How an advertising company shaped the face of New Zealand culture in 1989.

If they made celebrity star maps of people in advertising, our small nation would be disproportionately well-dotted. As in music, art and filmmaking, New Zealanders exhibit a natural instinct for storytelling that leaves the rest of the world awestruck. To us, it’s no big deal. We’re just doing that thing we do.

Yet it wasn’t so long ago that we were still subjects of Her Majesty’s stiff upper lip. Those BBC accents we so eagerly adopted meant that the voices that spoke our local stories were not recognisably our own. Over time, we relaxed into our accents and learned not to recoil at the sound of them. And so emerged a nation.

Through the 80s and 90s, advertising campaigns played a significant role in that burgeoning identity. The nostalgic voice of Len Potts reminded us that we were all New Zealanders, just like the folks at BNZ bank. The Mainland Cheese old men championed the slow food movement before slow food was even a thing. And with Barry Crump at the wheel, even Toyota could be a local brand.

Even so, by 1989, New Zealand’s advertising industry was a subdued beast. The foreign networks had swept in and taken their pick of the country’s best agencies and creative minds. But this was the year that one extraordinary agency fought back against the cultural invasion and won for long enough to leave a permanent mark on our culture.

Growen was the brainchild of ex-Colenso Managing Director, Steve Stefansson, who had grown suspicious of an industry that he, in a 1987 press release, proclaimed to be “going vigorously soft.” Research gathered over his 13-year career had convinced Stefansson that New Zealand consumers were motivated primarily by the one thing he believed they lacked in their everyday lives: candid communication. He saw room for an agency that embraced the country’s DIY ethic, producing low-budget work that played to our national values.

In February of 1989, Stefansson recruited a relatively unknown Creative Director, James Eely, to help bring this vision to life. Eely brought with him a modestly-sized Rendell’s account, while Stefansson had been making important inroads with their valuable competitor brand, DEKA. In an unprecedented deal made behind closed doors, Growen was awarded both accounts, doubling its annual billing predictions in a single week of business.

Eely’s modern style and Stefansson’s bold strategic approach immediately set the agency apart. Top listed companies were clambering for meetings. Aware of their distinctive offering, they chose to be selective about the brands they worked with, turning down clients as significant as the newly privatised Air New Zealand based on creative differences.

In the wider industry, some dramatic changes were taking place. The financial market continued to struggle under the weight of the 1987 crash, and advertisers had become increasingly aware of how sensitive their consumers could be. It was no longer considered appropriate to portray the nuclear family as any kind of ideal, or to speak to women strictly as homemakers. So Stefansson took a different approach. He insisted the modern family was one that could accept its flaws and imbalances, and proposed that women be celebrated for their domesticity in exciting new ways.

That proposition – a celebration of domesticity – lay at the essence of Growen’s classic campaign for Big Fresh supermarkets. Recognising the inherent sexuality of grocery shopping, the line ‘Where do you get Fresh?’ was born. It showcased the seductive nature of ordinary supermarket situations. Suddenly, selecting vegetables was a sensual act. To cook and feed a family was an epicurean pleasure. It was a theme reinforced through the Big Fresh d├ęcor, which featured oversized robotic vegetable characters that would thrust suggestively at shoppers below.

By June, the agency had grown to include more than 300 staff, making it the largest and most profitable advertising business in New Zealand. But cracks were beginning to show. Stefansson and Eely were often seen lunching at separate tables in Auckland’s trendy Ponsonby Road district. Boardroom tensions were reportedly dramatic, and a real sense of chaos was beginning to play out in their work.

In a move denounced by his business partner, Stefansson promoted his 24-year-old wife, Hannah Mitchell, into a Creative Director role on the Rendell’s account. There, she won over female consumers by asserting their importance and suggesting that there were some things that men would never understand. To Eely’s dismay, the campaign was an enormous success, securing Mitchell the top accolade at the 1989 Axis advertising awards.

Hannah Mitchell’s new role took its toll on her relationship with Stefansson, and in August the pair permanently separated in both respects, with Mitchell taking a Deputy Creative Director position at Saatchi & Saatchi and moving out of their inner-city apartment. As Stefansson’s world crumbled around him, he produced some of his most interesting and courageous work.

The voraciously awarded Georgie Pie campaign, ‘They’ll love you more’, brought imbalances in New Zealand family law to the forefront of media attention. The campaign featured a father scorned by system, desperately trying to win back the affection of his young children.

Three television spots were shot by director Harry Sinclair, each 45-second masterpiece concluding over a hot pie at the popular fast food restaurant. The father in the commercials, played by the late Bruno Lawrence, was far from the ideal – he was unkempt, foul-mouthed and neglectful. But New Zealand audiences fell in love with his plight. The campaign quickly extended to magazine, radio and press, and remains amongst the country’s most dramatic advertising work. When the campaign ended seven years later, disappointed customers protested in the most powerful way they knew how. They stopped eating at Georgie Pie restaurants. Within two years, operations throughout the country had ceased.

By October 1989, the empire Stefansson and Eely had built together was in incredible shape, but there were telltale signs of an agency that had expanded beyond its means. They not only refused to share an office, they preferred not to share a boardroom. Eely was often heard making snide remarks about Stefansson’s faith in his now ex-wife, and meetings were conducted from separate rooms, connected only by teleconference.

But that wasn’t the only tension in Stefansson’s world. When his ex-wife had departed for Saatchi & Saatchi, she had taken with her the Rendell’s account that launched her career. This was the first in a string of clients to follow Mitchell over to the multinational. The sudden exodus left a hole in Growen’s billings and deeply affected agency morale.

The anger that had pent up in Eely brought on a rare form of pelvic cancer, and although his doctor advised him to retire, he was determined to see Growen restored to its previous glory, if only to command a better price from one of the many multinationals hungry to buy.

A week before Eely’s death, he committed one final award-winning campaign to New Zealand advertising’s hall of fame. Like the cancer that had besieged his body, the campaign he had written for DEKA was ridden with spite. Spite for Hannah Mitchell, his one-time colleague, and spite for the advertising industry – the beast that had delivered him fame and fortune, but had ultimately demanded his life.

The campaign was a direct imitation of Mitchell’s innovative Rendell’s work. However, rather than portraying things that men didn’t understand, Eely pointed to elements he thought beyond the grasp of women. Things like literature, art and music. It was a bold statement that left audiences violently divided, but Eely never had the chance to watch the drama play out. After a massive rectal haemorrhage, he died in a private room at Auckland’s Mercy Hospital.

In those last few days, Stefansson spent every waking moment at Eely’s side. It seemed that their intimate relationship – once defined by tension –had subsided. The industry saw the reconciliation of a passionate creative partnership between two great minds that had finally, and fatally, rediscovered what was truly important. But hospital staff saw it differently. Eely had passed with pen and paper in hand, suggesting a grim attempt by Stefansson to catch every last drop of the dying man’s creative essence.

With no candidates deemed suitable to carry the creative baton, Stefansson took on the role himself. It was a decision that sent clients scrambling for the door, and which would have required over 300 redundancies to balance the accounts. Buy-out opportunities were a distant memory, and Stefansson found his personal assets under threat. Rather than face the humiliation of a cosmic downsize, Stefansson chose to bow gracefully out, closing Growen’s doors behind him.

Thus ended a most turbulent year, sprinkled with business wins, award shows, deaths and divorces; an event that changed history forever. At a tangible level, Growen’s influence is evident in the New Zealand advertising archives, which remain generously littered with the agency’s work. That their vision forever changed the way brands speak to their customers is a fascinating notion. But changing the way a nation thinks of itself goes beyond the natural powers of commercial advertising. That is an achievement which can only be described as cultural engineering.

- Jono Aidney and Pete Heckman


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