A creative life: Debi Bester, DMA writer-in-residence

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A creative life: Debi Bester, DMA writer-in-residence


Debi Bester has spent her whole career in the world of words, old and new. She cut her teeth in journalism at the height of Apartheid South Africa, boasts a mantelpiece bending under the weight of decades’ worth of international awards for advertising and has a reputation for a fierce commitment to innovation in branding, product design and culture.

In the last couple of years, as the DMA’s writer-in-residence, Debi has been at the beating heart of our Campaign for great British copywriting and nurtures the next generation of copywriters as the lead tutor on our Future Writers’ Labs.

Time, then, to learn what has driven Debi through a career at the creative sharp end.

On the quest for knowledge

Over a cup of tea, Debi takes me back to her childhood and reminisces that it was way back then that she caught the writing bug that she has to this day – indeed the inimitable style of her work now has its origins in those small years.

“Growing up in Rhodesia, a small British colony in the middle of Africa, we didn’t have the wealth of books you might enjoy in school here. Our textbooks were lacking in the breadth and depth that might sate an inquisitive child’s appetite for knowledge. I’d throw my arms up in despair. But my mum would have none of it: ‘Don’t sit around expecting to be served knowledge,” she’d say, “Go and search for it yourself’.”

And so years before the world wide web, Debi sent handwritten letters to sources of information for her essays and projects.

At nine, she wrote to farmers in Rhodesia to explore how they processed their sugar crop (“I got their addresses from the telephone directory”).

At 12, by now emigrated south with her family to Durban, South Africa, she wrote to water purification plants too to discover how they were helping villages get access to clean, safe water (“she remembers gluing a dead fly into her exercise book”).

And at 14, she wrote to the US Senate Library to ask follow up on a story about oil being stockpiled in disused mines as a reserve in case of sanctions – a move that put her on the mail watch list with the local branch of the South African police.

Seeking out the human story in age of censorship

This passion for reaching out to people, searching out truth and exploring people’s lives around her has given her the signature style that has marked her work.

Through what she recognises now as ‘direct marketing’ techniques, she gradually realised her love for co-creating the stories that could transform people’s lives.

“Finding myself in the pressure cooker that was Apartheid South Africa at the age of 15, I decided to write my year-long history project about the Sharpeville massacre of 1961. Only, I discovered there were no textbooks on them in the school library – or the town library. So, as usual, I talked to people in in my neighbourhood, seeking friends of friends of families who were there in an attempt to find out what really happened. This was ‘real life’ social networking.”

“A year later, I put together my findings in a carousel presentation – each slide a human story, the events of that day as seen by the people for whom the experience was their own history - and I got an A+ for the project. But while every other scholar’s project was returned after marking, the Department of Education in Pretoria confiscated mine.”

A beginning, middle and end in journalism

This early desire to reveal the true story led Debi to do a three year journalism degree in Durban, as she published work challenging South Africa’s stance on capital punishment, attended rallies of Nelson Mandela’s then-banned ANC party and covered student politics.

But after attending one such rally and getting caught up in an incident in which she witnessed a police officer attack a crowd of older protestors, Debi felt that work as a journalist demanded something she couldn’t do: stand by, watch and tell the story. While she emphasises just how important a role journalists played in bringing an end to Apartheid, she says she knew that being an observer just wasn’t her and so she moved on to find a role that was...

...Climbing the copy ladder

After a spell at a trade magazine, and a role with McCann in Johannesburg as a junior copywriter, Debi’s next opportunity came at an independent agency in Cape Town, Thollet Sievers, which had been set up by the son-in-law of the Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith.

“Working there I could make it my mission to help brands to help people change their lives. I loved being a part of that and being creative in that space.”

It was a unique time in South Africa as the apartheid-era closed: brands filled a gap between the tribes of Africa – both black and white – among whom shared experience was missing.

“The people weren’t united by language, politics, education or religion. But they did have two things in common: a trust in brands that gave them moments of happiness, that extra bit of value, those memories to cherish. What followed for me was a love affair with brands, people and stories as we drove change at startling speed.”

A new hemisphere

Having won awards for her work in Cape Town – from the London International Awards and New York Festivals to name just two international shows among many – Debi arrived in London ready for a new chapter.

At her second job interview, on her second day in the country, she found it at Proximity London.

And she stayed there for 16 years.

“My time at Proximity gave me the chance to push the boundaries of creativity in direct and digital marketing, study innovation, set up the lab … and become an expert on not just communication but change in people’s lives. The first innovation director appointed to the board of a UK marketing agency, I was lucky enough to be given a lot of freedom. I became a devotee of design thinking, sought out the advice of mentors like Patrick Collister and experimented with rule-breaking ways in which brands could reinvent themselves around their customers’ needs.”

Direct and digital – and more Awards

“In the lab, we put direct and digital at the heart of the conversations brands had with their customers. Keen to partner data analysts with creatives, I brought consumers, donors and citizens into the mix. And in the process, I developed a library of rich co-creation methods I still use today.”

Out of this seminal work came some of the work Debi is best known for, like the RNLI “Mystery Packages” campaign which picked up over 25 awards across the industry, including what was then a record of 9 golds at the DMA Awards and the grand prix.

Over the seven years it existed, under Debi’s direction, Proximity’s innovation lab led the way in ground-breaking direct communication with gold winners like the Royal Mail’s LolXperiment (which invented a new social postal medium and was used as a teaching aid in schools) and P&G’s Supersavvyme (which became the fastest growing customer community in the world for this super marketing savvy client).

The Department of Change

But soon it was time for Debi to change course – and in 2012 she joined what is now the Department of Change where she is owner/CEO.

“We’re all about helping businesses to innovate with, for and around the people they serve. And by people, we mean everyone. That’s very important right now in our industry – because it’s time for businesses and agencies to see all the people, to serve all the people, to create value for all the people.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Debi and her team have set out to champion diversity in advertising and marketing – and she hints at a number of exciting, but as-yet-under-wraps initiatives to promote this cause in 2017.

Campaign for great British copywriting

Speaking of 2017, Debi will continue to combine her work at Department of Change with her role as a key part of the DMA’s Campaign for great British copywriting as our writer-in-residence.

“We knew from the first ever census of copywriters – courtesy of the DMA - that not only did copywriters feel undervalued but the craft itself was being undervalued by clients and agencies alike. We also learnt that most felt the standards of copywriting were slipping.”

“Chris Combemale, Mark Runacus and Steve Stretton and I decided, one lunch hour, that we had to do something! And part of that something was to create a campaign to put the passion back into copywriting in Britain."

"We built a community of writers to spark the debate, published their outcry and captured pithy comments from some of the industry’s greatest influencers in the Madmen vs Mavens video.” The campaign reached over 40 million people with the debate in its first year.

One of the highlights of the Campaign are the Future Writers Labs which Debi runs to inspire copywriters (and those on client side who write copy, even though they may be too humble to call themselves copywriters!) to think about and use the craft in new ways. It’s an immersive, learn-by-writing approach that challenges writers and invites them to throw away the rule book and invent innovative approaches to their briefs. With the help of guest tutors and her DMA course co-ordinator Lucy Chapman, Debi has trained over 120 writers since the Labs started.

An hour later, tea cup drained and copious notes scribbled on a sheath of pages, I went to shake Debi’s hand – only to be kissed on both cheeks and hugged. Back to her work helping people to change their lives and the brands and businesses they live by … and back to mine crafting this article.

Till our next cup of tea, you can find out more about the Future Writers Labs’ here.

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