Young, Gifted & Killing It: Melusi Mhlungu
by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) It’s not just writing ability or ideas that have won Melusi Mhlungu (@Adverttown) a proud place in adland, with the Loeries 2015 Young Creative of the Year already among his accolades. It’s his love for industry that has got him this far, he explains. “Loving what you do is everything because that’s what’s going to get you through the bad days, like when your creative director says, ‘That’s a brilliant idea but it’s been done before.’” We discover how this young and gifted Ogilvy Joburg copywriter’s been killing it!
Veli Ngubane: Where did you grow up and how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be a creative?
Melusi Mhlungu: Originally, the Mhlungus are from eNkandla (and, no, we don’t have a firepool at home) but I grew up in the southeast of Jozi in Brackendowns. My mom had no idea what advertising was and I think at that point I also didn’t know exactly what I was getting into, but she supported my decision regardless.
VN: How did you a) get interested in advertising and b) break into the industry and land your first job?
MM: I got interested in advertising when I was in grade seven; my aunt worked at Leo Burnett as an accounts human [sic] at the time. I remember bothering her with my “adverts” for a car brand I can’t mention (let’s just say it starts with a “Merc” and ends with a “des”) every time she came home. She was the person who introduced me to the likes of Vega and AAA.
How did I break into the industry? Well, let’s just say I knew the wives of some advertising bigshots at the time (no, man, not like that…get out!). On the real, though, my lecturer’s husband (hi Nicci Martins) worked at Ogilvy and so she organised for me to intern there. While at Ogilvy, I met another human lady and her husband worked at FCB. The way she spoke about FCB made me feel like I NEEDED TO BE THERE! And so the stalking of her husband began; basically, stalking got me here.
VN: What are your specialisations/creative processes/most-important tools of the trade?
MM: I’m a writer but I don’t think it’s my writing abilities and ideas [that] are the only things that have gotten me this far. I think my most important tool has to be the love. Loving what you do is everything in this industry because that’s what’s going to get you through the tough days, like when clients say “I love everything, guys, just one change” or when your creative director says “that’s a brilliant idea but It’s been done before”.
VN: Any interesting hobbies/second jobs/bits of information that make you pop as an individual?
MM: My favourite hobby is bothering client service with ideas they might be scared to take to client…I LOVE IT; IT GETS THE PEOPLE GOING.
VN: What is the South African advertising industry doing right? What needs to change?
MM: I think the South African Industry is doing amazingly well; in the past five years we have seen South African agencies and creative leaders being recognised by international awards — which is great. But I think our industry can still improve by using the same amount of creativity and craft that we put into international awards for the local market. I think as an industry we can all still do better at making “our own kind of work”.
VN: What is your take on transformation in creative studios and adland as a whole?
MM: Oh, the good old “T” word. I think the industry, in terms of the people coming in, is becoming more and more transformed, but the weird part is the work we’re seeing doesn’t feel that way. For an industry that is always talking and doing things in the name of transformation, the work out there doesn’t reflect that. Maybe it’s because the transformation taking place is happening at the entry level, which doesn’t have much impact most in the creative output. And trust [me]…the consumer sees this and they will let you know. I’ve received a question on Black Twitter which was “Why are the so called black ads not as creative?” to which I replied with a * hide eyes monkey face * and logged off!
I think more transformation needs to start happening on the top level, where bigger decisions about the creative output are made. This needs to happen soon, so that I can go back to that person who asked me that question with this reply à “What are you talking about joe?”
VN: You won the young creative award at the Loeries in 2015; how did that feel? What advice would you give young creatives in the ad industry?
MM: It felt unreal; it was one of the awards I’ve always dreamt of winning and, when it happened, I was over the moon. That feeling quickly changed from “yoop yoop young creative” to “ohhhh crap what’s next?” That “what’s next” feeling is what’s helped me pushed myself daily and made me an even better creative than the Melusi that won Young Creative.
VN: Can you remember an advertising campaign that caught your attention?
MM: There has been a lot; my all-time favourite has to be VODACOM “We’ve been having it”. It was such sweets.
VN: What makes an ad memorable?
MM: The best part about what we do is we never know whether the script/ad we have is going to be memorable. But there are certain things you can do within the process to make your chances better. Like telling a great story with great characters, and that great story needs to have some great moments within it, whether it’s a phrase or expression from your characters. The rest is up to the people to decide.
VN: What differences can you notice between ads from 10 years ago and ads today?
MM: Ads are not as memorable as they were 10 years ago and part of that is because all brands are telling the same person, the same thing, the same way.
VN: You got a chance to go to NYC in 2014 after winning a radio ad competition. How did it feel to find out that you’d written a winning ad? What did you learn from that trip that’s helpful today?
MM: When I first told my creative director at the time the idea. he gave me that “have you taken your medication today because that’s sick” look. It was really a great moment to win that competition, mainly because it was a RADIO competition and I love radio.
That was my first ever trip outside of the country so I got to learn that the world is a really, really big place.
VN: Agency life requires you to expend a lot of energy and come up with fresh ideas constantly. How do you keep your mind sharp and the inspiration flowing?
MM: I think it’s less about keeping the mind fresh and more about keeping the heart big. To stay passionate, to love what you do and not letting other people steal that love from you.
VN: What do you consider the most effective current form of advertising in South Africa?
MM: SFX: Clears Throat
MVO: It has to be radio
VN: What has been the most-exciting project that you’ve worked on?
MM: Last year, I got the opportunity to go to Cannes for Ogilvy World Class programme. Where there were 10 other young creatives from Ogilvy around the world. We worked on one brief and got to present to the global client.
This was such a life-changing experience (yes, I said life). I got to learn so much from so many people; I even learnt things I didn’t know about myself when it comes to this whole creative process thing. I was in a foreign place, with strangers, working on a female shaving product. I was so out of my comfort zone; the only thing I had with me was my ideas (and cool socks). It was amazing to see how ideas broke down all the boundaries and differences we all had, and we ended up making some work which was DOPE.
VN: Please would you supply two or three pieces of work you have been involved in?
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.