5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Roanna Williams

Advertising Agency
Johannesburg, South Africa
The NET#WORKBBDO CCO on the importance of an artistic outlet, navigating self-confidence and leadership, and South Africa’s creative strengths
When you spend your days (and many evenings) channeling your creative energies for clients, sometimes the last thing you want to do is more creativity. But for NET#WORKBBDO’s chief creative officer, art free of expectation and commercial function is what keeps her fresh and inspired. A wonderful illustrator and painter, Roanna finds peace and meditation in her work. Most often, she likes to explore emotions and the psyche through the characters she creates.

As someone whose art is so personal and surreal, it may surprise you to learn that Roanna actually started off studying architecture. Technical drawing, she soon discovered, was not her thing. And so graphic design, and then advertising came calling.

Roanna’s most recent challenge has been joining NET#WORKBBDO as a creative leader during one of South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdowns. Throughout her career, Roanna has sought to cultivate a supportive leadership style and she’s been putting all of that into play as she gets to know and develops the team. Roanna also says she’s learned so much joining the global community of BBDO creative chiefs.  

Roanna spoke to LBB to share her creative journey and she has plenty of insights into South Africa’s unique advertising scene, as well as lessons for creatives trying to make their own way in the industry.

LBB> Where did you grow up and what kind of kid were you?

Roanna> I grew up in Johannesburg (AKA Jo’burg). I was the “laat lammetjie” (Meaning ‘the last born’) of four children. Was I spoilt? Maybe. Was I able to get away with anything? Sure. Independent? Definitely. Trampoline junkie? Yip. Any excuse to be on a horse? Absolutely.   

LBB> Was creativity something that played a big role in your life growing up? What triggered that love of creativity in you? 

Roanna> I had a tough time with creativity. My sister was creative and she was labelled as the talented one in the family. So, most of the focus and attention was given to her. 

But perhaps that is what drove my passion for creativity even more. I’ve always been a visual thinker as I grew up, I embraced this more and more. It became my way of telling stories. Everything I did, I tried to add a touch of creativity to it. Even my shoe choices, became one of the ways I expressed my creativity.

LBB> Before we get stuck into the advertising stuff, I’d love to talk to you about your art! How long have you drawing and making prints and what drives your desire to do that? 

Roanna> I have been drawing on and off for the past eight or so years but have become very prolific with it about four years ago. Drawing and painting is my meditation, my therapy. It is a time when I am truly able to be in the moment. Just me and a piece of paper. A place where I can have a voice. The advertising world can be a hectic, busy, demanding and at times quite ruthless, so over the years I discovered that sitting quietly in my own head, after a long day and just creating whatever I want to, very rewarding. 

When I started to get a very positive response to some of the drawings that I was sharing, I decided to host an exhibition -  something I have always, since a tiny kid, have dreamed of doing. The act of being able to share your very personal voice and have people relate deeply to the story you are telling fills me with gratitude.  

LBB> I love the combination of psychology, emotion and wit that I see in your characters - how would you characterise your art and what sort of themes do you enjoy exploring? 

Roanna> So as a kid, I was infatuated with a drawing game we used to always play. You started by folding a piece of paper into four sections. In the top section, someone draws a head (any head whatsoever – animal, human, robot, alien…) but without showing anyone else your ‘head’ creation. You then fold this over backwards so no one can see and pass it to the next person to draw any torso. Again, without showing anyone, the torso section is folded behind so no one can see it. The next person draws any legs and again folds their leg creation behind. Finally, the fourth person draws the feet. You then unfold the piece to reveal a very funny and interesting character. I loved the sense of not knowing what the outcome would be and the surprise factor that came with the reveal. I also loved how the “creatures” were made up of different things – a bit like how we are as human beings. There are so many facets to us and this became the first theme I explored through a series of collages and then drawings. I then extended that process further and began to express our relationship with everyday experiences and the choices they present us with. I touch on themes of inner strength, conflict, isolation, darkness and positivity. My latest body of work focuses on the power of women, and touches on themes like burning desire, growth, emotion and vulnerability. 

LBB> How does having a creative outlet outside of work and the demands of clients help you mentally and creatively in the day job? 

Roanna> Having an outlet where I can truly be uninhibited to just create whatever I feel like, is key to my sanity. After a bad ass day, a challenging brief or a client revert no.5, when I feel like I have not even a sliver of creativity left inside me, the best thing I can do is sit quietly and draw. Sometimes, I end up drawing my day, unintentionally. The process pulls me back to the core of my creativity, stops any negative thoughts, allows me to process life visually and re-energises me, turning my bad days into good days. 

LBB> Back to the work stuff - how did you get involved in advertising?  

Roanna> It was either fine art, architecture or advertising. And my dad felt that I didn’t deserve to be a struggling poor artist and there was no advertising degree available at the time, so I studied architecture. But I soon realised that technical drawing was not my real passion and my buildings might be structurally unsound, so I moved on and studied graphic design. I’ve always watched adverts on tv when I was growing up and always wanted to make one, so after I qualified, I joined TBWA and made one…. from that day onwards I was hooked.

LBB> What were the most important lessons you learned early on in your career? 

Roanna> Come up with 100 ideas and one of them might just be the one. Never give up. 

Do a campaign for something you really give a damn about, because you will sink your entire heart and soul into it, and it will be the best work you will ever do. 

You don’t have to be an asshole, to make it in advertising. Surround yourself with passionate and diverse people. Be authentic to your voice. Great work is a team effort. Talk less. Listen more. 

LBB> What was the first creative campaign you worked on that you were really proud of? 

Roanna> I did an anti-fur print campaign for an animal anti-cruelty NGO. I came up with 100 ideas and this one shone through. I was so proud of it, as it was for something I really cared about. It was quite an innovative idea for the time and won a Cannes Lion. 

LBB> As you progressed through your career, how did you figure out what sort of leader you wanted to be? What advice would you give to creatives looking to develop that side of themselves?

Roanna> When I was just starting my career, just a few months in, I was working really late one night and the ECD at the time, a female, looked over at the work I was busy art directing on my computer and yelled “You’re f’&#$ing useless!” It broke me down a little and made me question the industry a bit. I thought to myself, is this the type of leader you have to become to be a successful female creative leader in the industry? That night, I made a decision. If I stay in this industry and become a creative leader one day, I vowed never to become that. But rather a leader that encourages, supports and builds people up rather than down.

My biggest hurdle in becoming a creative leader was self-confidence. I have battled with this all my life and being in an industry that is so subjective can be challenging. So many creatives battle with this, but by stepping forward to do the things that I feared the most or made me feel uncomfortable, helped me slowly become more and more confident in my ability, my opinions and my work.    

Our industry is filled with big egos, people with loud voices and huge opinions. I find these leaders quite exhausting. I prefer to lead with my values and retaining my authentic voice.

I try always to be a leader where everyone feels they have a voice, no matter what position or role they are. One that understands that everyone is different, has varied challenges and is multifaceted (like my drawings). I try to adjust according to people’s individual needs at the time. I also started to live by a hashtag that I created for myself #GoDoWhatYouCant. Whenever I feel a lack of confidence, I remember my hashtag and step into the arena. And I always ask myself in a tough situation, “What’s the worst that can happen?” 9.8 out of 10 times the answer is really not that bad, and this forces me to lean in.   

LBB> What have been the biggest and most interesting shifts in the South African advertising scene since you started your career? 

Roanna> Digital transformation is a big shift which has been accelerated by Covid. We are seeing way more people online on mobile for longer periods of time. This is allowing more and more local companies and brands to do effective, affordable and measurable marketing. It is also predicted that at the current growth of digital, by 2023, internet advertising will outperform TV advertising for the first time in South Africa. 

LBB> What attracted you to the role at Network#BBDO? 

Roanna> The chance to work for the most creative agency network in the world as well as the challenge to rebuild and reinvent an agency model in a very interesting time in the world. #GoDoWhatYouCant 

LBB> You joined at a crazy time - starting a job like that during the pandemic must have been a pretty unusual experience. How did you navigate all of that? 

Roanna> I had no idea that my start at NET#WORKBBDO would be in the midst of a pandemic, let alone a level five lockdown. It was crazy! I met my entire team on Zoom and my first brief was to run a pitch. It was challenging to say the least. Zoom fatigue became very real. The only way to navigate it was to embrace it. And after a couple of months, it just became the way things were done. I had regular one on one check-ins with my creative team. The toughest part was not being able to meet clients properly and therefore developing a relationship through a screen and building trust with them has taken a lot longer.

LBB> And what have been your highlights in terms of the creative in the past year? 

Roanna> It’s been a really tough year. My first highlights creatively is not a campaign but the opportunity to brainstorm with some of the best creative minds in the BBDO network. This has fed my growth, both as a leader and as a creative and exposed me to a global way of thinking about brands across a variety of regions.  My second highlight has been rebuilding a team of talented, robust and flexible thinkers who are equipped and passionate about the growth of our clients and the future of our industry.  

LBB> One thing I really find interesting about South African creativity in general is that brands seem less afraid to tackle difficult social and political issues like colonialism, racism, corruption in a fairly frank and open way. What are your thoughts on that? Is it that a fair assessment in your eyes or is the truth a bit more complicated?  

Roanna> South Africa has a complicated history and issues like colonialism, racism and corruption are very layered topics. As a result, there is a heightened sensitivity to these issue's so most South African clients tread with extreme caution when it comes to these topics, as it can backfire very quickly. Some brands however, like Nando’s have for many years, adopted a very tactical comms strategy that addresses topical issues in a light-hearted humorous way. This allows the brand to dabble in this space, quite successfully as consumers have come to expect this kind of work from them. 

LBB> And when it comes to inclusion and agencies reflecting more of South Africa’s cultural and ethnic diversity as well as gender diversity, what’s your view on the progress or lack of progress being made? 

Roanna> Although we still see a strong male dominance especially at board and executive leadership levels, there is definitely some progress being made in this regard. The Creative Circle has made transformation their purpose and has set some criteria for diversity and gender inclusivity on their board and judging panels. They are also aiding where possible with bursaries, internships and mentees, encouraging a bigger pool of young and diverse black talent into the industry. There are also a few organisations like Black Board that are offering under-privileged high school kids the chance to experience the industry, so they consider it as a career. The industry still has a long way to go but ethnic diversity is a top priority for most South African agencies.

As far as gender equality goes, we are seeing an increase in female representation as a whole, with about 60% of roles filled by females. However, males are still dominating the director/C-Suite levels as well as senior creative roles (CCO / ECD / CD) and within the Tech/IT departments. So, there is still a lot of work to be done, to ensure that diversity and gender representation forms the foundation of an all-inclusive business growth in the industry.    

LBB> As I mentioned earlier, South Africa is renowned for the craft of its commercial film work but what would you say are South African advertising’s other strengths?

Roanna> South Africa is so diverse and this is our strength. We have so many unique and untold stories still to tell. We also boast a range of cultures with insights that are so unique from a westernised culture, giving us so many opportunities to create something really beautiful, interesting, thought-provoking and original.

LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about the industry right now? 

Roanna> The reinvention of who we are, how we do the work and how valuable creativity is to the world. 

LBB> And the most frustrating? 

Roanna> Budget cuts and a lack of bravery when we need it most.  

LBB> What are your hopes for the next year?  

Roanna> To build an invincible team of diverse people that want to make a real difference in the world. 

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