The future of storytelling in a post-apocalyptic world

  • Ryan Mcmanus standing in front of a blue backdrop

Beneath the chilled, bearded exterior lies a creative whose wheels are always turning and always looking for ways to make things better and disrupt the status quo. 
 
A quick Google search will tell you that Ryan McManus is the Regional Chief Creative Officer of VMLY&R South Africa, sits on the VMLY&R Global Creative Board and the agency’s South African Exco. It’s a lot to fit on a business card.  
 
But in a digital world of remote working, who needs business cards? What the world needs is creative solutions to increasingly tricky problems. And that’s where McManus comes in.  
A graduate of the AAA School of Design and Advertising, Ryan has worked all over the world - first in his hometown of Cape Town, then in London, Lisbon, Paris, Amsterdam and Munich.  
 
And everywhere he went, he put his creativity to good work. In Amsterdam he co-founded The Soon Institute - a company focused on prototyping the futures of brands and communication. He also co-founded Join the Pipe, a water sustainability NGO that won Best New Initiative from UNICEF and still runs today with drinking taps installed across Amsterdam, and water pumps installed across Africa and India. 
 
In Germany, he founded his own film production company that produced all kinds of content including an environmental documentary, shot on location over four months in the remote South Pacific islands of Tuvalu. 
 
In 2014 Ryan returned to South Africa to join NATIVE as ECD. And while the agency’s name has gone through some iterations over the years, the mantra of ‘Purpose-Driven Work that Lives in People’s Lives’ has never changed. Now VMLY&R South Africa still looks to McManus to push creative boundaries with work that actually makes a difference.  
 
We sat down with him (remotely, of course), to find out how he does it.  
 
Before joining Native, you had an impressive global portfolio of work. And now during lockdown, you and your team have had the opportunity to work on global projects. What is the most significant difference between South African creatives and our international counterparts?  
 
We’re able to do more with less. Our budgets make us scrappier, and sometimes smarter and more creative. We use the power of ideas to overcome things more. How we speak to people matters – we can’t just put money behind things. Money is not the answer. Ideas are. 
 
Are we still so influenced by what international markets are doing? 
 
We used to be more influenced by overseas stuff, particularly in the Golden Age of big TV ads. But now we have to be more relevant to the market than ever. Obviously, there are similarities, but there are a lot of nuanced behaviours and ideas that people from other markets wouldn’t get.  
The successful projects really feel like they have a South African voice. As communicators, we have to deeply understand the people we are communicating with, right? 
 
I’ve worked in a lot of different markets, like Germany and Portugal, where I didn’t understand the language, the culture or the background. And I just had to immerse myself in it.  
 
How have you and your team adapted to working remotely? 
 
We work faster with a smaller core. And smaller teams progress faster. It helps to have already established relationships. Sometimes it feels like a really personal thing to throw this thing out into a room for everyone to club it to death, especially for the more junior guys. So, it’s vital to foster that feeling of safety in a Teams meeting. 
 
When we started out (with remote working) meetings were driven by efficiency and discussing what needed to be done. The initial challenge was how to bring thinking time into a more functional space. We’ve learned to do that now, building on ideas (in meetings) and not just doing rounds of updates.  
 
You have a history of using creativity to solve problems and improve people’s lives. Now more than ever, the world needs creative solutions to dire problems. What is your starting point in tackling an issue that is important to you? 
 
On the one hand, I am continually looking at the world and what it might need more of. Here, you’ve got to stay out of the boardroom. 
 
On the other hand, it’s about facing a business or brand problem. Essentially our job is to find the right question or the right problem - not the right creative solution. It’s a lot of work to get to the right problem. But when you have it and can see how that aligns to the needs of the people, then suddenly the dots become clearer to connect. 
 
And that doesn’t always mean saving the world or answering deep existential questions. People also need to laugh, to feel more connected, to carry their shopping bags.
 
You can come up with a great idea, but you have to ask: does the world need this? It’s like the whole Space Race. The Americans spent millions developing a pen that could write in space, and the Russians took pencils.  
 
Strategy and creativity need each other to be great. How do you know when a strategy is solid?  
 
Goosebumps. I trust that a lot. If it makes me feel like that after 20 plus years in this industry, then it means other people can feel that too. 
But then you have to test it. Make sure it stretches across all the problems, all the platforms.  
 
To stand out and truly make a difference means taking risks and being brave. But sometimes bravery can backfire. How do you balance bravery with checking yourself and making sure that your work isn’t insensitive or offensive but at the same time isn’t bland and safe? 
 
Be responsible anarchists. I used to tell this to my team a lot. Be responsible about what you put out there and don’t just make stuff for the sake of it. But also, be anarchists in the way you do it. Bring it into the world in such a way that people want to listen to the message. Because if everything is responsible, it will just be ignored. And if everything in anarchistic, it will also be ignored because then it’s too niche.  
 
Ricky Gervais said, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.’ I always kind of liked that.  
 
Maybe some of the work will offend people. But if you’re offending Nazis, I’m ok with that. If you’re offending fascists or sexists, I’m ok with that too.  
 
If you’re on the right side of history, you can be as brave and as bold as you want.  
 
You’re a dad of three girls. How do they influence the stuff you put out into the world? 
 
When you become a parent, you start to live through your child’s eyes. It’s an amazing reminder to continue to believe in magic—the idea of ‘what if’ becomes exponentially greater.  
Of course, I worry about their future and what kind of world we’ll leave for them. When they ask me what I do, I want to be able to proudly tell them and not have to explain I created an ad objectifying someone.  
 
Everything you’ve done is deeply rooted in storytelling – whether it be through music, photography, ads or documentaries. What do you think is the future of storytelling? 
 
Storytelling is the way that humans will continue to find meaning in their own lives. It’s how we make sense of the world. The platforms will always continue to evolve. We used to tell stories around the fire, and now we have AI experiences.  
 
The brands that tell the best stories will connect with people. The landscape will get more fragmented, so stories really need to connect to stand out.  
 
What role will influencers play? 
 
If you’re working with influencers who charge by the tweet you may as well spend your money on media. It’s almost as if we’ve gone full circle and people trust ads more than they trust influencers now. 
 
I’ve always tried to work with people who are creators rather than influencers. People who create things, who have a small niche and following. It’s about creating a model where the brand endorses the creator as much as the creator endorses the brand. Meaningful engagement happens when they are both talking about the same thing in different ways. 
 
What has been the toughest learning experience in your career? 
 
The one that I continue to learn over and over again is that not everyone is going to love your idea. And I’m not just talking about the man on the street but also the people you work with – the client, your boss, your team. You have to consistently reinvent your idea to make people believe. And if you can’t get people excited, then maybe it’s not the right idea.  
 
I’m not precious about my ideas—actually, the opposite. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings because they don’t fit or the time isn’t right. And sometimes things happen in the world, and I go back to an idea I scribbled in a notebook three years ago. You’ve got to find a way to fight for your ideas and bring them to life.  
 
In a tweet, how will you explain this year to your youngest daughter, who was born one month early in the year 2020? 
 
It’s been a strange year for humans; an experiment on how we evolve. When something comes out of a cocoon it matures to another level. We are at a level of change. It’s been the most fascinating year of my life so far. 
 
This bewildering year is rapidly coming to an end. What is your biggest work goal for 2021? 
 
I want to use creativity to make a real dent in the economic growth of our country. I believe that creativity can help build systems and start-ups that move us forward. And that small interventions can have a massive knock-on effect.  
 
When we created the water sustainability project, it brought water into villages. The thing that stuck with me is that young girls in Angola, who used to walk 4 kilometres both ways to fetch water in buckets, could now go to school because of people drinking water in Amsterdam.  
We didn’t plan for that. The right kind of instigation creates the right kind of knock-on effect.