Interview with Jon Williams

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In the late 1980’s we poured over our flickering TV sets, well those of us who were born, as another new Castrol advert, or  “those Boet en Swaer ads” as they became known, played out. Recently one of these ads surfaced on YouTube. And filled with the nostalgia from this era in South African television, it’s been slowly been making its way around the globe. So we thought we’d get in touch with one of the legends behind these ads, Jon Williams. Jon shares what went into making these ads South African classics. Kidd Parker from the creative magazine Audrey2 did an awesome interview with Jon for us, and we’re super excited to share it here with you.

Q. Before we get into the Castrol campaign, what sort of television experience did you have before you worked on the Castrol ads?


I was quite experienced by then. Years before I was sent over to New York, along with my writer Doug Laurie, to gain knowledge in TV production at NCK where the famous Norman B. Norman reigned supreme. He was 76 years at the time and still came into the shop everyday, brilliant guy. He loved my writer and myself because we didn’t know the rules and therefore didn’t play by them, which enabled us to produce some really fresh new stuff. We went over there mainly because SA got television late and not many people here knew that much about making TV ads.


Okay, so tell us about the origins of Boet en Swaer. Where did they come from?


I wish I could take credit but the two characters, Boet (Ian Roberts) and Swaer (Norman Anstey) were created by Mike Rossi and Mike Freidman. It wasn’t until a few years later that McCann won the pitch for Castrol and we came up with ideas for the second series of commercials: “Spaniards” (Rally Driver), “Finito”, “The Stick”, “Expanding” etc..


Who was the team behind the series of ads McCann did, in particular the “Rally Driver”?


I wrote the script, along with my copywriter at the time, Graham Hall. And funny enough the french that you hear in this commercial, the whole,”Deux! Deuex!” and, “Lu-bree-fee-yon!” bit..was actually written by a young English girl in the office who happened to speak french…can’t remember the name though…


So what was the initial brief for the ad?


Now this is going back a while but actually the brief, if you want to call that, was more of a proactive push from our Creative Director, Mike Ellman-Brown. And it was brilliantly simple. He said, “Lets make these characters work even harder!”

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There’s a story that your CD at McCann would occasionally put a brief out to the entire agency, even including the tea lady.


This was Mike just doing his thing. He did it just to see what would happen. He was that kind of Creative Director. Brilliant. If he believed you could go with something he didn’t interfere but would listen and give advise when needed.


Was Castrol a dream client or did they fit the stereotypical “big-corporate-full-of-shit-client”?


Let me put it like this, the best client i’ve ever worked with in my career, and i’ve worked with a  few, is Castrol. The marketing director at the time was Derek Spense. An amazing guy who was liked by all and whose enthusiasm and leadership qualities saw him promoted to MD of Castrol SA – and then move on to one of the top posts at Castrol Europe. We were fortunate enough to work with a client that shared our passion and creative vision for the characters as well as the brand.


And when you presented your script it to the client…


They loved it! So much in fact that… You see we wrote a 90 second spot, even though we were briefed to do a 30 second. They liked it so much that we eventually convinced the them to take a 60 as it would just allow the story to unfold and work that much better. They spent the extra cash and it did work. The other thing about Castrol you need to know is that they understood, as we did at McCann, that above all else we needed to maintain the integrity of the stories we were telling. We set out to make people hungry for next commercial and the next..and thats exactly what we did.


This era of SA television seems to have produced a number of nostalgic ads, like Castrol, such as Cardies, VW etc.. What do you think it is about these that struck such a chord with the South African public?


I guess they were just more story driven, and a lot had really great characters. People could relate to them emotionally…. the characters and choice of actors were good. Look at the Cardies ad (unfortunately not one of mine), the one with the guy carrying the pumpkin as a gift in the middle of nowhere- the casting was fantastic! It really made the ad. Also in those days we had a lot more budget for TV. We were doing 90 second and 60 second spots. We were very lucky. The length of the commercial allowed you to really develop the story. And again this is where Castrol as a client was brilliant. They agreed that rather than cutting the ads down to fit a budget, we should just show them less, make people want to see it. These days how many times do they repeat the same crappy ad in one night!?


What was it like working with Ian and Norman, a k a Boet en Swaer?


The characters created by Rossi & Freidman were brilliant, but I can tell you Ian and Norman brought so much to the roles. They were definite pro’s, and were really good together. There were so many improvised looks, gestures and moments that just took the ads to a whole new space. For example, the beautiful ending to the “French Rally Driver” ad, where Boet puckers his lips, mocking Swaer about being kissed by the Frenchman…it wasn’t scripted..I can’t claim that it…. that was just pure talent. Brilliant!


Tell us about the location of Horingboom Oasis, it looks like it was shot out in middle of the Kalahari….


The original set of ads were done in South West Africa and because of the distance it created huge transportation costs. We wanted to put the money where it should be spent, so David Feldman found a location to the north of Pretoria towards Sun City, which was perfect. It was practically identical to the scenery in South West Africa. The thorn bushes, the tree where the shower was..exactly…With the money we saved in traveling up and down across the county, we were able to build a complete replica of Horingboom Oasis…. Now here’s another little story. Back in those days the Loerie Awards were held at Sun City, not far from were we had shot the Castrol ads. Now after the loerie awards they released an awards newspaper with all the winners etc…, so we booked a bit of ad space. Now we couldn’t to use pics of Boet en Swaer as they were contracted to TV,  so we just took a shot of the Horingboom Oasis. And written above the image with two little speech bubbles was the following dialogue: “Hey Swaer, there’s a lot of noise coming from Sun City.” Swaer replies, “Ja boet..sounds like Loeries to me.” We won a gold loerie that year.


Although the ad appears simple, when you look closer there seems to be so many subtleties that bring the ad to life.


Now let me tell you this story… David Feldman Productions had a stable of the best movie directors in the country…..we went to him because we wanted the best and he was the best. His top directors were fully booked and we were now on a tight shooting schedule, so he recommend this new director Joni Botha. He hadn’t done much but we got talking to the guy and right away we knew he was right. It was early in his career and he was extremely raw. He was an ex-Art Director which brought a whole new skill set to the shoot. He even drew his own shooting frames. Now the actors were so experienced and not just from being in the Castrol ads, they had been in all sorts of things by then. Now what usually happens with experienced actors is they’ll try work a new director, you know…try and intimidate him. These guys didn’t. They were such fuckin’ professionals. Real pro’s. Almost every take was perfect. So when Joni kept asking for repeat takes you can imagine why they slowly started getting pissed off. He would do up to 12 takes on one line. So eventually I took him aside and said, “Listen Joni what’s the story here, the guys are getting a bit ticked off?”. So he looked at me and said, “We’re supposed to be in the middle of South West Africa”. He looks at the sky, “Big open, bright-cloudless skies!”. And thats when I noticed the tiniest scattering of cloud cover across the sky. “So…”, he continued, “…every time a cloud passes, it changes the bloody light!”. I couldn’t believe it. “You fucking brilliant little shit, thats incredible!”, I said. So once we spoke to the actors and he explained about the variations in light, they were more than happy to continue to do the scenes a dozen more times. Brilliant attention to detail. He had the balls to push for perfection.


With public demand, the Castrol ads basically became a series didn’t they?


You see, this is the sort of client Castrol was: When the Australians came over to SA, I think it was for the Rugby… we suggested making an ad that would only appear maybe 3 or 4 times over the period of the tour. And Castrol said, “Go for it!” .So we shot “The Stick” ad, the concept of my then writer Abo Abramowitz. Was the ad necessary? Probably not as we had a few other spots running at the time but the relevance was brilliant and the public loved it.


At the time of these ads was there any political influence on the ad industry?


Yeah, I think there was. We suddenly had a lot of black guys introduced into ads. Which to be honest was what the industry really needed. And yes initially this did receive a negative reaction from the public-of all races saying, “This isn’t how it is in reality… blah blah blah….. ” But I guess you could say it was life imitating art, because eventually it was going to happen. And the guys who had the guts do it best came off better. There were some ads at the time where the racial buddy-buddy mix just came across so forced. Really uncomfortable. I actually did an ad around the time of the ’94 elections. Things were pretty tense politically. It was a full-page with the words. “Reduce Friction in SA” written in Castrol oil. It got a finalist at Cannes that year.


So was there any political pressure to introduce Fats?


No, no pressure. We introduced Moegai, played by Fats Bookholane, because we saw the need to include a whole new burgeoning market that just wasn’t there before.


Was there a negative response from the public about the addition of Moegai?


None what so ever, because we choose a character that wasn’t an “Uncle Sam”. It wasn’t facetious. He was real. Fats was a lovely guy and the rapport between these three guys was amazing. I think my concept for the “Expanding” ad, written with my copywriter Abo, introduced him in the correct way. It was great and I suppose it did have a bit of a political undertone, but it just felt right.


Why do you think these ads, to this day, are held dear to the South African public?


Above all, I think it was because they portrayed a sense of reality. People could relate. It was guys talking like these sort of guys would talk. Rough, salt-of-the-earth kinda guys, dirty overalls and all.


Now that was a problem wasn’t it, because who would want their car fixed by these guys?


We were true to their characters, they could never be experts. We were careful about that, which is why I introduced the Rally Driver. The expert, who would know what good oil is….


And at the first airing of the ad, what was the response like?


Brilliant! At that time, and for the first time, The Paris to Dakaar ran from Paris to the Cape and was called “Paris le Kap”. It was a Saturday afternoon and the very first rally cars, racing along dirt roads, crossed through the Kalahari into SA. The whole of South Africa was watching, this was a huge event. Then suddenly it cut to the shot of the French Rally Driver running up the dirt road. It had cut to our commercial and people at first thought it was real! We couldn’t have asked for better timing – well I’m sure the media department had a hand in it- but the response was excellent.


The adds were definitely produced for a local audience…


Yeah, they didn’t fair too well internationally, they were well liked but didn’t cross the gap. They were made with a  local audience I mind. Although, the “Rally Driver” did win a Silver Clio and an Art Direction Creativity Award. And locally it creamed the competition. Loerie golds, One Award, M-Net plum of the year……. I recall seeing a press release from McCann claiming it had won more awards than any other ad…still got it lying around somewhere…


What do you think of the current direction of Castrol’s advertising?


I guess the whole “Sludge” campaign they’re currently running isn’t too bad. It might be hyperbole, but at least there’s a consumer benefit somewhere in there. Its a lot better than the love-love-love, passionate-about-oil stuff they did before…I understood what they were trying to get across, but I can’t say I was crazy about it.


Besides the Castrol ads, are there any other ads you’re particularly proud of?


Yes, I was at Klerck & White Saatchi & Saatchi, with Ashley Bacon as my writer. We’d created a television campaign for Iscor Share Offer. Shot by Ian Gabriel of David Feldman Productions. And I don’t know if I’m completely proud of saying this but it really was an effective campaign…It was for Iscor, selling shares to the public. People came flooding in. The Offer to Buy Shares was over-subscribed by more than 500%, making this campaign by far the most successful of its type ever in South Africa. I guess that’s something to be proud of. It also picked up a Loerie Gold that year. But not long after, everybody that bought shares, lost money.. and I guess I’m partly responsible but it made for a really potent and effective ad…Another highlight, with no downer this time, was the a VW beetle “line” campaign. Not sure I should mention this as it it’ll really show my age. But anyway, Bill Bernbach, head honcho of DDB and responsible for the famous VW Bug ads (among many others) in the States, was brought over to judge the OCCAY awards, which was the precursor to the Loerie awards. He called the campaign “disarmingly simple, focused, unique and right on the money” when he awarded it an OCCAY Gold. Getting praise from someone like Bill Bernbach is definitely something to remember.

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