In Japanese, the word ‘osu’ means to push. It’s the cry that resonates around martial arts dojos. And the spirit of ‘osu’ encapsulates executive producer Simoné Bosman, the force of nature who launched her production company when her son was just six weeks old, who is passionate about building opportunities for diverse talent across the South African industry and who sees producing as not a job, but a vocation. Appropriately enough, OSU is the name of not just her company, but her now-11-month-old son.
As a producer, Simoné is driven by the need to create opportunities for and invest in new talent. And, she believes that whether short-, long- or micro-format, online commercial content needs be backed by top production values in order to stand a chance in a landscape packed with prestige drama and grade-A bingeable series.
What’s more, OSU is part of a growing wave of new creative companies founded by black South Africans. The South African industry is changing, albeit very slowly, when it comes to senior creative roles for people of colour and women but clients and the wider population are demanding greater inclusion and representation.
Simoné has been in London where she has been part of the Direction Jury at this year’s D&AD Awards. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her to find out more about this year’s work, OSU’s journey and why she’s so excited about the fact that South Africa is finding its unique creative signature.
LBB> How did you find the quality of work this year during judging?
Simoné> The work that came through was really good. It was great to see a variety of work that moved away from traditional styles and pushed imagination, art and craft.
LBB> You were judging direction across a number of different subcategories - from TV commercials to branded content and online. Which categories were particularly strong when it comes to direction?
Simoné> Really good work came through the subcategories of Branded Content Fiction and Online. There is a good sway towards a longer-format storytelling and entertainment that is steering consumer behaviour in a very clever way.
LBB> I know some brands and agencies that overlook the importance of a good director for the super short online stuff - but what difference can a skilled director make to those kinds of projects?
Simoné> It’s not so much overlooking the importance of a skilled director. I feel that clients just don't understand the importance of investing in a good director for a medium that has way more reach than a territory-based one. We are living in a time that most of what we watch for entertainment is online which has great production quality and delivery. The Netflixes and Amazon Primes of our world have really set the bar for quality entertainment. Therefore, whatever work we produce for online commercial content needs to exploit this standard to ensure that we retain audiences and are not jarring their experiences with cheaply produced or directed work. Investing in good production value is an investment in their brand.
LBB> How did you get into the production world yourself?
Simoné> When I was a student at the University of Cape Town, I was very eager to become a journalist with the intention of helping to change people's lives. As a student I needed to obtain an income and so I joined an extras casting agency.
When I was on set as an extra, I was really intrigued by the production process and what came through the monitors. I became very inquisitive about the world of film and started to invest my focus in that. In my final year of studying, I was headhunted by an executive producer, Peter Gird, who gave me my first job as a PA in his company. From there I moved into agency TV production where I learned so much about the importance of creativity and branding. Working closely with creatives and film companies to produce work that lifted the brand messaging.
LBB> You grew up in Cape Town - what sort of kid were you and how big was film and creativity for you growing up?
Simoné> I was a very quiet child. Read a lot of books and enjoyed how stories unlocked imagination. I stuck to myself most of the time, with my face in books, listening to good jazz. Hard to believe that I was an introvert at first. But I had to get out of my shell and pushed myself. I joined a community radio station where I co-hosted a show. This opened up my hidden love for creativity in ways I didn't imagine as it allowed me to tell and showcase stories. I often visited art galleries and was drawn to the world of photography. Coupled with storytelling, I wanted to see a world where visual and audio was combined to tell stories in a compelling way. And this is when I fell in love with film.
LBB> Tell me about OSU - what was the catalyst that inspired you to set it up?
Simoné> When I was an agency TV producer, I often found myself briefing out work to the same directors. The scripts required fresh perspectives, but we didn't have many new directors at the time to farm this type of work to. I saw a gap for new talent and especially black talent to come through. And this pushed me to step out of my nine-to-five and start making a meaningful contribution to our creative economy.
LBB> When did you set it up and what were some of the challenges or insights you came across as you got it off the ground?
Simoné> Well I had another company two years ago, where I partnered with two respected EPs of Darling Films who mentored me into the business of production. As an ex agency producer, we are not often exposed to the nitty gritty of production and the business side of this. However, six weeks after I gave birth to my now 11-month-old son, I made the scariest and boldest move… I moved out on my own as I needed to shape my own company style and push for more fresh talent.
The biggest challenges that I came across with my first production company was the time to build trust with clients and agencies. I also had to help transition directors who are not from a film advertising background in order to start employing their talents and use their creativity to tell brand stories. I won't lie, it was tough but with every brief and treatment we have learned and grown.
LBB> OSU means to push - can you tell me about the significance of that name?
Simoné> The company is named after my son. As I mentioned before, when he was just six weeks old, I decided to start the company. His name is Japanese and means "push/persevere/strive", but it is also a suburb in Ghana as well. I chose the name because of its multiple and strong meanings. And is also a reflection of us as a company to always strive for good.
LBB> Specifically, OSU represents black filmmakers, photographers and writers - why is it important to create that platform and space to nurture black talent?
Simoné> It is really important to provide this platform to talents who are often not given the opportunity to expose their creativity. There are a lot of nuances and stories that we produce in this country that require a certain insight or skill to be able to land the idea or message. As the South African population is majority black, and we have 11 official languages, it is important to produce content that is accepted, understood, resonates and most importantly is enjoyed by all of our people. Providing this platform to invite talents of colour is much needed in order to creatively influence the behaviour of our diverse cultures.
LBB> And can you talk about the industry in South Africa specifically? I'm aware there has long been a divide in talent, for example the way black or white directors are chosen. There’s also a big imbalance because most of the agency side top ECDs and CCOs are white... Is that changing?
Simoné> Over the past few years we have seen a lot of ad agencies as well as production companies taking up more black talent. On the agency side, there is a steady growth of black creatives taking on senior positions in big agencies such as M&C Saatchi, FCB, Joe Public, and Ogilvy. At the same time, we have also seen the rise of small black-owned agencies and this is also increasing.
Transformation is a top priority in South Africa and this demand is also being pushed by clients who are becoming stern about working with companies who are inclusive. But there is more to be done, especially with female empowerment. We have only a handful of females (black or white) in senior creative positions and this also needs to be addressed quite aggressively. Our creative economy is on the right path, but we still have a lot to do to ensure total inclusivity.
LBB> You've worked agency side as well as production company side - what were some of the most useful things you learned while working agency side?
Simoné> The most valuable lessons that I took with me from agency side is the importance of understanding brand and strategy. It’s important to know the brand strategy as it influences the creative decisions that my team will consider when working on treatments and also in production. This insight is crucial as you cannot come across as being creatively irresponsible to produce commercial content that does not land with its intended audience. I have seen a few campaigns that have fallen flat due to uneducated decisions made. It's not always about the pretty pictures we produce, but it’s the magic we create to spark the right emotion with audiences.
LBB> I always admire producers - the can-do problem solving, organisation and drive. Is there an innate 'producer' personality that you're born with or can it be taught? What do you look out for in junior producers?
Simoné> It honestly is all about your personality and the passion for what you do. I get a kick out of solving problems, hence I enjoyed maths when I was at school. To challenge one's mind to think differently is also key.
You can choose to be a producer that just does their job (do the paperwork, manage processes…). Or you can be a producer that doesn't see their job as a job, but sees your roles as a vehicle to help and change people's lives and be passionate about it. I am a producer who enjoys providing opportunities to other people. To be part of their journey of growth and self-improvement. To see people soar warms my heart knowing that I played a small role in it.
LBB> What's the most exciting thing about the South African industry right now?
Simoné> We are creating and embracing our own creative signatures and this is so exciting. We are proudly African and it excites me that we are now incorporating our cultures into work. This goes from the ad industry to fashion to sports.
LBB> And the most frustrating?
Simoné> Young people need more opportunities and doors to be opened for them. While in London this week, I walked around and witnessed a lot of young people in the corporate sector. And you can feel their energy as they walk from the office, to having lunch at cafes etc. And I hope that we can see more of this young energy in SA. So, we need more opportunities for young people.
LBB> Which recent pieces of work are you proudest of and why?
Simoné> We recently produced commercial content for the IEC (Independent Electoral Commission) in South Africa to push the public to register to vote. The writing was very clever and spoke to the youth of our country. Working on a production of that nature that saw millions of South Africans actually answering our call was phenomenal as this influenced significant change for our country. When your work changes society for the better, then it is a job well done.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes (industry or non industry) and why?
Simoné> My good friend and brother Sunu Gonera who is a film director. Zimbabwean-born, he has pushed himself as an influential director. We both came from the same production company, then called Peter Gird Productions, and he was hungry back then to be the best at his craft. Today, he is directing top American series such as Madame Secretary and Snowfall.
He continues to work his butt off to show the world what we in SA are made of and he continues to lift us as black South Africans in the industry to excel beyond our borders. He is currently finishing his feature film, a project that he has crafted very meticulously for the past few years. He motivates me to not be afraid of my own strength.