And another thing: 42 Below and the ascent of man

In November of 2000 I arrived in Auckland to work at DDB New Zealand as a copywriter. I had left behind a stellar rise to mediocrity in London advertising and was looking for a chance to break free from corporate restrictions, three-hour daily commutes and weekends spent in Sainsbury’s Homebase.

I was part of a scheme to help raise the agency’s creative profile (or so they told me) and a key partner in this crusade was another recent arrival, a bright young managing director who’d joined from Saatchis Wellington. His name was Geoff Ross.
The plan was that the world weary copywriter from London would spark up the creative department while Geoff would trot along to the clients and sell the ads using his unique combination of intelligence, charm and frequent spectacle adjustment.

I liked Geoff, I liked the agency, and for a while everything seemed to be going pretty well (or, as we say in London, not complete shite). However, I began to notice that Geoff was perhaps not quite as committed to the cause as he might have been. 
I knew Geoff was making vodka because I’d written the first few ads for 42 Below before Darryl Parsons took over and started writing good ones, but I hadn’t recognised the extent that the agency was just a hobby on the side of his main job of building a vodka empire.

I found this a little frustrating and one evening over a beer I asked Geoff whether he wanted to run an advertising agency or a vodka company. Next thing I knew he’d resigned to run 42 Below full time. I guess the prospect of working with me took second place to that of becoming a vodka millionaire and New Zealand’s favourite business guru. Go figure.

I’m a bastard who said no

Despite having a good seat to watch the success of 42 Below I must admit to being one of the ‘bastards who said no’ as Geoff and Justine referred to people who declined to back their project with cash. When 42 Below launched onto the New Zealand stock market, I didn’t get any shares because I didn’t think it was a good buy. Three years later Bacardi bought the company giving Geoff $32 million.

The shareholders, however, only received a 68 percent return over three years, which is not the sort of return I’d be happy with for investing in a company that could just as easily have fallen over. But then I’m well known for being a glass half empty sort of a guy. Or a realist as I prefer to call it.

Copy it at your peril

Those who think 42 Below set a blueprint for entrepreneurship will fail because they’re fixated on the glory of success and forget about the years of underpaid slogging that go on first. It’s no good doing it to get rich quick, you have to do it because if you didn’t you’d go mad. So don’t start anything unless you have the following skills:

Insight: Geoff identified that a premium vodka coming from lovely, clean New Zealand made sense and had a real chance of success. Then he understood the marketing levers that would make people love the brand: insult everyone in equal measure, starting with Australians. Even if people hated 42 Below, at least they’d heard of it.

Determination: Geoff was the brand. He was ‘always on’, always scheming and ruthless in his objective. It took eight years before 42 Below ever achieved any monetary success and without that drive he would have given up long before.

Stupidity: No reasonable person would have done what he did. Geoff had a young family, was widely respected and had he stayed in advertising would have got to the very top, earned a pot of money and had a lot of fun. He put this stable future on the line for the chance to build a global vodka brand, something about which he knew nothing when he started. Without people who refuse to accept that ‘the way things are is the way they’ll always be’, mankind would never have left the stone age.

Luck: Without it you’re going nowhere. The good news is that the harder you work the luckier you’ll get.

Please don’t let this advice stop you, however. The people who will succeed will go right ahead and start whatever myself or anyone else says. They are driven by a desire to give shape to a dream and can’t help themselves but do it. So good luck to you self-propelled entrepreneurs. Because without you and your like we’d still be living in caves drinking rubbish vodka.

  • Paul Catmur is creative managing partner at Barnes, Catmur & Friends. [email protected].
  • This story was originally published in the September/October edition of NZ Marketing.

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