Man on a mission: Yossi Schwartz, chairman of Y&R Africa, says he loved his time in advertising, but it is time to move on. He began his whisky business a decade ago and it will now become a full-blown career. Picture: SUPPLIED
Man on a mission: Yossi Schwartz, chairman of Y&R Africa, says he loved his time in advertising, but it is time to move on. He began his whisky business a decade ago and it will now become a full-blown career. Picture: SUPPLIED

Memo to staff at the Young & Rubicam (Y&R) SA and Native VML advertising agencies: when chairman Yossi Schwartz invites you to share a bottle of whisky at his farewell party in September, don’t hold back. He has thousands more.

After 27 years in advertising and 14 as chairman of the Y&R SA group, Schwartz is leaving to create specialist whiskies.

What has been a part-time diversion — maturing whiskies in flavoured wooden casks to create unique flavours — is about to become a full-blown career.

"The break from advertising will be absolute," he says.

"There is no coming back. Whisky will be my 100%."

Shwartz says drinking whisky "makes me happy and chilled". The same hasn’t always been true of advertising.

In 2016, Y&R SA lost the Pick n Pay account it had held for 48 years and that, in many ways, defined the agency. After an extended pitch process, the account was won by the King James agency.

Schwartz tries to put a positive spin on the loss. "I think it has turned out to be good for us," he says. "We lost revenue and had to let go of 60-70 people, but we gained independence. There is no longer one big client that rules our life."

Pick n Pay was reputed to account for 40% of Y&R SA revenue. He concedes he was intensely bitter at the time — even though, "in retrospect, there was no way we were going to retain the account. Pick n Pay was not doing well, new management wanted change and nothing we might do was going to change that."

At 57, Schwartz is one of the "grand old men" of an industry in which senior executives are rarely retained until retirement age. Born and educated in Israel, he came to SA in 1993 and set up his own advertising agency, Gitam. That was bought by Y&R SA in 2001 and two years later, Schwartz became group chairman. In 2013, he was named chairman of the global Y&R network’s pan-African activities.

Schwartz says the highlight of his advertising career came after winning the Absa account in 1997. Created six years earlier through the amalgamation of several banking brands, Absa was only then starting to trade as a single entity. Head of marketing was Santie Botha, who later helped revolutionise the MTN brand.

"We launched the Absa brand from scratch and succeeded against the odds. It was a fantastic period. Santie was ahead of her time. We were a great team," Schwartz says.

Y&R SA has had an up-and-down ride during Schwartz’s tenure, including a period when its advertising work was notable mainly for lack of creativity. Pick n Pay aside, the past few years have shown more promise, particularly after the purchase of digital-based agency Native VML, whose founder, Jason Xenopoulos, is now group CEO of Y&R SA and Native, which operate as sister agencies.

Schwartz has also faced challenges in the industry in which he has often been a vocal advocate for change.

In a 2005 interview, he bemoaned the industry’s lack of urgency about black equity targets and failure to tackle a shortage of black talent. It is 12 years later and the brand communications industry is again scrambling to meet empowerment goals and the expected flood of newcomers remains a trickle.

"We have failed on transformation," says Schwartz.

"There is not enough black ownership and we have not invested sufficiently in training."

So, is he glad to be getting out at the end of September?

"I’ve loved my time in advertising," he says.

"I have a passion for every stage of the creative process, from the client briefing through to the final presentation of ideas.

"I’ve enjoyed working in teams and sharing late-night pizza when we’ve stayed up working on ideas.

"But I want another career. I want to do something from scratch to make and develop my own product. I want to make mistakes and have small victories. I don’t want to wake up one morning next year and realise I should have got out of advertising. Now is the time, before I get completely cynical."

Schwartz, married with two sons — one of whom is about to train for the advertising industry — began his whisky business a decade ago. It is based in Scotland, just outside Glasgow. He first considered creating a microdistillery to develop whisky from scratch, but decided to leave that to the experts. Instead, he buys casks of established malts and transfers the spirit to other casks.

His preference is for old sherry casks, which impart a sweeter flavour during the two years they hold the whisky.

"It absorbs the cask’s personality," he says. "It’s like a lucky packet. Until it’s been bottled, I don’t know what it will taste like. So, I bottle it and pray to god."

The deity appears to be listening. Bottles of Single & Single malt — labels must identify the whisky from which they are developed — can sell for up to R3,000. Some batches are sold out in advance. Most sales are in the UK.

Schwartz is not a mass producer. He expects to offer up to 1,000 bottles in 2017 and possibly 4,000 in 2018. A peak year brought 5,000.

"They are bought by collectors and people crazy for special whiskies," he says.

"Even though the sherry-cask flavour is not to everyone’s taste, I can’t supply demand."

Is that sustainable?

"I don’t know," says Schwartz. "Now this is my livelihood, it has to be. I know I’m taking a huge personal risk, but what’s life without risk?"

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