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‘The Rainbow Maker’ Sharon Keith

‘I know, let’s make a rainbow!’ Most people we know would shake their heads and roll their eyes. However good we might be, or even think we are, we know that we cannot control the weather. But there was one person who took the suggestion seriously, and the result is the now famous ‘Rainbow’ campaign for Coca-Cola Southern Africa. Sharon Keith, marketing director of Coca-Cola Southern Africa, is the third person to be recognised as a Champion of Creativity by the Creative Circle this year; a status awarded to marketers who walk the creative talk, supporting creativity not only with their words but also through the campaigns that they push through bosses and boards, and unbendable budgets. Keith has spent most of her marketing career in the drinks business, working with brands from Lipton and Frisco, to Fanta and Fresca, before she graduated to Bells, J&B, Captain Morgan, Smirnoff Vodka, Guinness and Baileys. And then back to Coca-Cola.

She might feel uncomfortable being called the Rainbow Maker, especially when she is the first person to give the credit to the creative team at FCB, but the reality is that without her support, the campaign would never have seen the light of day. Every creative team understands the importance of working with a client who not only appreciates creative thought, but also acknowledges that creativity isn’t linear, and it often requires many interactions and do-overs and re-thinks to arrive at a workable solution. ‘Our education system tends to train us to come up with “the right answer”, which is the answer that everyone expects. Creativity, however, is unexpected by definition. It requires people to think differently to how they have been trained, and taught. As such, it is often incredibly difficult to support. It goes against the grain, against everything we “know”.’ Therein, perhaps, lies the first step in what is takes to be a ‘Rainbow Maker’.

Understanding. Acknowledgement.
‘I understand that creativity is messy. But I also believe that creativity is fundamental to business success. If you’re not reinventing yourself and your brands every single day, you’re sliding backwards. And reinvention requires creativity, it requires thought that goes against the grain, that surprises consumers who have – quite literally – seen and heard it all before.’

In the 80s, while working at Unilever Lipton Foods, Keith engineered a promotion with Arnold Geerdts and the SABC for Frisco, which saw the breakfast show crew knocking on doors of unsuspecting consumers in the early morning to quiz them about Frisco, to stand the chance of winning the keys to a luxury Gypsy caravan! ‘It was early reality TV – getting past dogs and security systems was an exercise in creativity all on its own! We received so many entries – via the postal service, this was a long time ago! – that they filled an entire room. We could quite literally dive into them!, she recalled.Which brings us to the second step.

Courage. Conviction.
‘It requires enormous courage and conviction to think differently, especially when you know that you might not hit a home run every time,’ said Keith. At this point, it is virtually impossible to not picture Larry, the Fresca brand ambassador. Remember ‘Nuffin tastes like Fresca!’. It must have taken some cahones to push that idea through the ranks, a black guy with a British accent, to advertise a completely unknown brand into the South African market…Keith recently heard a radio interview with Hakeem Kae-Kazim, who played Larry, and he commented that he still can’t escape the Larry persona, despite his subsequent Hollywood success – that is how South Africans remember him! ‘To be fair, I can’t take the credit for this campaign, as I inherited and finessed it rather than originated the idea. But it was a brave idea, especially for its time, and in this place.’

Of course, it also takes courage to use an existing idea, especially in an industry that has a tendency to frown upon anything that isn’t original! The recent ‘Share a Coke’ campaign, for example, was picked up by Keith and her team from Australia. FCB gave the idea a fun spin with its hugely popular ‘Bobby’ spots, and the rest is history – the campaign has since been exported to over 90 countries around the world, and barely a day goes by without the team receiving a request for the ads! ‘Sometimes you have to get past the “not invented here” barrier, and instead apply the lens of “what could we do with this?”’ said Keith. It goes without saying that this kind of courage is becoming increasingly important in the global village that we call home.

‘The most successful creative people I know don’t always hit a home run, though. They are just nimble enough – and brave enough – to regroup when it isn’t working and start again. ’In 2009, for example, when Keith headed up marketing for Baileys Irish Cream in Dublin and developed Baileys with a hint of flavour, her team developed a striking print and outdoor campaign called ‘Listen to your lips’. But, sadly, she explained, the TV didn’t live up to the print, so they changed direction. That happens. A lot. ‘I think we need to reward people for courage – because it isn’t easy to think different!’ she exclaimed.

Relevance. Resonance. Reason.
That said, Keith is not advocating thinking differently just for the sake of thinking differently. “If we are talking about successful creativity, we can’t afford to do think differently just for the sake of it. It has to be insight-driven and actionable. It has to address a business problem, or take advantage of a business opportunity, or it won’t see the light of day,” Keith warns. Take the work she did on Captain Morgan Spiced Gold, with the Soweto Beach Parties, which saw the brand bring in 100 tons of sand, palm trees, volleyball nets, yachts, big bands, beach buggies, and even bikini girls – in so doing not only attracting crowds of 20 000 plus for weekends of revelry, but also firmly lodging Captain Morgan Spiced Gold in the hearts and minds of LSM B consumers, who were largely drinking green bottle premium beers at the time and tended to view rum as a ‘downmarket’ drink. It also endeared the brand with the taverners of Soweto, who gained their own ‘beach bars’ during the campaign period, as well as VIP passes for their special customers. And her contribution to the Bells brand in terms of linking ‘extra special times with extra special Scotch’, ultimately culminated in the ‘Give that man a Bells’ campaign, which securely established the brand as the number one Scotch whiskey in South Africa.

Purpose. Passion.
But for Keith, it is immediately apparent that ‘purpose’ is two-pronged, and the work of which she is often most proud tends to link a brand not only with a commercial purpose, but also a social purpose. ‘In 2013, we launched the Coca-Cola “Crazy for Good” campaign, which encouraged and showcased South Africans from all walks of life indulging in Random Acts of Kindness, from teaching homeless children to surf, to leaving spare change in vending machines, or even just giving a random stranger a hug. It was all about sharing and spreading happiness, at a time when we seemed to need it most. ’The campaign was so successful that it sparked two other movements: ‘Swings for Good’, which started out as a challenge to Coca-Cola’s agencies to hang swings in their neighbourhoods to increase the fun quotient around us, but culminated in a movement that has been adopted internationally and has seen people from around the world contribute towards grassing underprivileged soccer fields around the country; and ‘Cola-Cola Rock Corps’, which encourages teens to donate their time to community projects in their neighbourhoods, and rewards them with ‘money can’t buy’ tickets to an exclusive once-in-a-lifetime concert starring international artists. Last, but certainly not least, there is one thing that almost all of Keith’s work has in common.

Out of the box
‘Creativity is not, nor should it ever be, relegated to a box. And by that, I mean The Box. The TV. Creativity is about an idea, not a TVC. Today, especially with the massive explosion in media opportunities, where virtually every surface (even the air around us!) has the potential to become a space for communication, a good creative thought must be able to live beyond the box, and out of the box. ’A Rainbow for the Rainbow Nation, which celebrated 20 years of democracy in South Africa, is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of this final step. But there is also another Box, one that boxes us as either ‘creative’ or ‘not creative’, and Keith’s final word is about not boxing ourselves. ‘There’s a quote on the wall in the lobby of the headquarters of Coca-Cola in Atlanta from Robert Woodruff that reads: "There is NO LIMIT to what a man can achieve, so long as he doesn’t care who gets the credit”.’ I subscribe to that belief, because just as we acknowledge that creativity is not limited to The Box, we also need to acknowledge that creative thoughts are not limited to the box in which we place so-called “creative” people. We are all capable of thinking creatively, and our best work will emerge when we forget who is the agency and who is the client. When we roll up our sleeves and get stuck in the mess together.’

It takes a special kind of person to not only indulge but also encourage the messiness that is creativity. Sharon Keith is exactly that kind of person.

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