Inside Out: Andrew Whitehouse & Matthew Bull

Two South African admen move to New York to start an agency. The punchline? Why not.

From the Series

Andrew Whitehouse and Matthew Bull. Illustration Katrin Coetzer.
Andrew Whitehouse and Matthew Bull. Illustration Katrin Coetzer.

In 2011 Matthew Bull, former chief creative officer of Lowe and Partners and founder of South African agency Lowe Bull, teamed up with Andrew Whitehouse, executive creative director at FoxP2, to launch a New York-based agency, The Bull-White House, sister agency to South Africa's FoxP2. In 2012 they talk about their move to New York and how they feel looking back at South Africa from afar.

Andrew Whitehouse: Why?

Matthew Bull: Why not?

Andrew: Good answer.

Matthew: Did you ever imagine, when you were a young kid growing up in the hard lands of Edenvale that you would ever live in New York, have a business in New York?

Andrew: I didn’t even dream I’d live in Cape Town, have a business in Cape Town. Actually, have a business full stop.

Matthew: So you loved Cape Town and you loved South Africa and you loved going to work every day at FoxP2. Why did you leave?

Andrew: Ditto to you, just replace Fox with Lowe Bull.

Matthew: Well, I got this advice many years back from the head finance guy at Hunt Lascaris Johannesburg – he told me, when he heard I’d been offered a job in Cape Town, to never run away, only run to. And I was always going to live in New York, it was just a matter of when. And the time felt right. It was time to make space at Lowe Bull for the people there, and it was time to make space for myself back in the world of global advertising.

Andrew: When I left New York to start FoxP2 in Cape Town, I never knew if I’d ever go back or if Cape Town would be home for the rest of my life. I don’t think anyone with an open mind can really plan much beyond five years. Right now, New York seems pretty permanent, but who knows what will have happened by 2016. I feel that people should follow their hearts. If that means leaving our beloved country, do it. You’ll only come back enriched with new experiences. Or you’ll stay there enriched by new experiences.

Matthew: Are you scared?

Andrew: Living overseas is the most mind-jolting thing I have ever done. I have lived in London, Paris and New York. Every time it kicks me in the head, the heart and the balls. It shakes up every part of me. Sometimes it’s painful and sometimes it’s beautiful. The only thing that remains the same is your skin, and hopefully your accent. Everything else is different. It’s like living someone else’s life. From the direction water flushes down your toilet to the mode of transport you use to get to work every day. Scary – no, adventure – yes.

Matthew: After all these years, I finally understand what my first love meant when she said: “It’s not you, it’s me.” Okay, she didn’t mention the other guy she was schtupping at the time... but I am excited by the things I don’t know here in America.

It’s an adventure again. I’m an explorer, endlessly restless. I’ve lived in the UK, I’ve worked all over the world. But South Africa is my alma mater – it’s the reason I am where I am, am who I am.

Andrew: It’s sometimes difficult for people to appreciate just how globally respected South Africa is as a creative force. SA is a tiny, tiny place in the context of Europe, America and Asia, but somehow we produce creative work that permeates those massive markets. Just yesterday I walked into Kid Robot in the middle of SoHo, New York, and saw a bunch of designer toys and murals from floor to ceiling designed by SA’s very own Kronk.

Matthew: How do you feel South Africa has contributed to your creative growth, your outlook on the business? What I feel, upon reflection, is that the possibilities matched the expectations: limitless. I mean, we were encouraged to always invent new things, new ideas, yes, but even new media forms. Other more mature markets don’t give you that latitude.

Andrew: What South Africa does for creatives is allow them to shine.

It allows them to leapfrog their foreign counterparts. The odds are seriously stacked against you if you want to get noticed starting from the ground up in a place like America by sheer numbers alone (and often bureaucracy). South Africa gives creatives an uncluttered platform to have a global profile. I have seen it so many times in most creative industries, do well in South Africa and the world will see.

Andrew: Do you think you’ll ever go home?

Matthew: I’m not sure. I genuinely consider America to be my home now. But, even though my Mom gave birth to me in England, I feel South Africa is where I was born. I’ll always want to go back, but I’ll never want to stay. How do you feel?

Andrew: I don’t plan to, but nor did I plan to leave before. If I wasn’t living abroad seven years ago I’d never have started FoxP2. Going away ended up creating something beautiful in SA. I just take great comfort knowing that I will always be connected to the creative soul in SA and have a part to play.

Matthew: So that’s a maybe?

Andrew: That’s a “Why not?”

This conversation was originally commissioned for Where It's At, a Design Indaba publication created in collaboration with Richard Hart and disturbance design. View the full series here.

Watch the Talk with FoxP2