by Herman Manson (@marklives) Over the course of two months, we asked a panel of black agency leaders to discuss progress in how the marketing and advertising industries are transforming. The individual opinions flowing back to us made clear several factors highlighting the limits of the transformation project to date.
With the issues spelled out, it’s time for the industry to collectively find the creative solutions to these problems — surely it can’t sell this service when failing to apply it to itself?
Range of issues
Let’s highlight the range of issues identified by our panellists first. Why do so many black professionals feel concern with the rate of progress; what is it about the status-quo that leaves them frustrated; and why have several generations of black agency startups failed to find scale, a situation that only finally seems to be reversing in the course of the last two-to-three years, with the rise of black-founded and managed-agencies such as AVATAR and Riverbed?
- Mxolisi Goodman Buthelezi: Transformation isn’t dancing for chicken, airtime or policies
- Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila: Transformation needs buy-in on the demand side
- Grant Sithole: Transformation — the proverbial workhorses have bolted
- Zibusiso Mkhwanazi: Transformation — clients must take road less travelled
- Masego Motsogi: What we need to achieve true transformation
- Sbu Sitole: Concept of transformation not embraced by our industry
- Ahmed Tilly: “Some” transformation is simply not good enough
- Ivan Moroke: Transformation apartheid plagues SA ad agencies
1. Europe still has a tight grip on us
The advertising industry is going through massive disruption. Consultancies have started eating the industry’s lunch and it’s becoming clear that its systems and procedures are increasingly out of date and removed from client needs. Instead of reformatting itself and its legacy systems, the industry has simply changed its sell. And so we’ve been given the creatively driven Big Idea as the saviour of adland as we know it.
This is what gets pushed to clients by execs, what you read about in the trade press and what gets awarded at creative award shows. But the standard and language of the creatively driven Big Idea are still set by Europe’s agencies and by Europe’s creative award shows.
While we keep chasing awards set in a first-world narrative, we’ll continue to speak, think and produce work in that narrative. In our bid to win statues, we task the Big Idea to people fluent in a narrative that will increase the chances of (award) success.
In Ivan Moroke’s piece, Transformation apartheid plagues SA ad agencies, he talks of an apart-ness — where white teams are assumed to be more-attuned to international norms while black teams are tasked with achieving ‘black insights’ only. “…[T]he use of local and global pigeonholes entrenches a de facto system of separate development,” he writes. “These divisive trends have to be urgently addressed.”
“Quality of work”
Masego Motsogi touches on a similar point in her piece, What we need to achieve true transformation. “[H]ow we as an industry perceive people of colour and reinforce stereotypes through the work we produce,” she writes. “Often the quality of work specifically directed at a black audience is not only subpar but misguided and misinformed.”
Black advertising professionals “…don’t want to only be given the ‘black’ briefs; they want to be amazing creative people across segments,” argues Sibusiso “Sbu” Sitole in Concept of transformation not embraced by our industry. “They don’t want to sit in a pitch so that their agency looks more transformed; they want to be a valuable team player. Much like white advertising professionals, they want to be the best at what they do!”
2. We’ve not gone beyond the scorecard
A lot of transformation effort has been expended on achieving BBBEE scorecard objectives (the new codes prioritise ownership with a target of 45% black ownership by 31 March 2018). This is a one-dimensional approach to transformation.
In “Some” transformation is simply not good enough, Ahmed Tilly notes that power and wealth haven’t been successfully transferred to black agency personnel. “Black advertising professionals have seen the limitations for growth to the very top. It is demoralising,” he writes. “Opportunities to the corner office are limited and a history that spans 22 years has proven this. And I haven’t even started to talk about the very necessary equity discussion. Why would they stay in an industry that refuses to transform?”
“I believe that a transformed industry will be a more-robust industry with more work for everyone,” he continues. “White and black. I believe that diversity is a beautiful thing. A place for all. But, if there is resistance to change, a stubbornness to hand over, a reluctance to share the wealth and the power, spaces in the industry will be limited.”
Mentorship and on-the-job training that helps develop transferable skills are key to agency transformation strategies, says Motsogi. “Business leaders need to examine their subconscious, and sometimes conscious, bias, and ensure that they are promoting genuine equal opportunity through real, tangible action — not just words. They need to reinforce these positive, fair behaviours through their team, so that the example is set from the top down.”
On an ownership level, the industry seem to have shied away from negotiating a transfer of ownership with black execs already active in the industry in favour of a range of non-profits, educational institutions or well-connected business people.
Black creatives have been going freelance or starting their own shops, writes Grant Sithole in Transformation — the proverbial workhorses have bolted. “We are out creating the kind of work and working environments that we have been asking the industry to do for some time now. And I’m very pleased to see that some historically rigid players are slowly seeing the… uhm.. .light.”
3. Little client buy-in remains an obstacle for black entrepreneurs
“After 23 years of our freedom, there are hardly any black-owned agencies handling blue-chip accounts, competing and matching others pound for pound. This isn’t because black-owned agencies aren’t up for a challenge. You’re lucky to even get on the pitch list,” notes Mxolisi Goodman Buthelezi in Transformation isn’t dancing for chicken, airtime or policies.
“We believe that the more opportunities given to black agencies to win big accounts, the greater the creative diversity and quality of work delivered,” writes Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila in Transformation needs buy-in on the demand side. “It is common knowledge that, at the heart of any campaign is understanding the consumer, and with the black middle-class market now at 6m people, there is a compelling reason that black agencies should be given the opportunity to deliver persuasive campaigns that influence and impact this market. If this argument holds true, it begs the question why change in this sector continues to be driven by BBBEE imperatives and not by brands insistent on using black agencies to better understand and connect with the consumer.”
“So, if we are disgruntled at the rate of progress in our industry, what do we do to change it?” she asks. “We need to proactively begin to get corporates to understand the value of working with black agencies, not to benefit their scorecard but to benefit their brands. Without buy-in on the demand side, we will continue to perpetuate the same norms and same beliefs that have kept the industry slow to transform.”
“The only way to know if an agency is capable is for the client to give it a chance to prove itself. Clients have to be willing to take the road less travelled if they truly believe in transformation,” writes Zibusiso “Zi” Mkhwanazi in Transformation — clients must take road less travelled. If we are to build a sustainable marketing industry, if transformation is to be more than talk, it cannot be business as usual.
“Taking a risk”
“If a brand is going to pit upcoming agencies that are black-owned against the more-established large agencies — those with international backing — the results are fairly obvious,” he continues. “Frustration will continue to grow because the pace of transformation will continue to be staggeringly slow. Transformation means taking a risk where there are more comfortable options available.
“This doesn’t equal entitlement. It is doing what we all know is right. If we are not willing to make brave decisions as an industry to help solve the social ills of our country, we will continue to live with two economies. We will never enjoy the fruits of our labor without constantly living in fear that it will be taken away.”
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com.
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