My journey from student to navigator
by Darren Meltz
“Chase your dreams but always know the road that will lead you home again.” These words are the perfect description of the last 15 years. From a wide-eyed first year seated in Vega Johannesburg’s Lucky Star auditorium to teaching 2019’s first years in the Vega-Guggenheim auditorium, my wisdomwithmagic journey has truly been one of coming back home.
Since 2005, Vega has always been my home. A place to learn, play and most of all grow both as a creative thinker but also as a person. During my time as a student, I was fortunate to be taught by the proverbial “misfits and rebels” themselves – Vega co-founders Gordon Cook, Dr. Carla Enslin and Christian Zimelka. How lucky can a young, fresh out of high school, creative be?
The next four years were filled with great memories but what sticks in my mind most was how exciting each day at Vega was. From Christiaan Diederick’s Phoenix Fire Experience to Kevin Collins delivering an Observatory Session in a chicken suit, we never knew what to expect. This all seemed rather crazy at the time but in all the madness we were there to learn, and boy did we learn! The ins and out of brands and how being creative means nothing without a solid strategy.
It’s this idea which brings me to one of my most thrilling but also nerve-wracking and challenging experiences as a Vega student, the annual Brand Challenge (Campaigns as it was called back in my day). Mention the name to any of my current students and you’re sure to receive some interesting reactions. Five weeks of working in a team on a real brief with people you don’t necessarily know or like very much. You don’t get a more true to industry-life experience than that. A really tough time, but also a time where everything we had learned just clicked into place.
For our first Brand Challenge, we were tasked with breathing new life into the Engineering Council of South Africa. Needless to say it wasn’t easy to get excited by the challenge but we did it and came up with a solution we were extremely proud of. These moments of Brand Challenge triumph were always celebrated wolfing down the “winners’ cake” and celebrating or commiserating with our fellow Veganites at Bowls (Zoo Lake Bowls Club) – the place we would most likely be found, other than behind the Macs in the creative studios of course. Many an all-nighter was spent on campus working and reworking before we got it right. It still gives me a thrill, not to mention a weird sense of déjà vu, sitting on Brand Challenge Panel and seeing my students experience that moment when it all makes sense and everything comes together.
Through all the tireless hours of consults, reviews, deadlines and a few awards shows in between, Showcase arrived, the pinnacle of our studies. After interning at King James, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the studies and Vega behind. I decided to tackle my Honours year and after this it was time to leave the Vega nest and head into the wilderness of the industry. I was lucky to jump straight in as junior Copywriter at Ireland-Davenport, which was a whirlwind of note. Writing for some of the most notable international brands, BMW, Apple, Nintendo and Investec. This was like Vega on absolute steroids! Working on seven briefs at once some days and sending headlines to my Creative Director who had just landed in Berlin and was in a taxi rushing to a BMW presentation.
My learnings from Copy class really came into play because writing for a bank one minute and a computer company the next is no mean feat. This was nothing in comparison to another project though when stepping into the shoes of the audience I was writing for become even more real. This pale, Jewish, South African boy needed to swiftly become Nigerian to write for Glo Mobile. A crash course in Naija Lingo and suddenly my radio spots were on air across Lagos and Abuja.
From there it was onwards and upwards to DDB South Africa where I experienced the true highs and lows of the industry. Riding the crest of the creative wave and then feeling it come crashing down. Some of my hardest work and life lessons were learned during this time. We were agency of the year with piles of accolades one year and back to square one the next. The nature of this beast we call advertising.
It was about this time when a position became available to teach Copywriting in the evenings. I thought this could be cool and how difficult could it be? Well, there I was in a class with ten students and I’ll admit it’s a whole other ballgame standing up in front of a group of young “creative solution seekers”. My navigators made it look so easy but at that moment I felt like I was the worst and the most boring navigator ever. But as with anything you learn as you do.
In December 2013, Vega Pretoria was in need of a Copywriting navigator and the night just before I jumped onto a plane to New York I was prepping for my interview. Without any sleep I was in front of the team in the Jacaranda city. I’m still not sure how but I made it through and in 2014 I was back home as a fulltime navigator. I was back in a familiar space but the scariest part was that my mentors were now my colleagues. This was in many ways more frightening than working with some of the most respected Creative Directors. I needed to show that I not only remembered everything they had taught me, but that I could also teach it to others.
My Vega journey has really allowed me to continue learning and putting all my skills into practice every day and now being on the Jozi campus, I’m right back where it all began and looking forward to many more years of wisdomwithmagic!