We don’t like to throw the phrase “game changer” around willy-nilly here at Man of Many, but sometimes you have to give credit where credit’s due.
Like many great Australian commentators, Sam Kekovich started his career kicking the pigskin, as one of Australia’s most beloved VFL players, but a younger generation will know him with either fondness or ire for his self-explanatory role as Lambassador. His role, backed by Meat & Livestock Australia, started with direct-to-camera addresses a la any-politician-delivering-an-important-message-ever, which unapologetically satirised the “Un-Australian” nature of eating anything but Lamb on Australia Day.
Over the last 13 years, these ads have developed into full-scale productions, with Sam taking a backseat and only making cameo appearances, though they are still deliberately engineered to court controversy, always proving the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Speaking with Sam just a few hours after this year’s release of the anticipated ad, with the internet already kicking off – some in favour and others against the theme (as always), we got to talk about his involvement with MLA, his now-iconic national addresses and how his role has taken him from rural Australia to having lunch with Donald Trump.
I’d like to start just with looking back to 2005, when you started out doing your famous direct-to-camera ads. They’ve evolved a lot – now you’ve got really large scale productions and you’re personally making more of a cameo appearance. Do you think that maybe you pioneered something different for advertising in Australia?
Have I pioneered something different? Well, looking at the tangible evidence, it’s very compelling that I would probably say, “yes.” Did I do it personally? Inadvertently, I might have stumbled across it.
I think initially when we did it I didn’t think anyone in their wildest dreams would have thought that we were to blame for the successful traction that we had over the 13 or 14 year period, but I think the once constant that’s been prevalent from day one was the underlying message. We use different themes and use that wonderful culture, and a little irreverence and satire and tongue-in-cheek, and our wonderful Larrikin spirit. Down the line the message has always been that lamb has been the unifying catalyst to bring us all together on a wonderful occasion.
So while my rants direct at the camera initially were a matter of doing … it has evolved from there, but I don’t think the ad in any shape or form has deviated a great deal.
It’s always courted a bit of controversy, I think that’s entirely the point. This year is no different–I’m already reading my Twitter feed and seeing what people are saying. Do you think that’s wholly intrinsic to the ads? Ruffling a few feathers?
Well, we make no apology. I think from the outset we always tried to be a bit pointed. There’s no doubt about that. But I think that’s been part of the campaign, we’re fairly audacious and spirited and daring and I think that is the great asset of our being–is that wonderful culture. You know, the generosity of spirit, the sense of fair-play, and above all, self deprecation. The ability to have a good old laugh at ourselves.
Now what’s perceived by some to be somewhat disparaging or demeaning in essence is one of frivolity and one of being Australian. So to answer your question, would the ad gain as much traction if it was straight forward, without it being pointed and witty and erudite and all those wonderful things? I think so. I think it’s focused on the real issues.
Every single time one of these ads goes live there’s always headline after headline of one community group getting upset. Do you think there’ll ever be a time where people will just think: “This is funny, it’s not deliberately causing any harm”, or do you think it’s getting worse? Is PC culture is getting a little out of hand?
Nah, to the contrary. I think people are getting over it. I think people understand what it is and they’re accepting if it. I don’t think there’s any animosity–from our perspective there’s never any malice or intent. You know our themes, we’ve stuck to those rigid lines all along, but I think the community at large is very mature.
I think they understand it for what it is, that a little irreverence and satire is part of the Australian ethos and the Australian culture. You know, it would be silly to think otherwise. They’re some of the key pillars of our society. As I said, the generosity of spirit, the sense of fair play and self-deprecation–who would take umbrage at that for God’s sake?
If it’s ruffled a few feathers … Really at the end of the day, God, I mean it certainly hasn’t created World War Three.
Speaking of creating World War Three, apparently you had an interesting meeting with Trump back in 2010, specifically about lamb. Have you spoken to him since?
I have, but I haven’t spoken to him out of the White House. I haven’t spoken to him since he became President. I certainly spent some time with him in 2010 and ’11.
And you dined with him, on lamb?
We had lamb most certainly. We promoted lamb together, in fact I filmed the ad in Trump Tower … in Trump Tower in his office. In his boardroom I should say.
I want to move on from that a little. There’s obviously one debate that has raged a lot more in this last year than previously, which is changing the date.
My view from day one is I’ve always depoliticised the whole thing, in fact I was insistent when I was first approached. I didn’t want to do anything with politics I just wanted to make Australia Day- as it was known then- to just be a unifying catalyst with lamb. Australia Day and the argument about what date it is and what it is and what it represents and what it stands for … I’ll let the wiser counsel deal with that, the politicians or the Indigenous People or the community at large.
They can debate that ’til hell or high water. I will just continue to do what I do and promote lamb, and promote it as a catalyst to bring us all together as a unifying, inclusive catalyst.
That’s my view and that’s been our view from day one.
So if it gets changed you’ll still come back and do another ad?
I’ll always do the ads. I think the ads have got a lot of mileage, I think our campaign is very Australian. I think it’s iconic; I think it’s ensconced into the very fabric of our culture; I think people look forward to it.
I think it sends a very good message, in a multicultural society where we have differences, that we put them aside. For a moment in time we come together as one and rejoice living in the best country on the planet. That’s a wonderful message at large, at a time when it’s terribly important.
Every year we have new Australians joining us as Australians–new citizens. A lot of them probably not been exposed to having lamb before. How do you think every Australian should have lamb for the first time?
Well, there are a lot of Australians who perhaps haven’t had lamb for the very first time. But it’s like any education: you educate people and they’ll realise everyone else is having it. Invite them across and hopefully they’ll join the band. You can’t force it down anyone’s throat. As our barbecues have become broader and larger so have the crowds officiating, so there’s very few elements in our society who don’t like lamb. In fact, I’m at a loss to name one.
Apart from our public enemy number one, the vegans. But they’ll come around, too. They’ve become far more malleable now they’ve realised what a wonderful life they can have with a bit of lamb. Instead of the boring life they’ve been leading eating mung beans and lentils all their life.
I do pity them, I don’t think I could do that for a day.
Christ I mean strike a light, how would you be?!
Have you ever been served tofu? Ever had anyone ever just put it in front of you?
Yeah, once, but the guy who served it isn’t with us any longer. We ran his obituary long ago.
I’ll leave that there and I won’t probe any further. A lot of blokes consider themselves barbecue masters …
I am! I am one. I’m a barbecue master.
I’ve heard. Is there something different, though? Some old recipe you have that’s a bit of a secret to mix it up?
Well I’ll tell you something, I’m a dinosaur, because I like mine very plain. You know why? Because in previous years, without being disparaging to our real heroes, the farmer, when my mum used to cook the Sunday roast and put it on the table, unless you consumed it within three minutes, the outer perimeter of the plate would represent the boundary line of the MCG–because it really wasn’t lamb it was old mutton!
But the quality of product that we masticate and digest these days is the real McCoy, you don’t need all the condiments to embellish it. So in essence I’m a very plain eater, but I do like my garlic and I do like my chilli. I marinate it overnight sometimes in, certainly, lots of garlic, lots of chilli and sauces.
So that’s what I do. If I marinate it I marinate it, sometimes, in wine and garlic.
You touched there on the farm industry in Australia. I know it’s something that probably gets overlooked a little bit, considering just how good Australian Lamb is–can you elaborate on that?
I’ve always maintained that we genuflect over B-Grade celebrities and broken down sportsmen and we fail to recognise our true heroes, which are the Australian farmers. Who, in great adversity, have produced a wonderful, wonderful product. And for me to be able to articulate and showcase that on a global stage has been a very humbling experience, and I’m deeply privileged to have done so.
Lamb, as you know, the sales, the prices have gone through the roof in contemporary times, and they will continue to do so because the product is a fantastic product. People are realising that and they are to be commended, because when you consider it was only 12 years ago when we were culling our sheep and putting them in the ground for a buck a head.
And the farming community at large, some of the social implications would make your head spin, if I told you some of the social evils that take place. But it’s recovered immensely from then and let me tell you the industry is onwards and upwards from here on in. So it’s definitely very positive in the next decade for the lamb industry.
The people on the land are the heroes.
Lastly, Sam, where are you going to be this Australia Day?
Where am I going to be on Australia Day? I’ll be having a big barbecue with a lot of people around me, and rejoice living in the best country on the planet. I always have a big barbie, I attend a major function. I’ll probably be at the tennis. I’m always invited to the tennis to speak at a luncheon there. So I’ll speak at a luncheon somewhere in Australia, obviously Melbourne. The Australian Open is the one that comes to mind. I’ve been invited to a number of places to speak at. But we’ll work it out as we get close to the day.
But you can rest assured one thing: I’ll be having plenty of lamb.