Budget airline kulula.com may be a client, but Alistair King will be happy if he never sees the inside of an aircraft again. Since the beginning of 2008, he's been commuting every week between his home in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
The reason? The Johannesburg operation of the KingJames advertising group, which King founded with James Barty in 1998, went through a crisis of business and creative confidence last year, to the point that King admits: "We were genuinely nervous about its future."
King and Barty had hoped the Johannesburg agency would operate independently of the Cape Town headquarters. It didn't work out that way. The departure of senior staff left a creative gap. And clients wanted to deal direct with the top dogs - particularly King, who has developed a reputation as one of the creative leaders in SA advertising.
"We thought making the Johannesburg agency completely independent was big of us but now we realise clients want to know you. If a client has an issue, he expects nothing less than the agency head being there to sort it out. So I've spent the year being as important to the business here as I am in Cape Town."
That will continue. For most of this year, he has spent four days a week in Johannesburg, dealing with clients and redefining the agency's creative direction. Now it is back on an even keel - "I think it's the beginning of good things," he says - he is away less from Cape Town, but still expects to spend at least two days a week in Gauteng for the foreseeable future. No wonder King, the group's creative director, says: "This has been the toughest career year of my life."
However, he's not referring only to his Jo'burg commuting. In terms of creative awards and recognition, 2007 was the worst in the short history of the KingJames group. "We won more awards in our first year with eight people than we did in 2007 with nearly 100. It was a big shock."
Despite this, and KingJames's reputation for creative excellence, he insists he's not obsessed with awards and statuettes. "Some companies, when they have a bad Loeries (SA's annual advertising awards), have a postmortem at which they shout and swear at staff, and aim everything at winning the following year. I promise we did not do that, nor will we. I knew we had done a lot of good work, even if we did not win anything. Look at the work we do for Bell's whisky. I'm very proud of that but it's never won anything. So I don't care if we have another bad Loeries, as long as I know our work is good."
For now, that quality is not in doubt. Straight from its worst year, KingJames has rebounded in 2008 to its best: four Cannes Lions and 15 Loeries statues, including a Grand Prix for the masterful Allan Gray investment film featuring a boy who protects his plain girlfriend, having seen in her mother the beauty she is likely to become. Among other awards was work on behalf of kulula and SA Tourism.
King describes it as a "phenomenal victory". So doesn't that create unrealistic expectations for 2009? "I don't think so, as long as we're comfortable with what we do." However, he does admit one group within the agency may suffer from expectations: "I feel sorry for the team doing the next Allan Gray ad."
However much he downplays the importance of awards as "just pieces of metal", he recognises their value. Clients like to see who's hot, and who's not. He only wishes there were more clients like Allan Gray who, he says, took a leap of faith in allowing KingJames to create such a different kind of ad. The company didn't even blanch (well, not very much) when it learnt that to film overseas in the environment King said was necessary, would add R2m to costs.
The company has been rewarded, says King. "We've helped it become a household name and this has translated into business and money. It's been good for both of us."
Advertising was not in King's blood. Under different circumstances he might have been writing this profile about someone else. Born in then-Rhodesia in 1967 and growing up in the eastern border town of Umtali (now Mutare), he dreamt of becoming a journalist. He had changed his mind by the time he left school, and was accepted at Wits University to study for a BSc in genetics. "I wanted to create square tomatoes and super-fast runners who could also play the violin. My imagination was already showing itself."
At the last moment, he changed his mind and, deciding on a career in advertising, enrolled for a BA. Advertising schools were rare in those days, so he founded a university club called Adfactor, and persuaded advertising luminaries like Willie Sonnenberg to teach strategy and other skills to the club's 180 members.
"By the time I left university, I had been trained by some of the best minds in Johannesburg, and it had cost me nothing," he says.
He landed his first job as a junior copywriter at J Walter Thompson, and by the age of 25 had been sent to the Cape Town operation to become creative director. In 1995 he was named by the International Marketing Association as the most promising individual under 30 in the SA advertising industry.
In 1998, he gave up working for others and joined Barty in creating KingJames. He is recognised as one of the creative leaders in the industry. He has been a member of the Creative Circle executive committee for 10 years, and was its chairman for two. He has served on a variety of local industry bodies, including the Loeries awards committee.
King says of himself: "I'm creative but also ridiculously grounded and rational. I've always been very goal-orientated. I see the steps that will get me there. And though I'm creative, I think I'm someone that responsible people, like clients, can trust. Half the battle is to get your clients to trust you."
Advertising is not the only outlet for his creativity. According to Barty, the aim of KingJames has always been to become a creative brand, not just an advertising group. So it has branched out into the music business, where King launched the successful solo career of former Springbok Nude Girls band member Arno Carstens. Other performers have also signed and King so far has been executive producer on eight albums, two of which have achieved gold status for sales.
He says: "I've so far helped six bands but I've not taken any money from the business. We could make lots of money if we wanted to. I could produce a gospel album that would sell 130 000 copies. But that's not why we're here. We want to promote fresh SA talent."
The same applies to authors. KingJames has formed a publishing company with former journalist Shaun Johnson to find promising SA writers. A first collection is due out early in 2009.
King says: "We have incredible musical and writing talent that deserves to be exposed to the world." He also encouraged KingJames to buy into the online and magazine brand One Small Seed.
He says: "Ad agencies are packed with young, bright individuals with a broad range of creative talents. It's not unusual for agencies to want to use those talents in creative fields other than making ads. When you are surrounded by people who generate masses of great ideas constantly, you start to wonder how you can own, package and sell those ideas.
"There are a number of agencies around the world generating ideas, inventing products, designing TV shows, developing concepts they can own, looking for ways to express themselves outside of advertising. KingJames is no different.
"I believe a lot more agencies will head in that direction. An obsession with making ads is not a healthy thing. Creative people need other outlets, or they get stale."