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The Unique Textures of South Africa

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M&C Saatchi Abel’s James Cloete speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about what makes the country such a creative place

The Unique Textures of South Africa

James Cloete, executive creative partner at M&C Saatchi Abel in South Africa is a creative who knows a thing or two about the country’s creative scene. Growing up in Johannesburg with a family who were passionate about art was a clue as to where his future would head. “I always loved art and from quite a young age I knew that I wanted to do something that would involve creativity. But my father was an economist and so I was a little bit material minded as well. I liked the idea of doing something creative, but I also like the idea of not being a starving artist!”

He took this thinking with him as he enrolled in South Africa’s AAA School of Advertising where he originally applied to be an art director, though a well-timed meeting with a professor just the day before term started pushed him to switch to a copywriting course. Post-qualifying James took on roles with Leo Burnett Johannesburg, Net#work BBDO, FCB Johannesburg, Wunderman Thompson South Africa and more.

Having now been a part of the country’s creative scene for some two decades, James puts creativity in the country down to a ‘unique set of circumstances’. “In South Africa, you have 11 official languages and then you have a massive discrepancy between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor - and everything in between. As ad guys, as marketers in this country, our whole careers we've spent communicating to every conceivable echelon in society and across multiple languages which is great.” He adds that this is ‘obviously’ challenging but brings with it incredible experiences.

James notes that many South African creatives have global careers and argues that perhaps their adaptability across multiple markets comes from speaking to a broad audience in the country. “You've spent your whole career speaking to multiple people, multiple languages, multiple living standards. When you then need to do that for a global brand across many territories it doesn't feel so unfamiliar.” He adds that this is just one of the many things that makes advertising in the country so unique.

Another factor in South Africa’s landscape is one James touched upon before and that’s to do with finances. Client budgets are one thing ‘because you're forced to think more creatively and more innovative when you have smaller budgets to work with’. But consumer purchasing power in the country certainly plays into marketing when so much of it is consumed via mobile – a costly platform in South Africa. 

James explains: “I think what's sort of a unique challenge in South Africa is that although we have very broad smartphone penetration, everyone in theory has access to the digital world and the digital experiences that are available within it. The data in South Africa is prohibitively expensive, more expensive than it is in most developed countries. Financial constraints will limit how much they're prepared to engage with a brand in the online domain. I guess that's just the reality.”

He does believe that there are hopes for the country’s data prices to decrease and free internet access to be available which will have a positive impact for marketing. “I think it will open up and as it opens up it's going to become very exciting. Not just in terms of what brands are capable of doing and how they're able to engage with people. But also just in terms of the creator economy. I think you're going to start to see many smaller players and entrepreneurs starting to rise and create new brands within the digital space.”

M&C Saatchi Abel is based in Johannesburg, somewhere where James has spent much of his career and what he calls a ‘cosmopolitan melting pot’. He shares his thoughts on the country’s creative hubs: “While there are a number of agencies in cities like Durban or Port Elizabeth or Cape Town, the vast majority will have the main offices in Johannesburg just so you can be near to the clients.

“You'll often see within South African work that there is a very unique texture just by virtue of the people that it's serving, and the people that are making it.” This – and James’ belief that great ideas are rooted in universal insights is what makes the country one to watch on the global creative scale. 

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M&C Saatchi Abel, Fri, 25 Feb 2022 16:25:00 GMT