Last week Durban, South Africa played host to the best creative minds and the most inventive advertising work to come out of Africa and the Middle East for the Loeries Creative Week. And in the eye of the storm was LBB’s Matt Cooper, attempting to make sense of the overwhelming talent surrounding him.
In the process, he spoke to an assortment of South Africa’s most prominent advertising figures to try and take the temperature of the market. And while fully understanding the issues a country’s ad industry faces in just a few days is impossible, it’s surprising how much people agreed on.
One thing that seems undeniable is that South African advertising is in a state of transition. Nobody is deluding themselves. Visions of a harmonious Rainbow Nation are going out of fashion in favour of a new honesty. “In the late ‘90s people wanted to shoot ads about the fact of coming together, blacks and whites, men and women, clinking beer bottles together,” remembers Shukri Toefy, CEO of hybrid creative/production agency Fort. “The hard reality of making a relationship work, of making a country work, has hit us. The romance is over. For us, we are at the forefront of shaping that and bringing those sentiments to life.”
Colin Howard, Managing Director at production company Egg Films agrees that this new direction is a positive one. “South African advertising is finally celebrating our uniqueness and amazing culture,” he says. “For years, our advertising has depicted a sanitized South Africa and I think the dreaded ‘aspirational’ was in most briefs. We can finally show the real, gritty, crazy country we live in and love.”
Perhaps more than any market in the world, honesty about racial inequality is key to improving South Africa’s advertising output, as well as society in general. Shukri highlighted the problem with just one of the countless statistics that illustrate this: while South Africa’s population is only 9% white, 80% of the Johannesburg stock exchange is white owned. “There has to be some sort of levelling of the playing field,” he says. And the motivations need not be purely ethical, he stresses. “When it comes to advertising, I don’t believe that being a white director precludes you from understanding or bringing to life a black insight. Or if you’re a male director working on something that’s true to women. However the underrepresentation of black people in the advertising industry is problematic because we speak to a population of 80% black people here. That for me is about legitimacy and authenticity as a cornerstone of success, rather than an ethical conversation around whether diversity needs to take place or not. For me it’s a necessary ingredient for continuity and success.”
“It’s an everyday part of our conversation,” says Jerry Mpufane, Chairman of the M&C Saatchi JHB Group. “Considering our history, which is well known, the work that we’re busy driving as an industry is to improve and entrench this very concept of diversity. As a diverse marketplace, a diverse nation, we need to bring on diverse skillsets in order to deliver for our clients. Our clients can’t sell to a local populace if the creative industries aren’t speaking their language. That’s the reason why we drive diversity beyond other social and national goals. The reason we have conversations about diversity as an industry, together with our clients, is to enhance and create better storytelling, so clients can sell better and position their brands better.”
The South African advertising community is also realistic about the economic challenges it faces. Colin acknowledges the situation his company and market is in: “The tough economic times (thanks to our unbelievably corrupt government) and uncertain political situation kills business confidence and has a knock-on effect on our marketers,” he admits. “This, combined with the influx of (often culturally irrelevant) global campaigns and budgets that don’t grow with inflation, has created an overtraded directors market that is barely profitable. The closure of iconic companies like Velocity Films is testament to this. The risks are too high and margins too low.”
It’s almost impossible to talk about the country, or even the whole African continent, without some mention of the growing middle class - yet another transition for the industry to keep up with. “We have young, middle class people coming in and it’s changing the way that people think about products and services and how they’re sold,” ponders Shukri. “How do you sell housing or cars in a world where young people don’t need to own a car or a house? This young middle class in South Africa never existed [before]. We’re making something work that is very difficult to puzzle together.”
The country is confronted by situations the rest of the marketing industry hasn’t had to work with. “You’re dealing with very different market dynamics than anywhere else in the world,” says Shukri. For example, in a population of 60 million people, only around three million have a mobile phone contract. The rest use pay-as-you go SIM cards.
Despite its unique challenges, South Africa has unique potential too. As Jerry stresses, for global brands it’s the springboard into the rest of the continent. “My sense is that it will be for the foreseeable future,” he says.
The work those brands now bring to their market is promising, too. “For a very long time the big brands would be shipping branding toolkits out from central office, for versioning-type work. It would arrive here for local adaptation,” says Jerry. “There was a ridiculous concept that said ‘in my toolkit, I have filmed characters and these are global faces’, that’s absolute nonsense. If you want to create creative assets that can better deliver for your brand in a local market [with] local relevance, local nuance, people want to see themselves. A local face will do a more effective job then a global face ever could. So the big brands like Coca-Cola are no longer shipping out toolkits. They are asking the local agencies to originate ideas and produce work in the local markets. We’ve seen it happening more and more.”
And they’ve finally got something to show for it. “There was a time when naturally most of our case studies had come from homegrown brands, who aren’t necessarily known around the world,” says Jerry. “Now we’re able to showcase real work from real briefs for true multinational brands. Whether it’s Unilever, Coca-Cola, Heineken - any one of those big famous brands, we’re delivering the best work for them. A lot of our work in the South African territory competes and even wins at these big brand’s showcase meetings. The brands are there. The case studies are there. Tried, tested and proven.”
Colin is optimistic, from a production perspective. “After years of being way behind, I think we are starting to do interesting work again,” he says. “It’s still a tiny percentage of the work though.”
Egg have been proactive in changing the landscape to fit their aims. “Instead of focusing mainly on the (often lower risk) high-end big budget work, we have put equal effort into partnering and developing young, socially-relevant talent who have insights into the subcultures of South Africa,” says Colin. “We're also adapting as often and quickly as possible to meet the demands of our fast-changing advertising world. So not only has our young content company Arcade been incredibly successful, I believe it has made Egg stronger and more relevant as well.”
Jerry’s noticed this change, too. “I think what’s exciting is, if you look at what’s happened in other idea industries - whether it’s fashion, film, or music - globally, you’re hearing and seeing more and more producers and directors looking for different perspectives. They’re tapping Africa as a continent for those new stories.”
In this new era of South African honesty, the industry’s not afraid to admit that they’ve still got to work out exactly what their jam is. “We need to try and find something that we can own,” asserts Shukri. But the opportunities are there. “For example, understanding this dual narrative between linear TV, mobile and OTT platforms is something that we are able to do because people are getting mobiles here before running water. We have an opportunity to teach the world about access and how brands can communicate with audiences in different ways. We need to embrace that.”