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From Johannesburg to London: Q&A with Sunshinegun co-founder George Rautenbach

The Drum recently spoke with George Rautenbach, co-founder and creative partner of design and communication agency Sunshinegun to discuss the explosion of global interest in African creativity, his agency’s successful expansion into London and its mission to bring the vibrancy and energy of its home, South Africa, to brands around the world.

When was Sunshinegun first established?

Sunshinegun first saw the light in February 2010. It was time. We had done our time at large agencies, studios, grown up through the ranks, learned our trade, built networks, gathered confidence and I think at that point of our lives, we were hungry and ready for Sunshinegun. I also think it was driven by a sense of innovation and entrepreneurial spirt and wanting to give back to the industry. My co-founder Bronwen Rautenbach and I were both executive creative directors at our places of work and both left at the same time to start our own thing in the bowels of a depression and the financial crisis of 2009. And we thought, ‘That’s great!’, because things couldn’t get worse, they could only get better.

What were the key accounts that allowed the agency to grow?

We had a great relationship with Media24 in that we worked on some newspaper brands with them. In particular, the biggest newspaper in South Africa, the Daily Sun. We steadily emerged and developed a very unique way of working combining storytelling and design.

A beautiful early project we worked on was Hotel Dona Ana in Mozambique. It was an Art Deco-inspired revamp and we got to explore the story of Dona Ana, the lover of Senhor Alves, a hotel magnate in the 1930s in Mozambique. He built this hotel for his lover, Dona Ana. So, we expressed her character throughout the building and the brand – a fiery Latin mistress. We worked a lot with Portuguese-inspired culture and design language, and I think that made us interesting to Nando’s. Because, Nando’s is Afro-Portuguese in heritage.

And then of course, Nando’s changed our lives forever. We’ve been working on their business for six years, 2013. We pitched on a global packaging project against three other agencies and came up tops and since then went on to become the global brand custodians for design. We also do communications and stuff for them. When we were briefed on undertaking the Global Brand Visual Identity, a mammoth task, we knew that things were changing. Of course, walking up on stage to receive a Grand Prix at the Loerie Awards was when we really came face-to-face with the idea that we were now on a global stage and that there was no going back.

ABInBev has also changed our shape again over the past two years. A lot of the packaging experience we’ve gained in rolling out the 400 plus SKUs for Nando’s Grocery, put us in a great position to be considered by ABInBev. We’re now the proud design parents for a host of their brands including, Castle, Castle Lite, Carling Black Label, Hansa, Flying Fish and Brutal Fruit. We work a lot in the innovation realm with them, and that’s really exciting for a design firm.

What prompted the agency to create a London office?

We needed to authentically deliver the real Southern African story of Nando’s in the UK. It’s about being a conduit, offering a cultural truth, not culturally appropriating work, but bringing it from the source – the real McCoy from Southern Africa. It’s very important for a brand like Nando’s to be real and honest and authentic. They required a way of working that saw a small team sitting in their headquarters in London, in Putney. It helped us be more agile, more in touch and more responsive. It helped us build relationships there and it’s helped us organically grow our business in the Nando’s universe.

We started the London the office three years ago in 2016. We’d been working on the Nando’s business for a year out of South Africa before we moved to London in 2016. The partners moved to London and, of course, Tessa Whitmore, our client service director and ‘astronaut’ in the UK. We joke about her operating in a different stratosphere.

How important was it to transfer an element of Sunshinegun’s existing company culture on the London office?

It was very important, because along with that culture and way of working came our “South African-ness” – our sunshine, our optimism, our positive attitude, our accents, our can-do attitude and hardworking nature. And, it was important to bring South Africa to London in that way, because beyond the work that we produce and the people we engage, is the constant reminder of the roots of the brand that are South African.

What, if anything, are the main differences between the industry in SA and the UK?

What I perceive is that we’re at a different life stage in South Africa from a design and branding point of view to where we think the UK is. We’re on our way up, we’re emerging, we’re optimistic, we’re positive, we’re bright, we’re colourful. We’re the result of a melting pot of cultures and traditions and colours and that creates a very unique outlook for brands and design.

You could say that the Global South is serving as inspiration to the Western world in these times. You just look at fashion and how it influences fashions and design and culture – think Black Panther. Africa is finding its own voice and not trying to emulate Europe, but boldly be ourselves and bring that magic to the world. Instead of following the western trend of nostalgia and the past, Africa is profoundly forward-looking.

Southern Africa is bursting with creativity, we’re awakening to a world looking for something different, something out of the ordinary. It’s a very inspiring place to be in right now. More and more brands and consumers are hungry for this way of life, culture and design.

On the other side of that, in the UK and Europe, it feels like there’s a harking back to the good old days, to tradition and a sense of nostalgia. We want to challenge that. I don’t think you can go forward by going back. At some point all of this reminiscing of the past and grabbing for it, the nostalgia, is going to give way to a future optimism and the future is going to come from places who are experiencing that future at the moment. I think the UK is going to be influenced by, perhaps inspired by the Global South and we’re standing in that space ready for that moment.

What lessons learned in South Africa have you applied to your work in London?

You get a lot from very little, you learn to be frugal, you learn to be innovative, you literally can get a lot from a little here. That culture, that mindset, I think, stands one in good stead in a place like London where there is so much, the space is contested there and there are many designers, many brands being crafted and created. If we can do so much with so little here, we think we could do a lot with more there.

 

Featured by The Drum

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