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Kagiso Tshepe: It’s Not Always Lovely, That’s Why You Need to Love It


Grid Worldwide’s executive creative director on the South African industry “figuring itself out,” the need to take work personally and how individuals’ stories can remedy collective problems, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov

Kagiso Tshepe: It’s Not Always Lovely, That’s Why You Need to Love It

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. 

Kagiso Tshepe, although describing himself as “still very fresh” in the industry, he has earned his coveted space within it already. Starting off in graphic design and springing himself to the art director position at MetropolitanRepublic were only the first steps of a fruitful career. Later on Kagiso became a senior art director at Ogilvy & Mather South Africa and following that moved around within adland, doing work for M&C Saatchi Abel, Net#work BBDO and Grid Worldwide, where he has been for just under three years and currently occupies the position of executive creative director. LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Kagiso to find out more. 

LBB> Was creativity a part of your childhood and were there any inklings that you would pursue a creative career in the future?

Kagiso> Creativity wasn’t just a part of my childhood. It was most of it. It was a necessity. We needed to be creative. That’s how we met even the most basic of needs. From how we got water, warmth, and how we passed or filled time. It was in the stories my grandmother told to educate or warn us. 

I had no idea that people used this same thing to build sustainable lives full of beauty and meaning. Very often, in her strange way of scolding me for being lazy, my grandmother would say “I hope one day when you grow up, the only thing you work with is a pen.” Eventually, I started imagining it. ‘What if?’ and just like that I was drawn in. I took the pen and did with it all I could imagine – in pictures and in words. That’s how I got here. 

LBB> What were the first steps you took towards creative media and how did that pan out for you?

Kagiso> Looking back, I realise how the journey hasn’t been that long, actually. It’s still very fresh. Perhaps, like most creative people, my path wasn’t as clear in the beginning but the more I followed my intuition it became even narrower and single-minded. I knew that I had a little offbeat way of thinking about things and so I had to do something about it. I had to tell someone or a few hundred about it. So, when I stumbled upon a magazine article on graphic design and advertising I knew that that’s what I needed to do. When I completed high school I got accepted into a few art/creative schools in South Africa, but unfortunately couldn’t afford them. So I went back home and taught myself a few tricks to build a portfolio and scam myself straight into the industry. For some reason, after a lot of embarrassing scamps, it worked.  

LBB> How did you end up entering the industry and what were the most valuable lessons you learned from those early days?

Kagiso> My little homemade porty was a great springboard that scored small graphic design gigs there and there, which led me to interesting spaces but not exactly where I wanted to be. Spaces like branding and packaging, finished art (DTP), web design (of that time, not this fancy new 3.0 what-what). But what I truly wanted was to be in a creative advertising agency. So, I stopped sending resumes and feeling despondent and I made an ad. A little print concept for a brand I loved at the time. I then posted it where real ad people post their real ads. A real ECD picked it up and gave me a call to come join their team. Forever grateful. 

I learned to understand and embrace the idea that; there are other realities outside my own. That people are busy, they have things going on and are going through things. So, if you want their attention you need to pay them for it. You need to do something worth their while. That became a big lesson that I still honour to this day, and hope reflects in my work. 

LBB> What was the project that was pivotal for your career and lifted it on another level? Tell us more about it.

Kagiso> That little print ad will always have a special place in my heart and in my book. I later got lucky enough to work with some really smart people, both agency and client – where I got the opportunity do to some meaningful work. The “Uk’shona Kwelanga” piece for Sanlam was a special gift for me. It showed me that, oftentimes the creative solution can come from our lived experiences. That sometimes your individual story can remedy a collective problem. We shouldn’t be afraid to put ourselves into our work. We were tasked with creating a small campaign for a funeral policy which when we put our heads and hearts together, became more special than what we had initially imagined. It had great resonance with the people it was intended for and made them feel seen and understood, by a company they never thought saw them. 

LBB> What about your favourite piece of work? Why was it your favourite?

Kagiso> We were recently tasked with localising a Ballantine’s whiskey global idea for the African market, and often these kinds of projects can quickly fall flat with meaning lost in translation. But in this case, we were able to stay true not only to the brand and idea but to our audience. We didn’t just adopt the idea and hope the audience adapts. We made it theirs. We showed them in their glory and honoured their stories, in a language they understand and appreciate – visually and verbally. 

LBB> What are your thoughts on the industry in South Africa? Any new trends that are happening now as opposed to a few years ago?

Kagiso> I think the South African ad industry is always in beta. It’s well-established while still trying to figure itself out. It’s up there with the best in the world yet still small enough to try new things. We’ve done some really world-class notable work but still have a long way to go. There are spaces and mediums we haven’t yet quite figured out. Mostly because of where our infrastructure is as well as our resources. We don’t have massive budgets or the most reliable and accessible connection for everyone, but we make do. So, it’s always a pull and push. 

Because of this, it’s hard for me to pinpoint a particular trend. Creatively we’re constantly growing and trying new things. Even though sometimes we do feel the pressure of where other industries in the world are moving to, the current buzz words and worlds, we’re still creating from our core – storytelling, the African way. It’s still the most impactful way. That’s still what’s making waves down here, no matter the medium.  

LBB> How does the diversity in South African culture reflect onto the industry there and is representation, in your opinion, fair?

Kagiso> One of the biggest challenges (and sometimes a blessing) of making creative work in South Africa is exactly that, the diversity of people and cultures. It can be really tough to create work that appeals and speaks authentically to so many diverse mindsets and beliefs when you only have one shot. This is where the industry is confronted with the big representation question. Do we have enough of the people we want to speak to in the room? Who are the decision-makers? These are the tough questions we’re still struggling to answer. We don’t have enough women in our industry. Not enough queer people in our industry. Not enough black people. Not enough old and not enough young people in the rooms that matter. As much as we are trying to change this, we are simply not where we should be. There are many factors that contribute to this but the main one that I think we can tackle right now is access. Access to information. Access to key conversations. Access to be heard and given a chance. We need to open our industry to more people other than the ones we’re familiar and comfortable with.  

LBB> How does your South African background inspire and influence your creative work flow?

Kagiso> South Africa as a country has a lot of problems, but South Africa as a people is beautiful. We are human here. So our work always springs from a human-first approach. Of course, I want to create cool things in the Metaverse, but how many of my people are there right now? I want to create NFTs for brands and such things, but what do they mean to the people of South Africa right now? So, for me, that’s where I always start. As much as I have a global outlook, I live here and I know what’s going on here. I approach my work from a humble point of view, a simple place. It is from remembering why I’m here that I then allow myself to explore. I’m certain this is not only a South African thing, that most parts of the world share similar experiences. I don’t take the phrase “human truth” lightly, because it allows me to create not only what I find ‘cool’ but will resonate with other people with different realities from mine. 

LBB> What are your hopes for the future of the industry, ways in which it could be improved or expectations related to future developments?

Kagiso> To get more people in. We need to share our skills and knowledge and open doors for more other people to enter. We’re in a country with the highest unemployment rate in the world yet there are not enough people in agencies. In fact, recruiters are struggling to fill positions right now. Like in most parts of the world, the talent pool is getting smaller while the demand is getting even bigger. The future is in the many minds left unengaged in our townships and rural areas. They are the ones that know the true South Africa and its realities, they are the ones with new dreams. The ones who will take us from where we are to where we need to be. 

LBB> What are the main motivations behind your work and how do you stay inspired? What advice would you give newer creatives regarding that? 

Kagiso> I’m motivated by the fact that the greatest piece of work I will ever see is still out there, undiscovered. Not yet conceived and not yet made. Who is going to come up with it? Who’s going to make it? I’d like to be in that room. To even push my luck, I’d like to be that person. That is what wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up most nights. 

To newer creatives: 
It’s not that deep. That’s why you need to go that deep.
It’s not always lovely. That’s why you need to love it. 
It’s not about you. That’s why you need to take it personally. 
Seriously, it’s not that serious. That’s why you need to take yourself and your dreams so seriously.
It’s not always fun and games. So have fun.  
You wouldn’t be here unless you were good enough. 
You’ve got this.

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ROBOT, Fri, 27 May 2022 15:22:33 GMT