#CCOTruths: When the worst thing that happened to Pepe Marais was the best thing …

“This business has grown me from a person who couldn’t speak. To even introduce myself at Net#work I actually had to mime my introduction because I was crapping myself so much…”

Sonya Culverwell, Managing Editor  |   12 May 2016

Pepe Marais is the Chief Creative Officer and one of the founders of a South African icon of advertising entrepreneurialism, the Joe Public Group. In this face to face video interview he relates his story of weird-and-fateful coincidences, spectacular failures, lessons learnt and phenomenal success.

Marais’ career began in earnest after he’d cut his teeth at a few small agencies and ended up working with Matthew Bull – at an advertising agency owned by a Rhodesian Folk musician, Clem Tholet. Bull had been head hunted from Hunt Lascaris as Creative Head in those days, presumably to elevate Tholet’s creative profile. However, Marais says that this was one of the first big lessons in his career, as the agency descended into a steep decline in the wake of a Creative Leader who tried to change the culture from low level creativity to a high level, over night.

A daring concept-agency that took the industry’s breath away

Sadly the resultant conflict with clients saw relationships deteriorating and the agency’s eventual demise (although Marais is quick to point out that he was too junior at the time to be sure just how much of a hand Bull had in the final outcome). Nevertheless, Bull had obviously identified a talent in Marais and recommended him to Mike Schalit – the founder and Creative Head of an upcoming agency Net#work. Which is where Marais developed into the entrepreneurial Creative who would be one of the spearheads of a daring concept called Joe Public Takeaway Advertising.

“I remember Mike [Schalit] going ‘you’re frickin’ crazy!’”

After two very successful years with Schalit at Net#work, Marais sat with his future partner,  Noel Cottrell – on a weathered brown leather couch that he still has in his office today – and cracked the idea for their own agency. It started with the idea of doing ‘Fresh Advertising’ which morphed into ‘Fridge’ ’ and eventually settled into ‘Takeaway Advertising’.

“We Found the idea so compelling that we immediately resigned without thinking and opened the doors to Joe Public Takeaway Advertising in March 1988.”

“I remember Mike [Schalit] going ‘you’re frickin’ crazy!’ because I had had such a good run at his agency and I so loved working at Net#work. And so the idea began to germinate with Cottrel (a copywriter) and Marais (an art director) realising “…over quite a few bottles of red wine … we intuitively knew we needed a Business Guy”.

So Cottrell introduced Marais to Gareth Leck from The Jupiter Drawing Room, Cape Town. On the first night that they met Leck told him a story about saving the life of an ‘idiot’ paddle skier – which bizarrely turned out to be Marais himself…

“I drowned at Thermopylae Beach in 1995 – actually drowned …“

“It was insane to actually – 3 years later – meet the guy who tells you the story about an idiot boatman whose life he saved …. and it was you.”.

Almost entirely based on that event, the trio leapt into starting Joe Public Takeaway Advertising. The rest of the story though, is not history. Or not commonly known history anyway. Watch the video for the full story of an agency that literally sold ad campaigns to marketers for hundreds of thousands of Rands, over a takeaway counter; of making the worst mistake ever and selling out to a big global group; and the final evolution of the man who is Pepe Marais today, and the iconic independent advertising group that is Joe Public.

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Category: Advertising