Bryce Courtenay: the advertising executive who went exploring.


It is not uncommon among “creatives” working in advertising to yearn for a higher calling. This is not to denigrate what they are doing now; most are entirely satisfied with being perceived as someone with the gift of being able to create something from nothing…and being paid for it. Some even wallow in the nomenclature—perpetuate it and accentuate it (and therein is a warning for clients—the paymasters—you buy a show-pony at your peril; get yourself a healthy dose of pragmatism as well—somebody that really takes the time to get to know you and your product).

Nevertheless, for most creatives there is always something else, something out there. Something for which their “gift” could be more usefully employed than simply selling—say—Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Such was the case with Australian advertising doyen Bryce Courtenay. Despite an illustrious and lengthy career in advertising that saw him create legendary characters such as Louie the Fly and the original Milkybar Kid, Courtenay wanted more.

As with many copywriters, that meant a novel.

Little wonder, considering that Courtenay’s early life reads like a work of fiction. Born in a small village in the Lebombo Mountains near the Limpopo River of South Africa, Courtenay was the product of an affair. He spent his early years in an orphanage; when he went to work, it was in the copper mines of Rhodesia where, he claimed, he never showered without a knife or a pistol for fear of being raped. Later he travelled to London to study journalism. It was there that he met his first wife: Australian, Benita Solomon. It was because of Benita that he moved permanently to Australia and his writing career began.

Nobody can say for sure what attracted the young journalist to advertising. However, it is fair to assume—through later events—that it was the opportunity to create rather than report; to wake each morning knowing that by the end of the day you will have created—you hope—something from nothing.

For twenty-five years Courtenay did it and did it well, first as creative director at McCann Erickson, then J. Walter Thompson, and finally, George Patterson Advertising. He had risen to the top of his profession.

But, he wanted more.

Courtenay told me over dinner that it was in the mid 1980s when exhausted and with serious health issues, he decided that he would leave his high-living (three bottles of wine and a packet of cigarettes a day), high-paid job in advertising and became an author. The deal he made with Benita was that he would set aside three years for the purpose. The first year, he would dedicate to writing a practice novel; the second year would be dedicated to writing an “actual” novel, and the third to writing one more novel, if unsuccessful, in his second year. If after three years he was not published, Courtenay would, he promised Benita, return to advertising.

There is a story behind the rest of the story, and how much of it is true, as told to me, I cannot say. Suffice to say that Courtney’s “practice” novel, The Power of One, earned him an advance of US$1.0 million and became a highly successful film. He went on to write 23 books and sell 20 million copies to became one of Australia’s most prolific and revered authors.

Yet for all his fame and despite having met his commitment to Benita on his first try, something interesting, something more compelling happened to Courtenay—he returned to advertising.

It wasn’t full-time and there was certainly no financial necessity. So, what pulled him back in? Perhaps it was because Bryce Courtenay went exploring. He set out to find that higher calling: a copywriter turned published author. Perhaps he was disappointed in what he found. Perhaps in the solitary life of an author he missed the collaborative approach which is an innate part of great advertising.

Or was it something more?

Bryce Courtenay was known to extravagate. He once said, “I take a fact, put a top hat on it, a silk shirt, and a bow tie.” I know what he meant by that—to take a fact—a product—and make it special.

That, is the power of advertising.

That, is perhaps what pulled him back.

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