on a beach on a beautiful 50-foot speedboat. I was like, “I want to do that!”

By the time that I was matriculating in 1990, I was soon reminded that we had military conscription in South Africa. My parents said, “Well go and study something immediately! You know you want to do something visual, like graphic design or photography, so put a portfolio together and apply!” But I was like, “Well, I’m not quite sure.”

And about two months later, I’m in the Navy going “What the hell am I doing here?!”

IHAVEANIDEA: Nothing like a little armed forces action to sideline your career!

Pierre: (laughs) Yeah, but I think two great things came out of that experience. One was that I learned to look after myself. You’ve been in a comfort zone for the first eighteen years of your life, and now you’re plucked out of that and into a situation where people are yelling at you. You grow up really fast!

The other good thing to come out of my time in the military was that after my basic training, I got the chance to go into the Navy news magazine as a photographer. I found myself going on stories and taking photos and having to think differently because I’m putting something into publication. Now it wasn’t glamorous. Most of the time I was shooting an admiral giving a speech or a new submarine, that kind of stuff. But it really got me thinking, and by the time I got to the end of my national service, I was like, “This is really, really cool!”

IHAVEANIDEA: They made a man and a photographer out of you! So what were your options like after the Navy?

Pierre: Well I finally ended up making a portfolio, and I got accepted to study graphic design at Pretoria Technikon, which was one of the best design schools in the country at the time. I got to learn more about design, typography, airbrushing, Letraset — still no Photoshop then!

While I was studying, a friend of mine was opening up what was to be the first internet café in South Africa, and he asked me if I wanted to manage the place. I needed the money, and it sounded much better than waiting tables, so I said sure! My friends were all saying “you geek! Why are you wasting your time on this? Come out and have a beer instead!” and I was like “trust me, this internet thing is going places.”

Having access to the internet gave me the capability to start learning about the world beyond South Africa. I was spending incredible amounts of time researching design and what was happening with communication all over the planet. It also allowed me to learn about companies here in South Africa, to know more about them before I went on interviews. I had a chance to meet with this company called Delapse, which was a creative/technology agency that was really ahead of its time. They had called me in for an interview, but there were at least 70 other people being interviewed. Fortunately I had been able to research them on the internet, and that gave me an edge. And sure enough, I got the job!

My friends were all saying “you geek! Why are you wasting your time on this? Come out and have a beer instead!” and I was like “trust me, this internet thing is going places.”

IHAVEANIDEA: Fantastic! So for our younger readers, what was it like to be in a digital shop, a very techie place, during a time when the general public wasn’t even internet savvy?

Pierre: It was fantastic. Back then there were only eight of us, all geeky and a little different. I was learning how to do motion graphics, how to code, we were doing motion capture, we had created the first computer animated kids show in the country. It wasn’t really about the internet. We weren’t building websites, but rather interactive CD-ROMs.

IHAVEANIDEA: Now you started your career in South Africa, but when did you make the move to other parts of the globe?

Pierre: Well I spent a few years at Delapse, but then I felt it was this South African boy to see the big, wide world, especially London. I spent literally hundreds of hours putting together a portfolio in the form of these interactive CDs, complete with movie clips and whatnot. I called the CD “BYTE” and packaged it — and myself — as a computer program, with ‘system requirements’ and everything.

I saved up my pennies and bought a plane ticket to London, but before I went I sent my CDs to twenty or so agencies in the UK. I made the CDs in four parts, so each part would arrive at a different time, and the final part would get there just before I would arrive myself. I ended up getting eight interviews when I got to the UK, and eventually landed a job at Head New Media, one of the hottest digital shops at the time.

IHAVEANIDEA: If you go back far enough, there was a time when “digital” was seen as the place that you went to when you couldn’t get a job in “traditional” advertising. What was your experience with this perception?

Pierre: At that stage in my life I hadn’t actually really considered the “traditional” side. I just knew I loved technology and what it could do. But eventually I started to notice that the traditional side had more control of the big idea. Here I was, wanting to do more with the big idea, but these ad agencies were telling me “you can’t do this because we own the big idea.” I was like, “okay, well if this is how this game works, I’ll need to start learning about their side of the industry too.”


IHAVEANIDEA: At that point, your career really started moving, from digital shops like Agency Republic, LBi and Razorfish to Ogilvy and McCann, and from London to Sydney to Paris to New York. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned through having such a well-travelled career?

Pierre: Well it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, everyone in this business likes a good idea executed amazingly well. The best people in every country I’ve worked in have got the same passion and drive.

If there’s one thing I’ve taken from my adventures is that although the end goal is the same, how you reach it varies from culture to culture. French humor is different than American humor and British humor and Australian humor, and knowing all of the local “isms” is crucial to crafting the best message you can. Knowing what to say isn’t nearly as important as knowing how to say it.

IHAVEANIDEA: You’ve won a ton of awards and have done some really impressive work throughout your career, but which campaign are you most proud of?

Pierre: I’d have to pick two campaigns that I’ve had the privilege of working on. First would be the repositioning and the rebranding of IBM. I was lucky enough to work with top tier people like Susan Westre. To be part of the thinking and development of the Smarter Planet Initiative was amazing. It turned IBM around.

The second campaign was for Axe, when I worked at Razorfish in New York with Frederic Bonn. It’s obviously a great male-targeted brand, and we were getting the chance to work on a female fragrance variant. A few years earlier I had worked on an online comic for Kirin beer back in Australia, but the technology wasn’t there. But by this point you had crowdsourcing, you had Twitter, and I knew we could really make an interactive comic story work. That idea lead to the Axe Anarchy Super Bowl spot and the live digital comic book. It was probably one of the best campaigns for Axe to date, as far as digital innovation goes.


IHAVEANIDEA: When you began your career in South Africa, the country had a very different cultural landscape, with apartheid just starting to be dismantled. Now here you are, more than twenty years later, back in South Africa, post-apartheid, post-Mandela. How have things changed, in regards to the advertising industry?

Pierre: Things are changing, but to be perfectly honest we have a very long way to go, especially in the creative field. Right now South Africa has a program called Black Economic Empowerment, which dictates that companies of a certain size need to have a percentage of black employees. It’s an admirable idea, but there are ways to rig the numbers, or you can hire people who don’t know what they’re doing and keep them in the background while keeping a mostly white core creative team.

 For many years young people haven’t had access to the right kinds of education, and we need to improve this.

But we’re doing our absolute best to change this at McCann. Karabo Denalane, Managing Director and my partner here, we want to see what the industry can do at the education level. For many years young people haven’t had access to the right kinds of education, and we need to improve this. This is one of the reasons we were so keen to host Portfolio Night in Johannesburg this year.

IHAVEANIDEA: If you hadn’t embarked on this journey at all, if you didn’t decide on a path through the worlds of advertising and design, what do you think you’d be doing with your life?

Pierre: Well I spend a lot of my time on Spotify, and I still love my minimal German electronic music. Yeah, I’m 42 right now, but I think you’d see me in the DJ booth, dropping some cool beats! (laughs)

Interview by:

brettcreditpic Pierre Odendaal

Brett McKenzie
Content Producer
Art Directors Club

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