Young, Gifted & Killing It: Musaba Kangulu
by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) Advertising wasn’t exactly on Musaba Kangulu’s ‘Top 100 things to do’ list but the industry welcomed the wide-eyed young woman with open arms. After a six-year digital love affair that blossomed, the relationship reached its breaking point when she decided to switch sides and take on the role of managing the digital footprint of one of Africa’s largest retailers. Not afraid to speak her mind, the young and gifted Kangulu (@ThatTypeOfMoose) believes in using her digital expertise to empower and nurture young black talent to challenge the status quo.
Veli Ngubane: Tell me about yourself: where did you grow up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
Musaba Kangulu: I was born in Zambia and my parents thought it would be a good idea to pack up all of our belongings and move to the UK. At nine months old, I wasn’t really given a say in the matter, so we left and began a whole new adventure. Little did I know living abroad was probably the best gift they could have given me. My older sister was and still is, big on anything sci-fi- and adventure-film-related. I caught onto the bug from a young age and convinced my family I was going to work for Indiana Jones as his archaeologist assistant.
VN: How has where you grew up and how you were raised shaped your view of South Africa, Africa and the world?
MK: Moving around pushed me to understand my surroundings first, adapt and remain cognisant of what was said at all times so as not to offend but make a friend instead. Although I was raised to embrace diversity and expand my horizons, I experienced my own chronic African identity crisis. The older I got, I started to realise Africans everywhere share similar virtues. South Africa is a nation filled with history that needs to be shared and continuously explained so people are fully aware of the sacrifices made, the various African states that assisted in the apartheid regime and changes that still need to be delivered on. If we can get to a place where cultural identities are seen as an asset for growth rather than a stigma for crises, I firmly believe we can attain equal measure on a global standard.
VN: How did you a) get interested in advertising and b) break into the industry and land your first job?
MK: Whenever I’m asked about how I got involved in the wacky world of advertising, the reaction shown is never quite the same. I’ll start off by saying the advertising industry sort of fell into my lap. I hadn’t given much thought as to what I wanted to do after graduation but my folks had given me six months to get my act together. To pass time, I found work at a clothing store as a sales assistant. The culture was great and I bought into the brand’s mantra but something was missing from the mix: awareness. Unless you walked into the store and chatted to staff, you wouldn’t have known about the clothing line. Social media had just taken off and I guess you could say brands were still trying to find their feet with the medium. I conveyed the idea of the brand making use of social media to advertise their products effectively; however, they firmly believed in a word-of-mouth marketing approach. I was also asked if I had any experience in online advertising to which I answered with a bleak no. It was at that point I decided to take a leap of faith and apply for an internship at any firm that would take me in and show me the ropes.
Machine Agency [now known as Publicis Machine] then took me in and gave me the foundation I needed to make something of myself.
I’m quite fortunate to have parents [who] support me in any endeavour that makes me happy so the reaction was a good one. I also suspect they were secretly curious and excited about the prospect of having a daughter that could work the likes of Facebook and get paid for it.
VN: What is your view on transformation in the advertising industry?
MK: It’s a touchy subject for those [who] refuse to admit we have a problem. On one hand, we have individuals [who] are crying for immediate change but aren’t in positions to drive the process. On the other hand, we have organisations that are fully aware of the problem; however, instead of exploiting the full depth of black talent in the country, they’re recycling the same talent. It’s a huge concern as it means SA and corporations are missing opportunities to empower and develop a wider pool of talent.
Despite all of the above, I remain hopeful as change starts with empowering those around you. Change starts with owning up, addressing the issue and making a difference.
VN: You specialised in social media for some time then moved onto digital strategy. Why the switch?
MK: Honestly speaking? I got bored from managing social media accounts and wanted to be actively involved in the solving-actual-problems-for-brands bit. With a natural thirst for knowledge and curiosity, I was desperate to probe the problem and interrogate the requests a lot harder. Moving into digital strategy, however, was no walk in the park, either. Not only is it seen as tricky to break into and navigate around, strategy itself has always been ambiguous and the role of a ‘digital strategist’ can mean very different things across different organisations. Once again I was fortunate to have mentors at FCB Africa [who] pushed me to develop my critical thinking skillset as a way to better analyse, evaluate, plan and execute strategically.
The most interesting digital strategy work can get messy, and may require a number of different disciplines to solve. I’ve never liked the lone-ranger approach when developing a strategy so I tend to adopt an inclusive approach that invites contributions, supports details and the data.
VN: What about digital excites you?
MK: It really is a growing industry that lets you explore and think beyond the norm. You’re constantly challenged to take risks and, depending on the mind-set of the organisation you find yourself working at, you could even make a difference in someone’s life through the use of technology.
VN: What are the most-challenging aspects when formulating a digital strategy?
MK: That’s a hard one. Now that I’ve moved over to client side, I’m starting to acknowledge the importance of organisations having a clear business strategy. Having a strategy aligned to a core purpose makes practical sense for any organisation. Not having such makes it impossible to create an effective digital marketing strategy. The other challenge is not making the time to think through a strategy but simply implementing it for the sake of meeting a demand.
VN: As a digital brand manager, what do you do to keep up with marketing trends?
MK: I tend to focus on publications dedicated to digital marketing, UX design and storytelling. Aside from reading up on their latest technologies, they’re a great help in providing tips and advice when wanting to improve and strengthen existing strategies and processes.
VN: What do you like most about your job and what is most challenging?
MK: You wear so many hats and at times it can get incredibly overwhelming but, because of all the touchpoints you’re exposed to from customer insights, strategy, operations and creativity, there’s never a dull moment. I love the fact that I get to drive the process to support and carefully build the kind of technology that satisfies customer experiences.
VN: What made you leave advertising for corporate?
MK: Ever heard the phrase: “A change is as good as a holiday?”
VN: What is the SA advertising and marketing industry doing right and what needs to change?
MK: Brands are starting to understand the importance of instilling an integrated approach across the business, which is fantastic, but roles and titles still dictate who does what kind of work in both industries. I still come across people who manage large brand social media accounts but aren’t actively involved in the creative process when conceptualising campaign ideas. Agencies cannot afford to sell integrated ideas to clients if such an approach does not exist within their own organisation. The same mantra applies to brands.
For us to move away from this, we need to build a culture for individuals to be comfortable enough to exchange thoughts and ideas, irrespective of the role they find themselves [in].
VN: How do you perceive yourself as a woman leader in the creative industry?
MK: I’ve got this crazy habit of pushing people to be the very-best version of themselves when I spot potential. My approach as a female leader in the creative industry is simple: I’m on a mission to build a network that supports women. To achieve this, we need to acknowledge the fact that unconscious bias exists. While we see a handful of female leaders, I don’t think we’ve really gotten to the root cause of the challenges women of today face. Yes, we’re doing a somewhat better job of attracting women into the industry but we’re losing them in the middle of their careers. Why is this so and how do we go about eradicating this?
VN: What is it like to work as a female in a male-dominated industry and how do you think the industry may attract more female creatives?
MK: Statistics form a big part of my day-to-day deliverables. They’re somewhat comforting, knowing you have the power to use it to your advantage and possibly make a difference; however, there are some statistics that leave you at a loss for words. For instance, recent Deloitte studies show only 9.2% of women hold chairperson positions and 2.4% of women are appointed in CEO positions. As women, we cannot afford to remain a minority within a minority.
So how have I actually dealt with this? Being really good at what I do and supporting women as much as I can.
VN: You have worked on agency and client side; what are the lessons and how may client/agency relationships be better managed?
MK: There’s an assumption that client side is easier but I disagree. Both client and agency sides are equally demanding. Now that I find myself on other side, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of establishing a strong relationship that allows both parties to trust one other and allow brave work. Coming from agency has helped me understand how much time and work [are] needed to create great ideas, as well as the value of a sharp and clear brief.
On client side, there’s a need for us to familiarise ourselves with our respective agencies’ operations, from their style of thinking to the unpacking of insights and ideas. Doing this will help marketers understand the power of an idea and the importance of nurturing, leading and motivating people to drive the business forward.
VN: What advice would you give to youngsters who want to be digital strategists for advertising agencies?
MK: Find a place to learn; start narrow then go broad; become a great facilitator; ask the right questions; and, finally, prove it then sell it.
VN: What advice would you give to youngsters who want to leave the advertising industry for the corporate world?
MK: Don’t leave the advertising industry in such a hurry. Find a mentor and learn as much as you can first.
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.