by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) With black-owned startups seemingly popping up all over the place, Sibusiso “Sbu” Sitole feels that we’re “on the cusp of real and sustainable change” in an adland which has been slow to transform. What’s now needed, says the young and gifted creative director and co-founder of 100% black-owned ad agency, The Odd Number, is for more big brands to give smaller agencies a chance. However, he tells us, if small agencies want to be successful, they’ve got to show they can run a world-class business.
Veli Ngubane: Where did you grow up and how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be a creative?
Sbu Sitole: I grew up in Johannesburg. I think my parents expected me to go into a creative industry; I was always into art and English rather than mathematics and science. Also, my mother was a food stylist in magazines, so creativity was always encouraged at home.
VN: How did you a) get interested in advertising and b) break into the industry and land your first job?
SS: I always enjoyed advertising as a child, from the iconic VW ads to the scouts singing in the Bull Brand commercials. I loved that you could tell a meaningful story in such a short space of time. The opportunity came about to apply for a bursary at The Red & Yellow School in Cape Town that would be funded by Ogilvy & Mather and I immediately got excited about it. I went for the interviews while in matric, and was eventually successful. After graduating, I phoned FCB and managed to get a meeting with Brett Morris, and that’s how I got into the industry.
VN: What are your specialisations/creative processes/most NB tools of the trade?
SS: I graduated and worked as an art director for most of my career before deciding to become a copywriter. I’d say my creative process is one centred [upon] people. I’m mad about people and their different quirks, and I try to bring that into the work that I do. I believe the best ads are those that are well-nuanced, well-crafted, surprising and easy to understand.
VN: What is your take on transformation in adland/creative departments?
SS: I think adland is a great example of how to do transformation badly. You’d think with a rapidly growing emerging market such as ours, we’d prioritise diversity within ad agencies, but it’s been an afterthought. Fortunately, clients are demanding it more, and the change is happening. I still don’t quite understand why we have so few black-owned independent agencies, but they say ‘be the change you want to see in world’ so we started The Odd Number.
VN: Any interesting hobbies/second jobs/bits of information that make you pop as an individual?
SS: It’s not really a hobby, but ever since I’ve been in advertising I’ve found myself laying down a voiceover or twenty. I’ve always enjoyed that. However, my real second job is my family. I have a seven year-old boy who inspires me on a daily basis and my beautiful wife who’s a PHD student at Wits; the two of them keep me focused and sane (sometimes)!
VN: You have described your agency, The Odd Number, as a marriage of creative and business effectiveness to ensure sustainable solutions for clients. In what ways do you implement this? And how does this set you apart from other agencies?
SS: Ultimately, with every brief that we receive, the objective is to drive a business solution. That solution could be to introduce a product or service, position a brand or to drive sales. The imperative for us in overlaying a creative solution to a business challenge is to achieve sustainable business results for our clients. This requires an intimate understanding of our clients industry, sector and market positioning.
We implement creative and business effectiveness through a five-pronged methodology that we’ve developed. This approach is the blueprint of all the work that we produce. What sets our approach apart is simply in our nuanced interpretation of our diverse market and, ultimately, our application.
VN: There is a buzz around black owned agencies, with new startups popping up; what does this mean for the industry? And what advice do you have for these startups to ensure sustainability and achieving growth?
SS: It’s exciting! I feel like we’re on the cusp of real and sustainable change. I look forward to how it affects the creative work in the industry. I look forward to more female CDs, more big brands taking a chance on smaller agencies, and more diversity in pitch briefings.
For startups, my advice would be to work with people better than you. Always surround yourself with the best suppliers, and employees you can find. It’s tough running a startup, because you have to wear two hats, an ownership hat and an operational hat. When you’ve got a strong team, you can focus more on the strategic thrust of the business. Lastly, I’d say it’s about quality. Always produce/present the highest quality of work you can. We as small agencies have to show that we can run a world-class business. A client can’t feel compromised because [they’re] working with you, it should be the very opposite.
VN: In 2016 you got the chance to judge on The Loerie Awards; please tell us what for you stands out as award-winning work?
SS: For me, it’s always about a powerful idea beautifully executed. I’m a sucker for vernacular work, too; I just think we as creative people need to celebrate the non-English work as much as we do the English. Looking at the work that won recently, I think we’re moving in the right direction.
VN: What has been the most exciting project that you’ve worked on?
SS: The most exciting project I’ve worked on has to be The Odd Number! Building this brand from scratch, giving it life, giving it a purpose and an identity has been the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done.
Creatively, we got an opportunity to work on a youth voting campaign for the 2016 municipal elections. The insight was simple: “Has the Hashtag become more powerful than the X you use when voting?” The result was a campaign we coined #2X Take Your Power To The Polls. We teamed up with Teboho Mahlatsi at Bomb [Commercials], and a host of photojournalists to put the piece together. It was exciting because I had never done a commercial or campaign like this before; it was a completely different process from beginning to end.
VN: Where and when do you have your best ideas?
SS: When I’m relaxed and happy.
VN: Any advice to youngsters wanting to enter the industry?
SS: We need you! All of you! Especially black [women].
I think a lot of young creative tend to get frustrated with the industry, often feeling overlooked. My advice would be to give it your best shot, and stay the course. It may take a while, but it’ll be worth it in the end. Also, find a mentor.
VN: Please can you supply two or three pieces of work you have involved in (list capacity & agency as well). YouTube links for TV/vid, screen grabs or jpeg pics for everything else.
DSTV Africa #TIA
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather
Position: Creative director
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather
VIP #2X Take your power to the polls
Agency: The Odd Number
Position: Creative director
Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) entered the world of advertising with a passion after completing his BSocSci (law, politics and economics) at the University of Cape Town and a post-graduate marketing diploma at Red & Yellow, where he also currently serves as advisory board chairman. He is the chief creative officer and founding partner of one of the fastest-growing agencies in the country, AVATAR. A full-service marketing agency with digital at the core, its clients include Brand South Africa, FOX Africa, National Geographic, SAA and Chevron. Veli hails from Kosi Bay in the rural KwaMhlaba Uyalingana area of KZN. In his monthly column “Young, Gifted & Killing It”, he profiles award-winning, kick-ass black creative talent in South Africa.