Life’s too short to be mediocre

Marc Ashwell
8 min readApr 4, 2023


As Hunt Lascaris celebrated its 40th anniversary, they were kind enough to host a morning of masterclasses from some of the most celebrated industry leaders of the past few decades; John Hunt, Troy Ruhanen, Noah Khan, Pete Khoury, Susan Anderson, Mike Sharman, Bryan Habana, Sadika Fakir, Cem Topçuoğlu, and Matthew Bull. Each speaker was tasked with delivering a few big lessons, or perhaps reminders, to those listening.

The biggest lesson shared, however, wasn’t said out loud — it’s the passion and resilience needed to be in this industry. As much as it rewards, it can take away. And as much as there are hard days and months, there are eras of greatness. You have to stick it out for both because that journey is where you learn the most.

As somebody who has shifted over to ‘client’ from Hunt Lascaris almost 5 years ago, it struck me that it’s easy to forget what life at an agency was like — the mania, the pitching, the discomfort, but mostly the importance of the work and the amount of effort that is needed to keep it great.

You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘corporate’ when describing my shift from the agency world because some agency networks are more corporate than banks, I also didn’t say ‘brand’ or ‘advertiser’ either, because, with labels like that we forget that there is a real business in the background.

In true strategist fashion, allow me to contextualise and categorise some of the sound bites that emerged from the day. Please excuse any missed attributions or misquotes, I have shitty handwriting.

On creativity and ideas

The primary export of advertising agencies is the idea. Yet, it’s the thing most shrouded in mystery, because there isn’t a recipe or a silver bullet. What we do know is that it takes experience, guts, and if you listen to any creative director since advertising started, bravery — embrace the crazy.

Pete expressed the need for ‘platform thinking’ — an idea that provides a foundation for many more ideas through ‘design thinking’. It’s an approach that allows for variation and riffing of ideas because the core is understood so well.

“Life’s too short to be mediocre”

That line has been a part of the DNA since the car boot days of Hunt Lascaris. John Hunt spoke about needing to keep the standard high, or risk falling into the world of “fine but not fabulous” — a sea of sameness. Similarly, Troy Ruhanen reminded us that “best practice isn’t best practice” because everything starts to look the same.

“Fuck ego, have confidence” — Pete Khoury

When it’s about you, you forget the bigger picture. That’s the subtle difference between ego and confidence. Confidence comes from knowing your client and doing the work. If you want to break the rules, know your shit.

“Judge yourself by the work you produce” — John Hunt

The level of work is what matters when you’re building credibility. What do people remember? With all the clutter out there, it’s the work that shines through. Pete even said it’s about “recognition, not reward”.

“Everything between the brand and the audience is media” — Lee Clow

Troy spoke about the need for the work to break through, while Sadika Fakir reinforced the point passionately and stated the need for the ‘mix’ that needs to be relevant, “it’s not a fight between offline and online”.

Personally, I think media is one of the least thought-about aspects of marketing and advertising in South Africa. We’re obsessed with tactics and metrics and not the audience.

Consider the fact that the iconic BMW mouse-on-a-wheel ad was briefed as a print campaign. The team understood, critically, that in order to really convert the message that they needed to, they needed to re-think the medium — more on that later…

Whatever the outcome, Pete assured us that “the answer can only be as good as the question”.

On relationships

Probably my favourite sound bite from the morning was from Troy: “don’t surprise clients”. As a client, I can relate fully.

“Give the client what they need, then give them something they never knew possible”

This isn’t to say that clients don’t want proactive thinking, but solve the need first, then sell the bigger picture. But be aware and be informed, because that brings credibility.

“Hold the line” — Pete Khoury

The longer you’re working on an idea, and the more people involved, the easier the tendency to spiral into mediocrity. It’s critical to the idea, ultimately the relationship, that the concept is protected.

“Process protects both parties” — Sadika Fakir

Probably the one and only mention of the word “process” on the day, it’s important to recognise that it keeps us honest and on a path.

Sadika went on to advocate that some processes, like pitches, should be replaced with chemistry sessions and credentials that include past work. She spoke about the importance of relationships in the creative and marketing process, and the need to spend time together — to get to know each other. How else could you be expected to partner for great work?

On change

“Beware of comfort, it becomes routine” — Cem Topçuoğlu

Discomfort was a common theme throughout the day. It’s about not accepting the status quo. As John Hunt put it: “embrace change or get run over by it” — he stressed that if the world is moving forward and your competitors are changing to accommodate, you’re not stagnating, you’re moving backwards.

Cem spoke about the need to “fix it” before it’s broken. The minute you realise you’re comfortable is the minute you realise you need to make a change, reinforced by Jean-Marie Dru: “If you can change nothing you are bound to fail, if you can change everything, you are bound to fail.”

Pete provided some answers to how we adapt, “be like plastic”. Be prepared to be shaped and moulded by your experiences and the needs of the world around you. He also stressed the importance of having a moonshot, a vision that takes our thinking out of the present and into the future.

“A smart rabbit has 3 burrows”

The core of Noah Khan’s masterclass was the subject of innovation, not just to keep up, but to survive. “Everyone innovates” reminds us that innovation, like creativity, isn’t the responsibility or role of any one individual, but everybody. And how do you know where to innovate? “Follow your audience, and build within their journey.”

On leadership

Leadership is tricky on a good day, but leadership in a pressured environment is tough. “Listen to your past self, your experience. Listen to yourself now and think about your future”, it’s pretty hard to spot a flaw in that logic from Cem Topçuoğlu.

He pointed out that it’s risky at the top. You can become complacent, overconfident, and comfortable. You have to realise the impact of your own emotions and feelings, as they cascade throughout the entire team.

“You can’t teach self-motivation” — Peter Khoury

Pete pointed out that there are two ways to lead — fear and inspiration. Both work, but there is a preferred route. As John Hunt pointed out, fear doesn’t make good creativity.

Pete also spoke about servant leadership and how it is fulfilling in both directions, potentially unlocking solutions for your team and the emotional reward of being able to help. On the other hand, he also spoke about the importance of autonomy in building character and helping to define and teach responsibility. It helps to inspire the best creativity but you need to be prepared for some guidance along the way.

On culture and collaboration

What was so interesting to me, was the similarity of mindset among the TBWA leadership team, considering the cultural and language diversity. Creativity, it seems, is a common language.

“Overcompensate on optimism and enthusiasm” — John Hunt

John spoke about the need for fun in the creative world — “fear can kill good work”. Vulnerability is essential, as rejection is personal, and the sharing of ideas can be quite stressful, particularly as you are still growing and developing as a creative person. You need to trust your team.

He elaborated on the concept of hiring for attitude, stressing that the ‘wrong people’ will never create good work. John spoke about how ‘culture belongs to you’, it isn’t a role or a leader in the business, it’s the sum total of the people and how they act.

“It’s world in, not HQ out” — Troy Ruhanen

Speaking to the idea of synergy (1+1=3), Troy spoke about the importance of diverse thinking. It’s why he insists that TBWA is not a network of individual companies. It’s a collective of collaborative, like-minded people.

John spoke about the importance of collaboration. Earlier I mentioned how the BMW mouse-on-a-wheel ad started as a print brief. Besides the confidence it took to sell the TV idea, it also took the collaboration of the team from account management to media planning to make it happen — “good ideas don’t happen without teams.”

At the end of the day, everybody wants to help but sometimes they need to be given permission.

“Success belongs to everybody” — John Hunt

Pete also spoke about the need for T-shaped people, people with a broad knowledge and understanding but also deep specialisation in a particular field. This allows for strong collaboration but still makes use of the skillsets of individuals.

On identity

This subject was tough to identify in the midst of the lessons from the morning but resonated deeply. As a client, identity is core to almost everything we do. It’s good to be reminded that identity is critical in all aspects of what we do.

How can you advise clients if you don’t have a platform to fall back on? — Troy Ruhanen

Troy spoke about how Disruption, the core of TBWA’s identity, is essential in its success not only because it works but because it gives a platform for attitudes and values — “Disruption is bigger than advertising”. It defines who TBWA is and what they do. Having standards is core to success.

“Find your soul” — Peter Khoury

Hunt Lascaris is an agency with a conscience, John Hunt spoke about the role that Hunt Lascaris played in the democratic campaigns of South Africa’s past. It’s important that no matter what direction the business goes in, you need to keep the “-ness”, the Hunt Lascaris-ness, the TBWA-ness. Identity is soul.

Susan Anderson spoke about her time spent at Facebook and Instagram. They were already hugely successful companies at the time, “so why advertise?”. The answer was simple, people knew what they were, they just didn’t know who the were.

Steve Jobs said: “It’s better to be a pirate than to join the Navy.” It’s a mantra that the TBWA collective has taken to heart, which is why people who work at a TBWA agency or have worked at a TBWA agency consider themselves pirates. It’s the non-conforming attitude engrained in the culture of the business that’s impossible to ignore. If you can, perhaps it’s not the pirate’s life for you.



Marc Ashwell

Marketing Professional. Problem Solver. Not saving lives.