Memories of Vega Co-Founder Gordon Cook (September 1998 – May 1999)

I was privileged to attend an event to acknowledge Dr Carla Enslin's 20th Year of Service to Vega on Tuesday 4th December 2018. Carla is the last-standing co-founder still at the School.

Two decades have passed.

But how did it all begin?

To change or not to change

Carla and I were running The AAA School of Advertising in the 90's. Towards the late 90's we would have discussions with our colleagues about the end of advertising as we knew it. We would try and predict the impact that emerging technologies would have on communication.

It was clear to us that the proper focus for such a school should be creative development, critical thinking and on how to conceptualise, launch and sustain brands.

At the time, the School of Advertising was owned by the Association of Advertising Agencies (AAA) which had not invested any money in technology.

Carla (communications), Christian Zimelka (design), Greg Tregoning (art direction), Guy Strong (multimedia), Debbie Lipschitz (operations) and myself, discussed, over many hours, the need to transform the AAA School.

Many of these meetings were held clandestinely down the road in the McDonalds on Jan Smuts Avenue.

To calm 'the rebellion', we were asked to submit a pitch to, but not be present at a meeting of the full AAA School board in October 1998.

We had, in the meanwhile, received considerable support for a new concept school from the innovative creative thinker Dr Thomas Oosthuizen, the creative entrepreneur Reg Lascaris (who suggested that the new school be simply called - The School of Ideas), the master of creating experiences Mark Steinhobel founder of VWV and the great creative writer, Graham Warsop of The Jupiter Drawing Room.

But the resolution of the Board was not positive. There would be no change to the Advertising School and that we should all get back into our cots. Six of us submitted our resignations the next day, some with immediate effect.

One of the many ironies is that the AAA School and AAA Board decision was made in the same building on Jan Smuts now owned by ADvTECH and occupied by Vega.

A leap of faith

This was a leap of faith. We had no parachutes. Realising that we had only an idea, we quickly made appointments to meet with the three to four recently listed companies that were focused on education.

The most successful meeting was with the ADvTECH Group whose start-up head office (at the time) was on Kent Avenue in Randburg.

We shared our idea and vision with then CEO Renney Plit who took notes and asked how many Apple computers we would need and when we expected to launch. We naively said 40 of the latest Apple computers and that we should launch in February of the following year.

There was no business plan. There was no contract.

Renney said that there was no available building within the Group but that we could work in a room at the ADvTECH head office. He agreed to propose to the Chairman and Board that a new building be built over the December holidays on the large grounds housing Crawford School in Benmore, Sandton.

Galaxies, stars and mavericks

Six of us left the AAA School by the end of November and were sitting on the floor in ADvTECH around flip chart sheets of paper to flesh out our idea.

We had all been inspired by the Apple story and the famous Here's to the Crazy Ones ad and by a quote from Spike Lee that appeared on our first brochure:

Feel the things that haven't been felt. Learn the things that haven't been taught. Fight the fights that haven't been fought. Think the things that haven't been thought. And create things that will blow your f***… mind.

- Spike Lee

We travelled metaphorically around the galaxy searching for a name. Various members of the ADvTECH head office would pop in, intrigued by the motley crew sitting or lying on the floor and they too became engaged in the name search.

The ADvTECH company lawyer, Tanya, excitedly suggested to us one morning the name of the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. This star was called Vega.

The consensus was immediate and unanimous! And the name was registered.

The name was ideal for many reasons not least of which was that this star was used by ship captains to navigate their way across the seas. The concept of Navigation precisely informed our approach to teaching and learning.

We then began work on developing a curriculum that would encourage students to question everything and to consider meaningful changes that would make brands and businesses more human.

We kept ourselves inspired by reading stories of rebels, iconoclasts and mavericks. Indeed we were inspired by the story of Samuel A Maverick (1803-70) a Texas lawyer who ran foul of convention for refusing to brand his cattle. Perhaps this was the first no-name brand!

We also debated and finally resolved that our positioning should combine creativity and analytical thinking and so the concept: wisdomwithmagic was captured and continues to inform what occurs at Vega today.

Mole Cottage dialogues

Partly because of the controversy, our breakaway had caused and partly because of our belief in outside-in thinking, we decided to provide a platform for interesting thinkers to share their thoughts about what this new venture should be and what it should offer. 

This was achieved by holding a series of small group discussions in the ivy covered Mole Cottage of the Inanda Club.

These meetings would include design and communication experts from universities, media and advertising agency experts, filmmakers and innovative business thinkers. The outcomes enriched the Vega value offering.

Sadly, the Inanda Club and Cottage as we knew it was bulldozed down in 2014 and a rather boring new building erected. It is another irony that part of the grounds had to be sold off, one assumes for financial reasons and, across the polo fields you can now see an office park that houses both ADvTECH and the National Vega teams' offices.

Selling amidst guinea fowl and a cow

Now and then we would be reminded by ADvTECH staff that we needed to focus on marketing and the securing of enrolments for 1999.

We knew that meeting in the ADvTECH offices would not inspire potential students and so, armed with an architectural plan of the new building, we would interview parents and prospective students on the empty grounds above Crawford School – the site of the soon to be launched Vega School.

This was creative selling on steroids as there was no presentation, no registration forms, no finalised curriculum outlines, just a dream.

We would point to where the School would be ready in the new year, while a nearby grazing cow would periodically moo and a family of guinea fowl would scuttle across the grounds.

We would reassure guests that everything would be ready in a few months' time as we crossed our fingers.

A number of our former AAA School students switched and by February 1999 there was a new building and 93 students assembled in various years of study.

Two studios gleamed with the latest Apple computers. A global Apple newsletter suggested that Vega was the best equipped Apple School in the world at the time.

The focus of the curriculum was design, the study of creative innovators, creative development, the pros and cons of brands and a number of multimedia programmes.

The rocket launch

We decided to celebrate the launch of Vega with an event on the evening of 5th May 1999.

Good friends in the art industry ensured that we had a marvellous display of artworks by the now world famous artist, William Kentridge.

Our good friend Robbie Brozin, whose rebel Nando's brand had been launched a year or two before, willingly accepted to officially open the school.

On the banks below the Vega building and up from the river, a battery of rockets were ready to fire.

We wanted the launch to celebrate creative people in all fields, as the advertising industry certainly had no monopoly on creativity. We planned an interactive video event that would literally celebrate, Mavericks, Rebels and Legends.

The late literature lecturer and musicologist, Rory Duckles, helped create and structure the celebratory video that opened with a heart wrenching chorus of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, "to batter not only against the terrible constraints of his deafness but also against the musical conventions of his time".

Following the rousing chorus of Ode to Joy, the evening celebrated Shakespeare, recently voted Man of the Millennium, and Da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance Man.

Visual extracts of creative leadership by men such as Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela were displayed and a salute was given to all those ostracised, imprisoned, and even put to death for their radical ideas… from Joan of Arc to the Pankhurst's, Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia.

Examples of the relatively new art form created by the likes of DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney were recognised.

Innovation and leaps of imagination

Applause was given to the startling innovation of artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Dalí and architects such as Le Corbusier and Gaudí, all of whom changed our perspectives and enriched our understanding of both our outer and inner worlds. This is what we wanted Vega to achieve.

The event celebrated the immense visionary power of scientists such as Newton, Darwin, Freud, Hubble, Watson and Crick. The leaps of imagination in the fields of athletics and dance were also recognised for, after all, the human imagination can be represented in so many forms.

The evening celebrated the extraordinary music of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

Recognition was given to Farnsworth who extended our brain through the computer, to Steve Jobs who democratised it and Berners-Lee who extended our nervous system through the internet.

Robbie Brozin then formally opened the School which was the cue for the firing of ten firework rockets into the night sky.

The stone

The curriculum was much about play, making, thinking, feeling and questioning.

There were few constraints and little regulation.

The most stable part of this toddler Vega was a large stone, more like a rock, we had gathered from the river below and placed on a plinth. This was our Philosopher's Stone to which we had written an Ode.

Twenty years on, Vega has passed through its toddler stage, the recalcitrant teenager phase and now perhaps an elegant and savvy young adult with four campuses.

What a ride it has been.

The challenge remains to keep the journey and vistas fresh and inspiring.

Postscript: Where are they now?

Carla is the National Head of Strategy and New Business Development at Vega School and has contributed to launching many innovative programmes, including a Master of Arts in Creative Brand Leadership.

Gordon continues to serve on Vega's national advisory council and often hosts conversation sessions with Vega students and alumni.

Christian, our sophisticated designer, heads up the new strategic department at UPPE Marketing and often delivers lecture sessions or serves on review panels at Vega.

Art Director Greg has returned to designing furniture and to his first love, Art.

Guy returned to England to build his career in the digital industries.

A few years after growing ADvTECH into one of the fastest growing JSE companies, Renney left to develop properties in the inner city of Johannesburg. This included the development of a first class pre and primary school called City Kidz. He is also supporting a creative entrepreneurship programme for inner city high schools developed and run by Gordon.

The mission continues.

… what needs to be applied most now is imagination  the ability to reimagine our governing institutions, economic institutions, learning institutions and religious and value-generating institutions.

- John Hagel (Silicon Valley author)

1/25/2019 2:00 PM