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Insecurity Keeps Creative at Top

Andrew White
Andrew White. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Andrew White, an advertising aficionado, is a king reluctant to accept his crown. “I don’t see myself as my peers see me,” he says, waving away his industry legend. He has had a good run in advertising career spanning 34 years, from Ogilvy & Mather Kenya in 1984, then Singapore, then back to Scangroup as a shareholder until 2013 when he called it a day (with a sweet payoff) and started Creative Village Africa, a small company with big ideas in design, advertising, marketing and branding. He met JACKSON BIKO at his Lavington home-cum-office.

I always heard about you but never knew how you looked like. One time I came here and I saw you seated in the garden, holding court, with people keenly listening. I asked someone, who is that gentleman and he said with reverence, “don’t you know Andrew White?” Do you feel the weight of your name?

(Cringing) That is surprising because I wouldn’t be the person holding court with a group of people because I’m terribly introverted. In school, if a teacher asked me a question, I would completely freeze. I was just so self-conscious, so nervous, I couldn’t talk in class, how I got through school, I have no idea. I acted for a bit in my younger years, but when I went on stage I could dissociate from reality of being on stage.

I studied law at school for a couple of years and got into a communications course and if a presentation was needed in front of people, I could get through it by ‘becoming somebody else’ but after a presentation I would go back to my self-conscious quiet self. So, it’s funny that I ended up in advertising, and it’s funny you should say I was kind of holding court.

As someone who has led a successful career, why do you think some people excel in certain disciplines and others don’t, apart from the usual luck, hard work, opportunity...?

Insecurity is what pushes you forward. That’s what kept me going in advertising. I have always been insecure of not coming up with good creative ideas. That would drive me into the night. I’ve worked with creatives who will mistakenly believe that genius is shown in how fast you can come up with a solution. Genius has never been that, it’s about understanding that you have to keep working until you come up with a great idea. You know the expression, genius is 99 percent hardwork, one percent inspiration? That's true. I don’t put myself in that genius category but I know that to come up with a great idea, you have to work hard.

You finally got your citizenship as a Kenyan, what does it mean to you to be a Kenyan?

I got my citizenship last year, August after applying in 2013. Being a Kenyan makes me feels secure. It also makes me feel responsible but also disappointed seeing the level of corruption that exists. It affects everybody, it affects every industry.

At 63 years old, is there a dream that you have given up on?

(Pause) Screenwriting. While at Scangroup, I took a sabbatical to go to the US to study screenwriting. When I came back I put it on hold to be able to bring advertising work in.

What do you dream of right now?

Making a difference in not only the marketing and communication sector but also the film and TV sector. At Creative Village Africa, we have diverse companies that can make this dream come alive.

They say that creativity comes with a certain dose of madness, is there any grain of truth there?

I don’t know if you need to be cuckoo, but maybe you have to a bit of a dreamer, a bit of a gambler. Building this entire complex was a dream that continued to grow and it was very much a gamble as well. We need to create our own economy and our own demand as people doing business in Africa.

What has been your best advertising idea?

I think the Trust Umbrella campaign of 2007. It’s the most admired. Equity Bank’s “Mimi Ni Member” was also a good one that resonated for many reasons. It was the first multi ethnic campaign where we didn’t use one language and slogan that everybody adopted.

I spoke to one creative and he said that insecurity is so rife in the lives of creatives and to find validation most turn to substance abuse. Have you ever had a problem of drugs or alcoholism?

I smoked for two weeks when I was 14 years old.

Weed or cigarettes?

Cigarettes. My father got TB {tuberculosis} at the same time and, you know, those days, this was late 60s, getting TB was very serious, serious enough to stop you smoking. So I never smoked.

What’s your addiction now?

It’s funny you should ask this … may be it’s my age but after work, I like to go home and sit down in the lounge room and have a cup of tea with my wife, if she’s home in time. That’s my comfort zone now.

You’ve led a very tamed creative life, compared to your peers.

It depends. Maybe it’s that knowledge of being an introverted person that keeps me away from drugs. I suspect introverts are probably more prone to addiction than extroverts. I remember I was working in Hong Kong when I left Australia and I can still visualise myself at 1 o’clock in the morning writing headlines. I couldn’t go to sleep until I had cracked the headline. I would be drinking coffee every time I wanted to break. When I came to Kenya I was 28, then went to Singapore as the creative director when I came back to Kenya I was told that my career was finished, that I was mad for having left Singapore for little Nairobi in Africa. But then we started scooping advertising awards.

How important was winning an award?

Did awards drive me to keep doing innovative work? Perhaps. Awards are a good reward for the effort put into campaigns on the job. You’d often get clients and creatives saying, ‘awards are not important, it’s about selling of products that’s important.’ It’s not about the creativity, but creative work, original work, innovative work cuts through the clutter.

How do you unwind?

I don’t.

You don’t have a down time, you don’t do stuff for yourself?

A cup of tea at 6 o’clock. That sounds really lame but I’m quite happy about that. I used to play golf a bit with some colleagues on a Sunday morning but that would be relaxing and pleasant halfway through the first hole then it would be agony from that point on. (Chuckles for the first time).

What’s your greatest validation now?

Recently we had a small party here in the garden and one of the gentlemen who works here stood up and said nice things about me, and thanked me for things I have done here and they all sang ‘He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.’ That’s validation. I wasn't expecting it , I was seriously taken aback. Validation to me is not about what I have done personally, it’s about what people can do for each other to grow.

It’s amazing that the way people see you is not how you see yourself. How do you see yourself?

I will tell you something weird. When I came back from holidays in January I came back with a holiday beard. And people said that with the beard, I looked less scary than without a beard. I thought, I must look scary if I look less scary with the beard! So I kept the beard. What was the question again?

Do you see yourself the way people see you?

I don’t see that. I don’t feel it, I don’t see that. I see myself as not doing enough. I need to do more. Right now Joy {Joy Mboya, the wife} is doing something amazing with the Godown Art Center. It needs all the support, so I feel like I need to help in anyway because it’s truly transformative.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life in general?

(Thinking) I can’t say that I’m dissatisfied with my life, that would be selfish. I would say 8, I know how much people struggle here, in life, you know...

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