What Agencies Can Learn from Joe Public United Becoming SA's Largest Black Owned Agency

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The agency cemented their status when investors bought a 34% share in the company. Now key board members speak to LBB’s Natasha Patel on what this has done for the advertising world
What Agencies Can Learn from Joe Public United Becoming SA's Largest Black Owned Agency

Earlier this month Joe Public United in South Africa passed a major milestone when they announced they had become the largest Black owned independent agency in the country. Black owned private equity firm Senatla Capital bought a 34% stake in the agency thus allowing 60% of the company to be controlled by Black shareholders. Sentala’s CEO Owen Maubane believes that by increasing Black ownership within the company, they expect to increase the company’s market share in the areas in which it conducts business and thereby increase its value. He adds: “By empowering the next generation of management within the agency via a Black management investment vehicle with 34% ownership, we are seeking to change the face of the media and advertising industry in South Africa.”

 

Changing the face of the media and advertising industry in a country long known for its fights with racism is something that has been at the forefront of Joe Public for the past decade. The company’s CEO, Gareth Leck, believes that while there has been some progress with the number of Black leaders in senior roles, there is still room for improvement. The fight forward is one that has been recognised by the government who have implemented a transformation charter and set targets for the percentage of Black executives in management in the advertising, marketing and communication sector. In 2015 the charter ruled that by 2018 60% of senior management as a percentage of all executive management should be Black. However Gareth believes his company’s journey began earlier than this. “Joe Public began our transformation journey long before any charters or targets were given to us by the government, as we intuitively believed in the power of diversity and the importance of having a leadership team that was more representative of the South African demographics”. Perhaps this ability to be one step ahead of the game is how Joe Public achieved the milestone they did.

 

With the recent Black Lives Matter protests in America, and later other parts of the world, there has been a lot of talk about how the industry needs to take Black talent seriously. With a large percentage of the population in South Africa identifying as Black, it's no surprise that Gareth believes that advertising agencies should be representative of the demographic. But, he believes the industry has faced problems as they are not viewed in the same light as other professions and therefore this has led to a “critical shortage of resources in advertising in Africa”. However Gareth has worked hard to make sure his team has always been diverse. “Our mantra is that the greater the diversity, the greater the creativity. Joe Public has always been an organisation that embraces this power of diversity and it has definitely made us better for it. For example, four out of our five MDs are Black females.”

 

In particular managing director of Joe Public Connect, Mpume Ngobese believes that changes in the industry have been long needed: “For an industry that is famous for being a ‘man’s world’, having females, in particular Black females at the main table, symbolises a huge step change that has set a standard in our industry. Transformation, recognition and diversity are the ingredients that I believe this industry needs in order to thrive into the next level.” Her colleague and fellow female managing director, Khuthala Gala Holten hopes that the steps taken by Joe Public are an example of what the future of the industry needs to be like – and increase pressure worldwide.

 

Of course to reach these milestones the journey hasn’t been smooth and Gareth believes the hunt to find an investor that shared the company’s values and vision has always been at the forefront. After a two-year search to find an investor, the team were then met with the task of developing an optimum ownership structure that would enable them to transform the company into a majority Black-owned entity – while also remaining independent. It is therefore more interesting that he believes that being an independent agency played a key role in putting a new management structure in place. “Critical in this plan was allowing a number of our key Black executives to become significant shareholders in the business, while at the same time ensuring the existing shareholders were also able retain significant shareholding. I believe that it would have been near impossible to do this if we were not an independently owned agency.”

 

A recent report by Adobe on diversity in advertising suggests that in the USA 59% of white people felt represented, while 26% of African Americans did. This huge gap gave Owen food for thought when Senatla made its investment in Joe Public, as he believes the company has done well by being highlighted on the local and international scales with numerous awards. “Some of these were awarded for work we produced for some of our clients whose customers are primarily Black African. In the area of agency leadership and ownership, both gender and racial diversity are sorely lacking globally. In South Africa, the profile of CMOs is changing, with more Black female representation in particular, coming to the fore”.

 

As a Black woman in the industry Khuthala had set herself a long-term growth plan years ago to be a Black woman playing an integral role in a leading advertising agency. For her, the milestone represents not only breaking through a glass ceiling, but also a huge transformation in the country as a whole. For her, this change has been long overdue and to “ensure we’re able to do what we do for the diverse nation we serve, our microcosm needs to represent the macrocosmic world we live in.”

 

The Marketing, Advertising and Communication charter in South Africa set a standard for 30% of employees in senior management to be female by 2018. While there is no indication if that has been achieved in the country, Mpume highlights the global temperature being at its “more uncomfortable level” currently and believes this is due to sexism and racism. She adds: “my hope is for other organisations, globally, to recognise the need to let go of the subconscious gender and colour biases and begin to recognise the importance of growing their staff from within, the importance of recognition based on merit, as well as the importance of diversity and representation in their structures. I believe that this will bring about a new world order, a new way of thinking and our world will be richer for it.”

 

Mpume’s views on what Joe Public can show the world are echoed by Gareth who advises brands to be clear on why they exist as a business and what impact they want to make in the world. Meanwhile, Owen believes that this transformation in both race and gender represents a significant milestone for the advertising industry and hopes that the synergy and diversity are reflected in the ability of the team’s work to resonate with the diversity of South Africa’s people.

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