Hidden Figures: Naledi Mabindla
by Musaba Kangulu (@ThatTypeOfMoose) Not one to shy away from truths, Naledi Mabindla (@Naledsmab) is what you call a necessary firestarter. Her experience as an account director in the advertising industry has given her the opportunity to change the ‘boys club’ narrative that has taken centre stage for too long. It gives me great pleasure to celebrate an unsung heroine that believes the time has come to dismantle the gender inequality structure.
A force to reckon with, let’s look at what this Harambee Communications senior account director has to say:
Musaba Kangulu: So tell me, Naledi, with the rise of transformation in the advertising sector, has the industry made enough of an effort to empower women?
Naledi Mabindla: Firstly, let’s address the fact that, even though there has been a rise in transformation, there has a been a decline in meaningful transformation due to resistance to social change, especially in South Africa post-1994. The industry has not done nearly enough towards the empowerment of women. Yes, we have had a few female industry leaders here and there; however, a lot more can still be done to push the female narrative as it’s still very much seen and experienced as a “boys club”. The fact that there are so few women at the top of the advertising ladder in South Africa goes to show there is still a lot of work to be done.
MK: Having said that, does the responsibility of driving transformation lie with agency or client?
NM: I think it’s a dual responsibility. Clients have the power to push transformation narrative by nudging advertising to be a lot more inclusive. However, the challenge is that, in some instances on the client side, there is little transformation in their own environment, which means the status quo remains unchanged. Today’s agency needs to remove their blinkers and push for inclusiveness, whether it be creatively or administratively.
MK: As a woman of colour, what are some of the common challenges you’ve had to overcome and still face today?
NM: The main challenge we face is our voices still not being heard. It leaves us in a situation of not being considered as a strategic partner for clients and within the agency itself. The advertising industry does not know how to deal with strong-willed women of colour being assertive as it’s perceived as being aggressive.
MK: Why are these situations often overlooked in the advertising industry?
NM: It’s not comfortable admitting your shortcomings as an industry. It is much easier to pretend none of the issues exists so you praise the little that you do instead.
MK: Would you say this stems from agencies struggling to create the kind of environment that empowers its people first and if so why?
NM: Absolutely, the issue is always chasing the bottom-line. The industry itself is no longer as empowered as it used to be when it comes to acting as a credible strategic partner for clients today. This is due to a number of reasons such as ROI serving as the primary objective for clients, marketing departments declining budgets and corporates no longer seeing marketing as an important function of a business. Our industry lacks mentoring programs due to HR departments not being empowered themselves and the global advertising companies resistance on spending money on meaningful training.
MK: Why do you feel gender equality is taking so long to achieve?
NM: Gender equality is steeped in structural exclusion. Dismantling structures is a painful exercise that requires surrendering power. I doubt that those in patriarchal privilege are comfortable relinquishing that power. It’s not that different from structural racism.
MK: Do men have an active role to play in gender equality?
NM: Men have a huge role to play in gender equality as the industry is geared towards favouring men. They can play a part in empowering women in the industry by speaking up and mentoring young women coming into the industry. I think men of colour have an even bigger role to play when in positions of power, whether it’s through meaningful mentoring [and] insisting on promoting deserving women to positions whereby they can trickle down to younger women their knowledge and experiences within the industry.
MK: You’re in the role kind of role that revolves around a fast-paced lifestyle filled with deadlines, demanding clients, and confusing projects. How do you balance it all?
NM: I manage my time well. I have always been good at knowing when to stop. Life is too short to only be defined by your 9-5. I also believe in actioning out my roles equally. When I am at 9-5, I focus on my workload; when I am home, the focus shifts to me as with family and friends. This is a lesson I learnt from university days.
MK: On a scale of 1-10, where would you say an agency’s respect for client service lies and why?
NM: Sadly 4 — I believe that the importance of client service personnel has always been underestimated. There are no awards for client service people yet they are the anchor between client and agency. Advertising sometimes has the tendency to deny the power client service people actually wield. We are the buffer between the corporate and advertising world. We play an instrumental and vital role with clients when making any financial, strategic or creative decisions. Clients look to us to be their voice internally every day; I couldn’t be more proud.
MK: Big or small, what steps have you taken to eliminate gender inequality?
NM: I have worked with a few young women in the industry. I am always willing to empower them by up-skilling their day-to-day work, assisting with career advice, offering emotional support when needed and encouraging them to be vocal. The world is a tough place for women, especially women of colour. Having said that, we cannot allow young women coming into this world to have their voices silenced and disempowered.
MK: What soft skills or steps should all women maintain to survive in advertising?
NM: A resilient heart; an unwillingness to never back down, even under adverse and challenging situations; and never be ashamed of your femininity. There is no need to emulate men to move up in any industry.
MK: If you were given the opportunity to introduce new laws to empower women that changes perceptions of female stereotypes in the advertising environment, what would they be?
NM: Legislating race and gender equality has introduced minimal results due to resistance to change and companies finding loopholes to bypass change. As women of all colours, we need to look at ourselves and have an honest conversation about how we contribute to gender equality. I have seen a few women mentor youngsters they relate to racially and culturally. If we focus on specific groups, we deny other women of colour opportunities to grow. We need to encourage the older women to mentor younger women; we need to groom these women to pay it forward and assist others. The women at the top need to be the ones pushing, even at board levels, the gender empowerment agenda. It is imperative that we compete less with each other and realise how much stronger we are working together as a unit. Sounds utopic but it’s a truth we must admit to ourselves to change the narrative.
Updated at 11.15am on 20 November 2017 to reflect that Mabindla now works at Harambee Communications, as she left Ogilvy & Mather South Africa at the end of October 2017.
Musaba Kangulu (@ThatTypeOfMoose) is a firm believer in women using their diversity to push different thinking and bring new insights to the table. Playing in the digital space has taught her to be unashamedly confident in using her expertise and experience to encourage women in their digital career pursuits. Perseverance and self-worth are important messages we need give to younger women. She contributes the new “Hidden Figures” column, which celebrates the unsung heroines of the South African marketing and advertising world.