When we last spoke to Graham Lang at the backend of September - just after it had been announced that he’d be leaving Y&R South Africa for Juniper Park\TBWA in Toronto - he was wary of announcing grand plans for his new role, instead preferring to get to know Juniper Park and taking things one step at a time. Since starting as the agency’s CCO at the turn of 2018, the South African has been busy. He’s helped to launch an internal content production division, secured new business, made a series of new hires - with more potentially in the works - and released a bunch of campaigns that he feels are “starting to shape the work that this agency is capable of doing”.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Graham again to find out more about his new adventure at Juniper Park\TBWA, learning to hustle at his first job, and dealing with the Canadian winter.
LBB> You’ve been at TBWA for about six months now - how has the adventure been so far?
GL> I was firstly exposed to the TBWA culture at a senior level when I went to a management meeting in Milan – that was before I actually started. But being exposed to the TBWA culture, tools and way of doing things has been very eye-opening. There are a lot of really awesome tools that they’re using to dig into data to find cultural edges and significances that help build our work into a much bigger and more interesting place. That investment into culture-mining tools has been a major spark of inspiration for me as a creative guy.
Another thing is the emphasis they put on being a collective as opposed to a network. Most of the offices are born out of an entrepreneurial spirit and have then gone onto join the TBWA collective – Juniper Park\TBWA being one of those – so we feel like we’re still allowed to be culturally different for our markets, and how we want to position ourselves, but we have the backing, tools and platform of TBWA. And it really is a collective of future-facing, super talented people who are forwarding ahead in the same direction but in our own unique ways, in our own unique markets, doing our own unique things. So being part of that collective as opposed to a network is a small nuance, but when you’re actually in it is a big differentiator.
LBB> When I spoke to you last year you said that you were wary of “big plans” when people move to a new agency, and instead you wanted to immerse yourself in the agency and take things step by step. Now that you’ve had time to settle, what are you main aims and ambitions going forward?
GL> There are three things here. The first is related to what I was just saying – I’m looking to bring more of those cultural tools and disciplines into Juniper Park in a way that feels like we are embracing all of the IP that TBWA globally has to offer. We’ll be looking to the offices around the world that do this really well because those are the ones that are doing the most interesting work and making them more robust to embrace the future. So, one thing that we’ve started is an internal content production division called Bolt Content, where we have makers, videographers, editors producing awesome content at a very fast pace.
The other thing I’ve been looking at is how we can curate the right group of people to not only respond to our clients’ needs but also to the work that we need to be doing. I’ve been busy looking at the creative of department, making some hires at both senior or intermediate level and moving things around in order to set us up.
The third thing is that I’ve just got really got stuck into the work and our clients and have produced a handful of campaigns that I think are really starting to shape the work that this agency is capable of doing. We’ve created a brand platform for Nissan and are busy rolling out four or five spots on that platform. We’ve done some really nimble work on GoDaddy
, awesome social work for Tic Tac – there’s a lot of work that we’ve been able to generate really quickly. I’m really pleased to have got such a breadth of work going for our clients so quickly. And we’ve also won some business. I know it’s only been about three-and-a-half months since I started but things seem to be starting to take shape. We’ve been busy!
LBB> How are you finding working in the Canadian market? From a business sense, are there many things that you’ve needed to adjust to?
GL> There are a lot of very smart people in agencies and within the clients. I think there’s a bit of an underdog mentality which, if harnessed in the right way, is a great thing. You know, there’s the Canadian sensibility of being polite and nice, but at the there’s a point to prove. I think that Canadians, by nature, are very competitive but it’s kind of masked by other things and doesn't really get spoken about. But I’ve been really inspired by just how competitive – and collaborative – the market here is. I’d love to see more of that being pushed to the surface and being used for good.
LBB> And how about Canadian life outside of work? Are you enjoying Toronto?
GL> Well, I’ve personally never really been influenced that dramatically by the weather, it’s never really bothered me. But it is a major consideration here! I lived in the UK for eight-and-a-half years and whenever it snowed there, the place shut down. It’s like Armageddon. You can get seven days of constant snowfall here but everything just works. But it is definitely something that requires consideration.
But the city itself is just expanding in terms of growth and the influx people – I think it recently overtook Chicago as the third or fourth biggest city in North America. It’s a behemoth of a city – I’m looking out of my window here on the 14th floor and there are just cranes and development everywhere. They say there are two seasons in Toronto – winter and construction. And that’s true!
I read the other day that Canada is the second most entrepreneurial country in the world and Toronto is the largest tech hub in North America outside of Silicon Valley. There are lots of great restaurants, bars, things to do, a great music scene. It’s really cool.
LBB> How did you get into advertising in the first place? Was it always a plan or more of a happy accident?
GL> I was always into creativity, storytelling, art and self-expression as I was growing up. It was always something I had a passion for. When I finished school I was thinking about where I could go with that passion and I considered architecture for a while. But then I thought that advertising felt like a place that was about words and ideas and self-expression but there was probably less chance of me becoming a starving artist compared to if I’d have done a fine arts degree, for example. So I decided to do it because it had some commercial aspect to it but then it just clicked. I went to a great college in Cape Town, had an amazing lecturer that I connected well with, and the rest is history. It made my mum happy because I think if I’d have gone to art school it might have crushed her.
LBB> What was your first job in adland and what were the biggest lessons you learned from that time?
GL> My first job was at an independent agency called The Jupiter Drawing Room in Cape Town, which later went on to become one of the biggest agencies in South Africa and got bought out by WPP. But when I started there were about nine of us – I was one of the first hires. Being in a new agency in its first year, I learned to hustle and make do with very little. Small budgets, you had to do a lot of multi-tasking, do a lot of jobs and cover a lot of ground. That has always stuck with me – not letting budgets dictate the quality of your ideas, always leaning in, helping out, being a multi-disciplinary thinker and doer. It was a terrific thing to not go into an established agency. I had to hustle.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
GL> I’ll give you two from the music industry. My long-time musical hero was Prince. The fact that he could play almost any instrument, he wrote, produced and sang – the amount of musical genius that he had was incredible, but it didn’t come naturally, he worked really hard at it. He was an incredibly creative person for himself but also helped shape the careers for so many other artists too, helping writing songs for them that a lot of people don’t know about.
And through the ‘90s I always loved Oasis and saw them many times. But I’ve really loved, for whatever reason, watching the solo career of Liam Gallagher take off. It’s a little corny but I love the idea that he was never the guy that wrote the songs or created the music. He was always the front guy, the attitude, the voice. And when the band split up, Liam tried to create another band and it never really took off. Then he went missing for four years or so and came back with this album, which has been terrific. What I love is that he realised that he needed to collaborate with great people to make him better. I think it’s a great lesson in focusing on what you're good at and not being scared to ask for help and to collaborate. He’s incredibly authentic and his point of view is not precious at all.