All photos by Muntu Vilakazi
King Adz, or Adam Stone as his friends know him, is prone to making grand statements. This is “shit”, that is “bollocks”. This is “cool”, that is “genius”. When we sat down at a Melville coffee shop in Johannesburg a few months back to discuss his new book The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market, Adz had an opinion about everything. (See selected quotes below.) But after reading his book and listening to him shoot the breeze for a few hours on a number of topics, I began to understand why people pay attention to what he has to say. When it comes to discussions of the digital age and the “old model versus the new model”, Adz appears to have figured out what a lot of struggling media houses, record labels, publishers, television broadcasters and advertising agencies have not. To paraphrase his message − your old model won’t work any more, so stop trying to adapt it to the digital world.
King Adz is an author and creative director who specialises in the creation and documentation of youth culture. Over the past 15 years he has travelled the world, shining his spotlight on global youth cultures, street cultures and subcultures. He has documented his journeys in book projects like The Urban Cookbook (Creative Recipes for the Graffiti Generation) and Street Knowledge (An A to Z of Urban Culture). He has also made a documentary about French street artist Blek le Rat.
When The Con sat down with him, he was in South Africa to promote his new book, The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market. The venue for our interview was the De la Crème Patisserie in Melville, Johannesburg. King Adz sat down at the table and and ordered a decaf cappuccino.
After brief introductions we began to chat about the journalism and politics in South Africa, rather than his new book. Adz was a very inquisitive guy and at one point it wasn’t clear who was interviewing whom. As we discussed politics in South Africa, the issue of apathy raised its head, particularly how this related to the youth. “When people are apolitical, they are doing it as a reaction,” said Adz, “whether that reaction is against the Tories or the ANC.” “The tricky thing is that the ANC has the hearts and minds of the older generation, but not the youth,” said Adz. “To empower the youth you have to get them to be political. I don’t mean the old way of being political, I mean having a voice.”
Adz first arrived in South Africa in 1996. “I lived here full time when Mandela was president and then for part of the Mbeki years, and I have lived in and out of the country since then,” he said. “Corruption has become acceptable and that sends a message to the youth that you don’t have to work hard.”
At that point the waitress shuffled over and Adz ordered a full English breakfast. It was clear he was very passionate about South Africa. “I don’t have a passport, but I would like one, because I have tied my flag to the South African mast in a way,” he said. “There is something really interesting here, because you are a new country. “The real interesting space here in South Africa is where things are happening offline. Sure, people come along and write about it, but the really interesting things are happening in the townships, before the hipsters come along. “If your life is hipster bars and cool trainers, then you are just replicating what came before. I saw these young black teenagers dressed in tweed, but with a little African twist, and I thought that was brilliant. This is the real authentic stuff! “My next book is going to be about South Africa, it’s a place that’s close to my heart. If my kids weren’t at school and university in England, then I would live here all the time,” he added, before he closed his train of thought with, “Graham Greene said, ‘The best view of England is one from afar’, and it’s true.”
South Africa features in Adz’ new book, The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market. The last 100 pages of his 350-page tome on youth culture and advertising is dedicated to his travels throughout the Brics countries. “When I agreed to do this book, I really had to think, how this book would be different, because there are books out there on youth advertising. And then I thought this book would be about my journey, about the developing world, not just about the people who make the ads, but the people they are talking to,” he said. The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market is littered with quotes from advertising executives, filmmakers, bloggers, photographers and youth consumers Adz met while doing research for his book in China, Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa. “What I am rallying against in this book is the old model, the old model of advertising is broken, just like the old model of journalism is broken,” said Adz. “Advertising is on its ass, because if you don’t change you are going to die. Media is no different.”
The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market is Adz’ personal journey as he travels around the globe soaking up youth culture and street culture, finding examples that show how the really innovative work that has the best chance of reaching youth audiences is not coming from old-school advertising agencies that claim to know how to speak to the youth but according to Adz don’t. As he states in the book, “The information you are looking for isn’t something you can quantify or sum up in a report sheet, or discover through data patterns, or glean through research. You can track what the youth were buying yesterday, but you can’t predict what they’re going to be into next month as they don’t know themselves.” These arguments are reiterated by creative agencies that Adz identifies in his book as being ahead of the curve, run by people like Dylan Williams of creative agency Mother. “We used to start with commerce and work out to the culture, and now we need to start with culture and work back to commerce,” Williams is quoted as saying in the book. He goes on to say, “Brands and advertisers used to start with questions like: ‘What are we gonna say?’ and ‘Why should people believe this?’ but today it’s more like: ‘What culture or subculture are we gonna be part of?’ and ‘What might we credibly do to contribute to the surroundings and be rewarded commercially and culturally?’”
Adz’ book also details innovative campaigns that show how thinking outside the box can provide surprising results, like the campaign for Amsterdam hotel the Brinker, where this run-down establishment was sold on the basis of being so awful. Taglines like “Now even more noise” were used to sell the hotel as an experience. “When we first saw the Brinker, all the standard advertising approaches we might have had died,” said Erik Kessels, who worked on the campaign. “There were no benefits to the consumer, no unique selling propositions, no points of difference − it was just crap. So we decided: why not tell the truth? Why not be brutally honest? It was an approach that worked because it led to a grim kind of humour.” Adz’ book is littered with innovative ideas and stories of how they were successful. “If I had a pound for every meeting I have been in where someone says, ‘Let’s make it go viral’ and I think, ‘You idiot, do you know what that means?’ If you set out to make something go viral, it won’t go viral; if you set out to do something cool, it will go viral, because you have love in your heart for it and people can see that and go, ‘Oh, that guy, he is for real’ “My whole mantra in advertising is doing good. The ad agencies that don’t get that are still pumping out clever ideas that don’t mean anything. It’s like that Ben Kingsley ad for Santam, it’s clever but it doesn’t mean a thing to anyone.” Adz covers this point of “doing good” in his book at length. Regardless of whether you are an advertising professional or not, The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market is a riveting read and is as much about this new global digital world we live in as it is about youth advertising. Ignore King Adz to your detriment.
Adz on mentoring youth
“I spend about a quarter of my time mentoring kids. I show them my cultural journey, from growing up in my boring London suburb to 1978 when I discovered reggae for the first time, then I was a skater, then I was into raving and the club scene and football culture. It all filters in − you can’t run away from yourself, to quote Bob Marley.”
Adz on South African youth culture
“Myself, Roger Young and some kids from Durban were on a rooftop, some fashion party, and we were chatting. ‘How can I blog about a R900 par of shoes when I can’t even afford airtime?’ said one of the kids.” The quote is credited in Adz’ book to Mthandeni Msomi, a Durban youth blogger. A few pages later, writer and filmmaker Roger Young is credited with the quote, “Oblivion and sneakers separate the South African youth from their rand.” It’s a spin-off from the same conversation. “What he means is that there has always been a huge jolling culture here, a huge drink culture. If you look at that culture and look at how Nike is dominating cultural events, they are clever and sneaky. “Sneakers are a very strange thing. It’s a powerful product, it’s about consumption, and Roger’s quote perfectly sums up the consumption here in South Africa, especially among the youth. “It’s like Roger’s cynical quotes about Cape Town, where you are DJing and everybody in the audience is a DJ, so it’s a clusterfuck − you are not actually doing anything. “It’s like having a book club with just writers in it.”
Adz on the Brics nations
“In the Brics nations there is an openness, because the world and the brands that operate here have just woken up to the fact that there is a huge market here and it’s a youth market. You can’t just come here and say, ‘Buy this, were cool,’ − you need to embed yourselves in their lives, make a difference. It all goes back to doing good. If you can get the youth market now, they will be yours when they are the middle class.”
Adz on the changing face of digital media
“What we are fighting against are the dinosaurs, and luckily the ice age is killing them off. Advertising is on its ass, because if you don’t change you are going to die. Media is no different.”
Adz on the internet and publishing
“I am a reader, so I love books, but I don’t buy newspapers. I’d rather read it on my tablet, because I like to be able to click on the links. If there is a journalist whose stuff I like, I subscribe to his feed and it comes straight to my inbox. Publishing online is fine, but the best stuff still needs to be between two hard covers. There is nothing wrong with online content, is just has to lead somewhere.”
Adz on the internet and the music industry
“The internet is meant to have killed off the music industry, the advertising industry, it hasn’t − it’s opened it up. It’s opened up a global market. The record industry rips every artist off, no matter who they are. The internet allowed people to be in control of their own destiny − it’s given music a whole new lease on life that no one could have imagined, because of this global community. With the internet you can download 20 albums like that and never listen to them, you have no respect for them. So digital has led to resurgence in vinyl − Daft Punk are selling their new album on vinyl for 30 quid (about R450), they are going to make a fortune. The other thing the internet has led to a resurgence in is the live gig − you can listen to an album in your bedroom, but you cannot replicate the live gig.”
Adz on Twitter
“The thing about Twitter is that part of it is a really acceptable and accessible thing and part of it is just moronic − the ‘I went to this place and I ate that’. People are telling you their story, blow by fucking blow. Like that idea that everybody has a book in them. They don’t, everyone has a book up their ass. Everyone has a tweet in them, yeah, that’s more like it. Warhol was a genius, he was 40 years ahead of us all. Our generation and the generation below us are just constant self-promotion.”
Adz on television
“Television is … I hate fucking television. It’s called the idiot box, I don’t watch television. I work with a company called Lemonade Money, who are very cool and understand that the future of television is on the internet. They use national television to draw you on to their website. They do this by showing two-minute clips of the documentaries that are made on national television and then when you go the website the documentaries are all there for you to watch.”
On Paul Simon and collaboration
“Like Paul Simon, he came here, he dipped his toe in, took everything he liked back with him to record and called it his own. He did nothing − that’s the old model. The new way is collaborating with people, being open to influence and acknowledging it, and then creating original content.”
On ex-Cape Town artist Petit Noir
“He got a lot of press in the UK, but the Guardian writer went on about how the name Petit Noir is spelt incorrectly or is in the wrong tense, which is some real colonial bullshit. All they are trying to do is reaffirm their rule − i.e. the Guardian’s rule − on emerging music.”