Witchdoctor pamphlets and number eight wires: DDB's new recruit Damon Stapleton on coming to New Zealand

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  • April 30, 2014
  • Damien Venuto
Witchdoctor pamphlets and number eight wires: DDB's new recruit Damon Stapleton on coming to New Zealand

In a 2011 YouTube video filmed in South Africa as part of the African Leadership Conference, DDB’s new chief creative officer Damon Stapleton starts his discussion by first showing the audience a freshly printed image of an iPad and then turns their attention to a witchdoctor’s crumpled flyer, which holds the promise of penis enlargement, among a range of other bizarre guarantees.

It was in this dichotomous environment, where varied cultural inheritances share space with the latest technological advancements, that Stapleton cut his advertising teeth, first as a creative director at TBWA\Gavin Reddy for eight years and then as an executive creative director at TBWA Hunt Lascaris for six years (he worked at TBWA\Gavin Reddy for 13 years in total).

Over this period, he became one of the most awarded creatives in the world, and was part of the team that created the Zimbabwean newspaper’s ‘Trillion Dollar’ campaign, which still remains the only African winner of a coveted D&AD Black Pencil.

But despite receiving awards consistently throughout his career, Stapleton is pragmatic in his opinion of awards programmes.

“Awards are a strange thing, because our business is very hard to measure. It’s an imperfect measure of creativity. It’s kind of like trying to be the best Buddhist in the world,” he says.

“But it’s definitely helped my career, and it’s definitely pushed me forward. But I always try to balance it … I wrote an article in my blog [Damon’s Brain] called ‘Trying to find Jesus through advertising’ and I think it [makes the point] that a lot of people try to remedy everything by winning awards … Success definitely helps your career and it definitely helps agencies, but it’s just about trying to have a healthy attitude toward it.” 

In 2012, searching for a new challenge and change of scenery, Stapleton took the long-haul flight from South Africa to take up the executive creative director position at Saatchi & Saatchi Australia, an agency that had fallen on hard times.

“When I came across to Saatchi there was a lot of work to be done,” he says. “It had been quite a successful agency, but it was going through quite a rough patch. So we had to fix the business to get the agency back on track.”

And given that the agency has more than doubled its staff, won a range of accounts (St George Bank, NIB, several Toyota models) and picked up metal at D&AD, One Show, Award, Clio and Aces over the course of Stapleton’s two-year stint, he certainly achieved what he was brought in to do.

Stepping into New Zealand advertising is however going to be a slightly different experience for Stapleton. Rather than being brought in to rebuild a struggling business, the talented creative will be required to consolidate DDB’s ranks and bring further success to an agency that has no shortage of big clients.

Despite facing the challenge of testing his talents in a new country, Stapleton shows no hint of intimidation and says that he admires the work that emerges from New Zealand.

“I judged the Axis Awards a couple of years ago, and I really like the kind of work New Zealand makes … and when I look at the work that comes out of New Zealand and the work that comes out of South Africa, there are many similarities,” he says.

“In South Africa there’s an expression ‘’n Boer maak ‘n plan’ [a farmer makes a plan], and apparently in New Zealand they say you can fix anything with a number eight wire. In a way that resonated with me, because there are similarities in terms of mindsets and I would say that a lot of it is to do with making.”

“I’m not really interested in theoretical debates about advertising. I’m far more interested in people who want to make stuff, because that’s how you learn. And maybe what New Zealand has is a culture of making, and finding a way to do stuff.”

This stripped down reasoning also extends to what he hopes to achieve when he joins DDB.  

“I want to make great work. I’m a simple man,” he says. “I want to make work that pushes the advertising forward, and I think DDB is in the position to do that. I think it’s got the DNA and the pedigree. For me, it’s important to find an agency that has almost like a creative spiritual consistency.”

“I have a mantra that creativity isn’t a thing, it’s a way. A lot of agencies think you can turn it on and turn it off. But at the really great agencies, it’s just how you do things. And if you look at the really great agencies, there’s a consistency to what they do. It’s not just slogans pasted on walls. It’s something they really try to practise.”

If it’s consistency that Stapleton’s after, then it seems that he has chosen the right Kiwi agency to join.

In the fickle world of advertising, where agencies are dropped at a whim and business relationships rarely last, DDB has managed to buck the trend by forging a 20-year partnership with Sky, which has been typified by the steady delivery of strong creative.

Joining the agency will also give Stapleton the opportunity to reunite with creative director Shane Bradnick.

“I’ve known Shane almost 20 years, and we started our careers together. He resents me because I’m better looking than him, and it’s just something he’s going to have to get over."

“But anyway, we started our careers at a TBWA\Gavin Reddy, and we made a really good team and it was a great experience. I think what’s important, if you want to be a creative agency, is that the agenda has to be set at the top. And I think Shane and I would be on the same page. And sometimes it’s just really good to have a partner, and have someone that we can work off.  Just to make sure that your ideas aren’t totally shit."

“I think what will be good is the partnership and the balance. I’m a writer and he’s an art director, so that will create a nice balance in terms of going forward.”

Stapleton’s partiality to writing slips into the conversation time and time again, as he references quotes from Voltaire, Oscar Wilde and other wordsmiths that he admires.

“Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemmingway and couple others are personal heroes of mine. And I just try to learn from guys like that.”

And as he extends the conversation to a story he’s currently reading, he reveals a sense of humility that will not be out of place in New Zealand. 

“I was reading Jesus’ Son, a short story by Denis Johnson, the other day, and I thought, ‘there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to write as well as that dude. Just forget about it’.”

And while he admits that his literary skills might not be comparable to those of Johnson, he is also aware of the skills that have thus far brought him success.   

“What I’ve learnt is about ideas. Sometimes grammar is important, but it doesn’t help if you’ve got a crap idea. For me, I’ve had some good mentors. I’ve had John Hunt [TBWA Hunt Lascaris], who’s been a great mentor, and various other people."

“I think what I try and focus on is the idea. I don’t focus on the results. I try and focus on the idea, because this gives you more of a shot of doing something interesting.”

As the conversation winds down to a close, I ask Stapleton whether he still has the witchdoctor’s pamphlet that he used in his 2011 speech. He responds with a bellowing laugh, before saying that he still has it pinned up in his office.

“I’ll give it to you when I arrive in New Zealand,” he says. 

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