Johannes Leonardo creative director Melusi Mhlungu on the power of South African radio and the “dope work” the country consistently produces
Production company Robot, based in the heart of Cape Town, is a proud supporter of South African creativity. Throughout this interview series on LBB, we’ll hear from creatives who’ve worked in SA, talking about their experiences and sharing their unique take on the country’s creativity.
Melusi ‘Mloo’ Mhlungu began his career at FCB South Africa, moving to Ogilvy Johannesburg and winning the Adams & Adams Young Creative Award at the Loeries in 2015. He’s since moved to the USA, prompted by his eagerness to “be a sponge” and learn as much as he can. Now the creative director at Johannes Leonardo, he reflects on his passion for South African creativity and how it inspired him to work in adland.
LBB> What early memories do you have of South Africa and its culture?
Melusi> I’m lucky to have experienced most of the different cultures as someone who grew up both in Jozi [Johannesburg] and KZN [KwaZulu-Natal].
I remember when I was living with my grandparents in KZN, radio was a big part of my childhood memories. Gathering around the radio to listen to the stories on Khozi FM was a daily thing. Little did I know that this would later influence my love and craft for radio advertising.
Then when I’d go visit Jozi, the culture would be completely different. I got exposed to a lot of music and fashion. I truly believe that our culture is an important part of our creative DNA, that helps us come up with unique ideas that connect with people.
LBB> What initially inspired you to get into the industry?
Melusi> South African advertising is what got me into advertising. I remember the days of ‘Telkom Molo Mhlobo Wami’ and ‘It’s not inside it’s on top’. We have such an amazing ability to tell stories in a way that connects to people. All I wanted to do is tell such stories to the world.
LBB> You’re now based in New York, what inspired you to make the move?
Melusi> My biggest thing and what initially sparked my desire to relocate to the USA was to be a sponge. To come here and learn as much as possible to one day be able to pass on that knowledge to the next generation of dope creatives. Having been in Miami and Chicago, my move to NYC was also driven by the same desire, and that’s to learn from the best of the best and what better place to do that than at Johannes Leonardo, one of the best agencies not only in NYC but in the world. I’ve found that with every agency and city move my work evolves because of the people I’m surrounded by.
LBB> Have you seen any differences between creativity in South Africa and creativity in the US? And can you tell us more about this?
Melusi> I think the difference is not in the creativity but the market. Every market has its own societal challenges which usually inspire different kinds of creativity to solve client problems. I remember when I first moved to the USA, I thought I should ‘Think American’, and found myself failing a lot. Until I was reminded that the reason I’m here it’s because I’m different, I have a different approach to solving creative problems. As soon as I embraced that, things started to look up again.
LBB> Your Super Bowl ad for Kraft-Heinz's Devour frozen food was hilarious and had everyone talking. Can you tell us more about the creative process behind it?
Melusi> Usually some of the fun ideas I’ve ever had the pleasure to do have always started as a joke. A joke that keeps on coming back in every review, until everyone in the room says, “but wait, that’s our idea”. Which is exactly how this came about. I was also lucky to have creative leaders who went all out to try to sell that in because ideas like that can easily die without conviction and unity as an agency to fight for them.
LBB> Aside from the Super Bowl ad, are there any other particularly significant campaigns that you’ve enjoyed working on? And are there any we should keep an eye out for?
Melusi> Sentimentally I would say, KFC’s Streetwise 3 ‘Slyza Tsotsi’ radio campaign.
I did these with my mentor, brother and friend the late Molefi Thulo. The writing process, the jokes, and the fun that was had will always remind me of why we do this.
LBB> You mention that you write “to make people feel something.” Why is it so important to connect with the audience on an emotional level and how do you know when an idea is going to achieve that?
Melusi> What makes what we do so magical is that one can never really know if their idea will be ‘loved’ or work, all we are able to do is increase those possibilities with great insights and dope executions. In the end, we hope that the perfect mixture of great human truth and how you bring that to life connects with your audience, which is why when it does and the idea catches on like wildfire it’s such an unexplainable feeling. This is why I always put people first, even before the idea…because most of the time that’s where your idea will come from.
LBB> How has your background influenced the work you do?
Melusi> I grew up everywhere, from the rural parts of Nkandla to the streets of Jozi CBD and Soweto, although all of these environments do not necessarily ‘shape’ you, they help you look at the world differently. As Black creatives, our world growing up and going through all those experiences is what makes us. Let’s use this to tell stories that no one else can tell because now more than ever, the world is ready to listen.
LBB> What is the most exciting thing about the creative industry in South Africa and why should we be paying more attention to it?
Melusi> Ever since the day I left, I’ve never stopped following SA advertising. I watch all Loeries/Pendoring winners, for two reasons, one it’s what I know and love and it also makes me feel closer to home. Secondly, most of the dope work that comes out is from people I know personally, there is nothing more amazing than being inspired by your own friends.
LBB> What advice would you give South Africans who are eager to get into the industry?
Melusi> Believe in your dopeness.
LBB> What would you like to see change within the industry over the next few years?
Melusi> What I’m loving is how more creatives of colour are slowly being placed in positions that can truly affect change. I’d love to see more of that.
LBB> What makes you get up in the morning and do what you do?
Melusi> My family. They have been the major support system in this journey, especially after I relocated. It has not been the easiest of journeys but having them as my WHY is doing this, inspires me to wake up every morning and give it my all.