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Steph Van Niekerk: “The Work Is What Matters, the Work Will Get You Where You Want to Be”

Production Services
Cape Town, South Africa
Grey South Africa’s creative director, Steph Van Niekerk, tells LBB how she transitioned to a leadership role, the support of other women, and the piece of work that changed her life

Robot, the Cape Town-based production service company, has partnered with Little Black Book to sponsor the site’s South African Edition. As part of the series over the next few months, we’ll be speaking with some of the brightest creatives hailing from SA and talking to them all about their roots and thoughts on the industry. 

Steph Van Niekerk is the creative director, Grey South Africa, She ranked as the number one creative director and the number one copywriter in South Africa in 2019, as well as runner-up Woman of the Year in 2020. Simply put, Steph is one of the country’s top talents. With over 19 years of industry experience, she’s honed her skills as a copywriter at some of South Africa’s best agencies, winning nearly every local and international award, including a number of Gold Cannes Lions, SA’s first (and still only) Gold One Show Pencil for TV and Cinema and the three Grand Prix awards in two years at the Loeries, for Branded Content, Radio and Film.

Having had experience in both traditional and digital agencies, she believes in integrated platform-agnostic storytelling. She is known for work that is always moving, entertaining and insightful.

LBB> You were born and grew up in South Africa. What early memories do you have of the country and its culture? 

Steph> My most vivid memory of becoming aware of the country and culture I live in is driving to our first free and democratic elections in the back of my dad’s pick-up truck. I was 14 years old. I was a witness to the fall of apartheid and I was present at that moment when love conquered evil. That was my first conscious moment of feeling proud to be a South African. The country still faces a lot of challenges, but every now and then you catch a glimpse of that ’94 energy and it’s beautiful.

LBB> In your view, which South African brands are currently getting it right when it comes to their creative and why? And is there anything which the other markets could learn from their success? 

Steph> We all admire the Chicken Licken work, a local equivalent to KFC. The work is always fun, brave and unashamedly South African. They don’t try to be like anyone else. They march to the beat of their own drum. And they’re really really good at radio.

LBB> What else excites you about the creative industry in SA? 

Steph> I love what is happening here creatively. It’s like I have a front row seat to an African Renaissance. We are embracing our identity, creating in our own languages and telling wonderfully nuanced and insightful stories. It’s very exciting to see this.

LBB> What were your interests when you were young? Were you always creative?

Steph> I actually stumbled into advertising out of sheer rebellion. As a ‘straight-A’ student, I was accepted to  the University of Cape Town on a full bursary to study Business Science. My dad wanted me to be an actuary but when you are young, you always know better and after a few months I dropped out and went to Red & Yellow School of Advertising to pursue a career in copywriting. It’s interesting. I never thought of myself as creative, and in those days you were either maths and science ‘clever’ or creative and you had to almost pick a lane. Advertising turned out to be a field which would combine logical and critical thinking with the magic of creativity. 

LBB> What inspired you to get into the industry? 

Steph> The people. I loved how the industry was made up of the smartest, most interesting and passionate collection of individuals who all come together to share their talents and expertise to create something special. I still love it. It’s still the best part of my job.

LBB> And what do you think you would be doing if things worked out differently? 

Steph> I was never a kid with a very defined view of what they wanted to be. All the aptitude tests always said I could be anything, which was noble but not very helpful. At one stage, I was dead set on becoming a forensic pathologist – I realised quickly that I was way too squeamish for that. I feel like fear of blood and guts would have been a terrible handicap for a forensic pathologist. I do love a good puzzle though and I find Chemistry incredibly satisfying, so I would seek out a career that combines those two things.

LBB> You’re now a creative director at Grey and you started out as a copywriter. How did you find the transition from copywriting to a senior leadership role? 

Steph> Despite having all the awards in the world, it took me a really long time to believe that I was ready for a management role. I guess my focus has always been on the work itself. I still think the work is what matters, because the work will get you where you want to be. Having said that, I’ve found the transition into a leadership role profoundly rewarding. I love seeing the growth in my teams and being able to impart my knowledge and experience on others has been very fulfilling. It’s probably the best ROI one can wish for. Who knew I had such strong maternal instincts? I have discovered a whole new part of myself and I’m grateful for that.

LBB> As a highly successful woman in an industry that’s still seen as male-dominated, do you feel a responsibility to create space for other women? 

Steph> I can honestly say that I am where I am today because of other women; women who saw my potential and talents and took the time to nurture them. I hope that I can return the favour and  inspire young female creatives by showing them that we can absolutely hold our own on the awards stage. So, when I work with young women, the focus is very much on honing their creative skills as that is where all their confidence, self-belief and empowerment will come from. Fact.

LBB> Which pieces of work are you most proud to have worked on and why?

Steph> The piece that I’m most proud of is without a doubt ‘Selinah’ for the Topsy Foundation. Every now and again you get to work on something really meaningful. This ad changed lives. Mine included. I won’t go into it now, but we set out to heal her and she ended up healing me. I can honestly say that I am a better person for having met this incredibly sick but profoundly brave woman. It really was a once in a lifetime experience.

The hardest thing I’ve ever had to pull together was Huggies: The World’s First Baby Marathon.Making it was hell, but people really loved it and it broke new ground for the category. Framing nappies as ‘athleisure-wear’ did wonders for the brand and they saw record sales as a result. 

LBB> How does your background influence and inspire the work you do today? Where do you find your inspiration? 

Steph> As South Africans, our resources are pretty limited. But this forces us to be even more inventive and audacious. My inspiration comes from the young black teams that work for me. To see these young people, who grew up with nothing, express themselves and their experiences with such confidence and flair and creativity is truly exciting. Also, South African Twitter is a wonderful place. We are a funny, scrappy nation with an over developed wit and sense of humour. I think it is our superpower and yes, a coping mechanism, because life can get quite challenging here.

LBB> Where and which markets do you think creatives should be looking to for new and exciting ideas? 

Steph> As the economic fallout of the pandemic continues and our budgets shrink, I think we will all benefit from looking to South American work. Although they have limited funds the work is always audacious and fresh and they still manage to pull it off at scale.

LBB> Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career so far? 

Steph> One of the biggest lessons and challenges for me is not to tie my self-worth to accolades and awards. Awards are important and it’s bloody nice to win. But there will be peaks and there will be valleys, times of plenty and times of none. It’s how we navigate these ups and downs that is important. I fail at this a lot and have to remind myself of this all the time.