As writers we get spoilt, with invitations to hosts of functions, and exposure to numerous PR companies and their client brands. The first event invitation of the year, to the Cape Town launch of Absolut Vodka’s #AbsolutBlackBox at the entrance to the V&A Waterfront last night, was an Absolut disaster, with poor food, few attendees, no one to interact with invited guests, poor lighting for photographs, and a general feeling that no one knew what was going on. It felt like Johannesburg-comes-to-Cape Town, so-lets-cut-corners-for-the-B-team!
It started with Capacity Marketing Pty Ltd from Johannesburg sending a media release, and then Simphiwe Majola from the consultancy calling to ask if they could deliver a parcel. We managed to find a suitable time, and a cocky delivery person dropped off a cardboard box. The box outer looked totally uninviting, so I only opened it once I came back from the function last night. Inside the box was a black wooden three box-in-a-box Russian doll type box set with a tiny invitation to attend the Cape Town launch of the ‘True Transformation’, claiming that ‘the Absolut Black Box has been transforming the social scene in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban with mini-events in the trendiest venues. Now, the main event has arrived. It’s invite-only. And you’re invited‘. The invite promised ‘mystery Djs, the country’s leading transformative artists (unnamed) and free-flowing Absolut, all inside a giant Black Box’.
The invitation stated that the location for the event was Gateway Canal in the V&A, which I had not heard of before, and Simphiwe explained telephonically that it is opposite the Caltex garage at the entrance to the Waterfront. It serves as a parking area usually, and is in a terrible condition, with massive potholes, not a good first impression nor a good fit for the brand. At the parking area two young girls dressed in black, one wearing a black box over her head, did the over the top welcome. At the entrance to the event area the name was checked on the list. Despite having RSVPd by e-mail to the mailed invitation, Simphiwe called earlier in the week to check if I was attending, clearly not having noted my acceptance of the invitation! At the function he called me ‘Nicola’, even though I had ‘checked in’ with him about half an hour before!
Across the canal a massive ‘White Box’ had been erected as the party venue (nothing black about it at all!), onto which Absolut branding and slogans were projected. There was a celeb wall at which one was supposed to stand for photographs, but in the 90 minutes during which I endured being there no celebs were visible, and only two couples were photographed. The music was so loud initially that one could not speak to anyone else, but this was toned down eventually. A red carpet had two uses, for guests to enter the event marquee, and for models to walk the fashions of model-turned-designer Angelo. The music was not chosen for the fashion, so the models just walked, but no one seemed to look or take notice of them, it all seeming forced and wrong. Two dancing girls in black, one with a black box on her head too, distracted the visibility of the models, and tried unsuccessfully to get a vibe going.
Absolut branded counters were set up inside and outside, from which one could collect Absolut-inspired drinks. There was no pro-active check by the waiters for more water or cocktails! Inside the ‘White Box’ there was a DJ, and in each of the four corners an event was staged.
I went to see Simphiwe, asking for a media release so that I could know what the four stagings represented, but there was no one from the Johannesburg-based PR company to interact with the invited guests, or even media representatives, Simphiwe and three ladies greeting the new guests and finding their names on the guest list. He was the only PR company representative, telling me proudly that his company CEO Sarit Tomlinson was in Johannesburg. The company handles the marketing for a number of leading international brands, including Absolut, Jameson, Kellogg’s, Justin Bieber, Havana Club, Chivas, Ballantines, and Elizabeth Arden. He did promise that his client Shirley Mabiletja would arrive an hour after the start of the party, and that she was supposed to explain the events.
Shirley is the Absolut Brand Manager, and has been the brand champion for the past three years, having started at Pernod Ricard when the company bought the brand. She also manages Kahlua and Malibu. Instead of Simphiwe coming over to me to introduce Shirley, he just pointed at me from a distance and she sat down, as if I should have known who she was. She was very sweet in explaining the concept to me, and was shocked when I told her all the problems there were with the delivery, that I had not opened the delivered parcel, and that I had no clue what was happening in each of the corners of the venue. She appeared to think that the media release was inside the Absolut Black Box which had been delivered, but only the tiny invite card was inside, with a miniature bottle of Absolut! She seemed surprised when I told her that previous Pernod Ricard South Africa CEO David de Mardt had started his marketing career as a junior in my Research & Planning department at Y&R in Johannesburg many years ago. She said that Absolut is growing at about 7 – 10% per annum. The concept of #AbsolutBlackBox is that one should ‘Transform Today’ by focusing on various forms of art, fashion design being one of them. Another corner had Cape Town band ‘We set Sail’, which was playing music inspired by cocktails in a very dark corner, fighting the loud music of the DJ, a waste of time in representing creativity. Local photographer Stu Shapiro presented an interesting upside down view of a bedroom, with a mattress and items of clothing on top of it standing upright. We watched him photograph a couple on the floor. Graffiti artist Falco, who has received recognition in the USA and Sweden too, Shirley said, had two spray painted works of art in his corner. While the concept sounded interesting, transformation represented via photography, music, fashion, and art, there was no one to explain it to all the other guests as Shirley had done for me, making the whole event a total waste of time. Shirley had promised to let me have her business card, and after following up the request and not receiving it, I left!
One and a half hours after the 19h00 start of the function food rushed out of the portable kitchen for the first time. Perhaps the lighting was purposely dark, so that one could not photograph how dreadful it looked and tasted. I asked the first waiter for a serviette, as the cottage cheese pepperdew sandwich was messy to eat. He said there were none! A waitress was kind enough to find serviettes, and she served an insipid spaghetti mini maize cob mix in a polystyrene coffee cup. The sushi was grey and had uncooked carrots in the centre. I didn’t touch the ostrich burger and black currant sauce. None of the waiters knew the name of the caterer, but the helpful waitress found out that it was a Sense of Taste, owned by Peter Ayub, who announced earlier this week that he and Angie Boyd are opening the Sense of Taste Culinary Arts Cooking School next month, and that they plan to be the best chefs’ school in Africa in the next five years! The food that we were served was awful, and inappropriate for the calibre of the brand. The presentation of the food items in the Gallery on the Sense of Taste website does not reflect the uninspired food we were served! The staff had been employed by the events company, and clearly had not been briefed by the chefs.
The wasteful black box set was not the only aspect of the function which must have cost the client a fortune, there being no functional use for them, especially as they are branded. The massive ‘White Box’ marquee, the lighting, the staff rental, the artists appointed for the evening, the dreadful food, and the space rental from the V&A Waterfront must have all cost a pretty penny. But worst of all the failed event cost Absolut brand credibility, in having been so poorly handled. While the slap-dash event we experienced last night may have gone down well in social scene starved Johannesburg, it was an insult to the Capetonians who made the time and effort to attend!
POSTSCRIPT 25/1: I received a panic call this morning from Shiri Reouveni (I think that was her name – she described herself as a director of Capacity Marketing), typical Johannesburg, asking me how she could make me less angry. I told her I wasn’t angry. It was clear that she had not read the blogpost, as she wanted to know what was wrong. She told me that someone had called her. I suggested to her that she read the blogpost first for all the detail. The tone was very different when she called back, very apologetic but blaming most of the things that went wrong on the events company.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage