Before finding advertising, Fran Luckin was an aspiring actor. As a child she had a performative streak and went on to studying English and Drama at university. It turned out that her true calling was as a copywriter, but that dramatic training has stood her in good stead in terms of understanding the beats of storytelling and the rhythms of dialogue. As platforms proliferate and formats evolve, Fran reckons there are some core principles that don’t change.
Throughout her career, Fran has worked on all sorts of iconic brands – and her first job involved working on that most South African of brands, chicken restaurant Nando’s. She honed her craft under the guidance of the likes of Graham Warsop, John Hunt and Tony Granger. In the days before shared Google docs, she recalls late night fax machine writing revision sessions, pushing and pushing her copy.
In 2017, Fran joined Grey South Africa, attracted by the open culture. In recent years, Fran has also finished an MBA and taken up playing the bass guitar, which has given her a renewed appreciation for learning something for the pure joy of it.
LBB> Where did you grow up, and what kind of kid were you?
Fran> I grew up in Durban, on the east coast of South Africa. I was a daydreamer, always with my nose in a book. I was also very forward and outspoken, though. Apparently, at the age of about six I caught my teacher having a sneaky cigarette outside the classroom and told her off about her unhealthy personal habits. (I’m completely demure, diplomatic and tactful now, of course.)
LBB> Was creativity something that played a big role in your life growing up? What triggered that love of creativity in you?
Fran> Family lore has it that my second word was ‘BOOKS’, but this is probably apocryphal since I’m not sure how babies handle consonants. I was a really avid reader from very young, and I soon started to write my own stories. I wrote movie scenes in my head (starring me, of course, being witty and amazing). And I loved impersonating my teachers and telling jokes, so there was a love of performance there which I indulged by studying drama for a very long time. I never really thought I’d be able to make a living from being creative, though.
LBB> How did you get involved in advertising?
Fran> I fell into it. I was at university studying English and Drama, and I had got my degree and was doing my Honours year, and I suddenly felt quite burnt out, like I’d spent four years learning to analyse everyone else’s creativity but no time learning to create my own things. And I wasn’t, frankly, a very good actress. Someone came to the university recruiting for the AAA school – South Africa’s first school of advertising. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got nothing to lose”, so I went to the interview. There were people sitting in the reception area with portfolio bags, and I had nothing, and I thought, ‘Arrgh, I should just pick a window and leave quietly’. But I’d always been interested in advertising and was one of those annoying people who always wanted to watch the ads on TV, so I actually found I enjoyed the interview and knew quite a lot. It just felt like something clicked into place, and I got accepted.
LBB> What were the most important lessons you learned early on in your career?
Fran> Always make space for fun. Don’t fall too in love with your ideas – retain a critical distance. And don’t live on takeaway food.
LBB> What was the first creative campaign you worked on that you were really proud of?
Fran> I worked on Nando’s – a QSR (quick service restaurant) brand that’s now global but back then was purely found in South Africa. I had a lot of fun on that account. It was - and still is - all about having a point of view on the world and speaking truth to power on behalf of people, with a sense of humour. Back then, I think it was a lot more parodic as a brand than it is now. I still can’t believe we got away with some of the things we did.
LBB> You got into the industry as a copywriter - how did you hone your craft?
Fran> I had great mentors. Graham Warsop, my first boss, would make me rewrite things over and over. I remember late one night, I was trying to finish some copy, and he was in an edit suite, and I was faxing (yes, that’s how old I am) - I was faxing copy to him - and there’d be an agonizing 20 minutes, and then the fax machine would light up and back would come my copy, with multiple suggestions and corrections. This went on until about 1 a.m. And some of them were corrections of things he’d suggested! Then I worked under John Hunt and Tony Granger at TBWA and Gerry Human at Ogilvy. All of them always made me go back and craft, go back and craft. Try and write it differently. Read it to someone and get feedback, then go and rewrite. It was probably just learning by brute repetition.
LBB> As you progressed through your career, how did you figure out what sort of leader you wanted to be? What advice would you give to creatives looking to develop that side of themselves?
Fran> I was a person with quite a lot of anxiety and self-doubt, so I always wanted to be the kind of leader who helped people deal with their anxiety and start to believe in themselves a bit more. I was lucky enough to have leaders who invested the time in me to give me guidance and let me express my concerns and doubts, so I wanted to be that kind of leader too. I don’t think it’s difficult to develop that side of yourself as a leader – I think it just takes remembering how you felt as a young creative person.
LBB> And as the industry grows to encompass more and more channels and creative outlets, from commerce to gaming, how does that early writing training help you?
Fran> It can be quite easy to think the principles of storytelling and writing have changed with all the new channels and new media. But they haven’t. I think all the drama training and being in plays helped hone my ear for dialogue writing and scene-setting.
LBB> What have been the biggest and most interesting shifts in the South African advertising scene since you started your career?
Fran> I think the best shift for me has been watching our industry find its voice. For a very long time, our work looked a lot like it came out of London or the US. As the make-up of South Africa’s creative departments has changed, to embrace the diversity of our country, so our work has truly started to look and sound and feel South African.
Back in the ‘90s, I had a young Black writer who wrote wonderful radio using a mix of South African languages. It was the lingo real South Africans were speaking, and it was linguistically rich – dense with wordplay and allusions. The radio stations at the time wouldn’t play it because it wasn’t ‘pure’ - it wasn’t 100% Zulu or 100% English or 100% Afrikaans. A few years later, all the brands were trying on what was now called ‘scamtho’ – that street lingo that drew on all of South Africa’s languages. And to be honest, a lot of the time these attempts were a bit contrived and cringeworthy. But those were growing pains, I think and we’ve moved beyond that now to a situation where advertising has embraced the linguistic beauty, variety and playfulness of South Africanness.
LBB> When you joined Grey as CCO, what were your goals for the role?
Fran> I was attracted by Grey’s ‘Open Culture’ – where there are no separate PnLs within the agency. I saw this as a real opportunity to create real integrated stories that spanned across media and channel types. I’d had frustrating experiences in agencies in which the specialist disciplines were housed within different profit centres, and I wanted the freedom to be able to bring together people from across all the disciplines to collaborate on ideas that tapped into culture and weren’t confined by channel type.
LBB> What have been your highlights of the past few years at Grey?
Fran> In 2017, the year after I joined, the agency won its first Gold Lion for a radio campaign. The writer had never won a Lion before. Then I got to send him and the ECD to Cannes the next year, which was a real highlight because I love being able to send people to Cannes. It’s quite expensive for us with our currency and the exchange rate, so to be able to send people is a real treat.
LBB> One thing I find really interesting about South African creativity in general is that some brands seem less afraid to tackle difficult social and political issues like colonialism, racism, and corruption in a fairly frank way. There are comedic ads that do it, and of course really moving pieces like the Philips Nelson Mandela campaign that came out of Ogilvy Johannesburg. What are your thoughts on that? Is it a fair assessment in your eyes or is the truth a bit more complicated?
Fran> It sometimes takes quite a bit of selling to get the clients to do this kind of work. I didn’t work on the Philips campaign but I do know it took about two years to sell. Comedy is often simpler. It’s been proven time and time again that it works – humorous ads feature high up every year in the Kantar Millward Brown ‘Best Liked’ list. South Africans have always had the ability to laugh at ourselves and we do tolerate and even enjoy quite high levels of having fun poked at us. We’re very frank, direct people.
LBB> When it comes to inclusion and agencies reflecting more of South Africa’s cultural and ethnic diversity internally, what’s your view on the progress or lack of progress being made?
Fran> I think we’ve come a long way. We still have a way to go – in fact I believe the journey doesn’t have an end. You can’t ever sit back and go, ‘Right, we’ve achieved it now. Feet up.’ You have to always be consciously looking for people with different backgrounds, different ways of thinking. That’s the lifeblood of creativity, isn’t it – different ways of seeing the world, born of different backgrounds and experiences. I don’t believe our industry has really embraced neurological diversity yet. We tend to over-index on people who think the same way, communicate the same way and approach problems the same way. Maybe it’s because of the pressurised nature of our industry, but really talented oddballs who don’t crack the idea in the way everyone else does or who don’t communicate as slickly as others often don’t thrive in agencies.
LBB> South Africa is renowned for the craft of its commercial film work but what would you say are South African advertising’s other strengths?
Fran> We’re very strong in radio, as evidenced by the number of our Gold and Grand Prix wins over the past few years at Cannes. I think we have an ear for dialogue and humour – and we tell it like it is.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about the industry right now?
Fran> The most exciting thing about the industry right now is life returning back to normal. Watching people who’ve worked remotely for almost two years coming back together again, talking, sparking, collaborating. There’s a lot that’s good about the ability to work remotely and we certainly will never phase it out. But there’s real magic that happens when people physically sit together and talk about ideas.
LBB> And the most frustrating?
Fran> Procurement departments.
LBB> I read that you started to learn the bass guitar! What inspired you to do that?
Fran> I completed my MBA thesis in 2015 and when it was done, instead of feeling free and liberated as I’d expected I would, I felt an enormous sense of loss that it was over. So I filled the hole with bass lessons – I’ve always loved the bass. I don’t entirely suck at it but it would help if I had much bigger hands.
LBB> As a creative, how has that experience helped you?
Fran> I think in this industry we hype ‘side hustles’ but there’s less space for talking about just trying new things, noodling about and learning for the enjoyment of it!
It’s a great way to relax and unwind. You can’t (well, I can’t) think about other things while you’re practising so I’m forced to put my day behind me. There’s no huge pressure on me because I’m not in a band, so I don’t actually have to be brilliant, but there is just enough pressure because I’m going to have to show up to my lesson having practiced. Also, it’s that thing of just getting better by going over something again and again… learning through repetition. It’s been a crucial part of learning my writing craft too.
LBB> What else keeps you inspired?
Fran> Oh, this is such a cliché.. but I love films and series. I mostly watch them alone because if there’s a great piece of dialogue or something I always stop and go back and watch it again a couple of times.
LBB> What are your hopes for the next year?
Fran> To see every country in the world reach a 100% vaccination rate so we can put this pandemic behind us.