Young, Gifted & Killing It: Thithi Nteta
by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) Training in information design. Doctors as parents. Part of the launch team of Vuzu. A sneaker addiction. These are just some of the soundbytes from our interview with Thithi Nteta (@teeteenteta), now sitting on exco at FCB Joburg. Read more about her views on the global challenge around gender diversity and her approach to leadership.
Veli Ngubane: Tell us more about yourself: where did you grow up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
Thithi Nthetha: I grew up and went to school and university in Pretoria, where I studied Information design at Tuks. I am the oldest of four children, my siblings are my best friends and my parents are both doctors. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a variety of things. After watching “Free Willy,” I wanted to be a marine biologist; after Denzel Washington won an Oscar for “Training Day”, I wanted to be an actress. At some point, I wanted to be a fashion designer and used to spend my school holidays sketching dresses and outfits.
VN: Please explain what you actually do and how an average day looks for you?
TN: My title is integrated executive business director for the Absa/Barclays account at FCB Joburg. I am responsible for running the business, which really covers a variety of things like making sure that the account is performing financially, that the client is as happy as a client can be, [and] that the people who work on this piece of business feel validated, cared for and enjoy coming to work. I do spend a lot of time on our people, because the people make the work… they create the magic.
VN: What is your philosophy in life that influences your work?
TN: Leadership is not a rank, or a position. Leadership is a decision; it is a choice to look after your people.
VN: What lessons have you learnt from your experience in the industry that have led to your success?
TN: When I was 25 years old, I was working at a small broadcast production agency as a producer working on the launch of Vuzu. As a result of the agency’s size, the role not only required me to be the project lead on the channel launch but other tasks outside my job description. I wrote scripts, held mics on set, did wardrobe where necessary etc, but the rolling up your sleeves and getting things done wasn’t the most-important lesson I learnt there. Being so young, I had several people who were older than me reporting to me and this was something I struggled with. The best advice I got at that time was from my executive producer, who basically told me that. given the kind of person I am, that I would more than likely find myself in leadership roles and have people who are older and perhaps who have been doing a certain thing longer than me reporting to me, and that I had to get over my complex around the age thing and keep it moving.
VN: What are your views on why the industry is slow to transform?
TN: I studied information design at the University of Pretoria and, in all four years of my degree, I was the only black person in that Fine Arts and Design building. When I got to fourth year, I sat on the panel interviewing potential candidates and I remember us debating a young black girl’s application because we weren’t sure she’d be able to afford to complete the course, even though she was incredibly talented. While the course I studied wasn’t as expensive as the Vegas and Open Windows of the world, it was, overall, an expensive course to do: from the markers you need to buy to the MacBook you need to get with the software. Even with my privileged background, I had to work as a waitress to be able to cover some of those costs. So, really, I think it starts at the source. Why are the schools so expensive? Why do they only really allow for a certain kind of person to be able to study there?
In addition to the above, we need to stop saying that there aren’t enough black creatives and accepting that response when HR and talent recruitment people come back with that answer. We need to create spaces that make black staff feel “safe”, “seen” and supported. Spaces where their frustrations, when expressed, are addressed.
Last, but definitely not least, the retention of black staff needs to become a priority. A purposeful priority, with SMART objectives in place that hold various people accountable for this priority. Something as simple as recognising a junior or mid-level staff member with potential and investing time and money into that individual’s growth plan could go a long way. Imagine a world where it was the KPI of a senior white person in a role to identify a black staff member reporting to them directly and work with them to their next promotion. The success of that manager would be closely linked to the success of their direct report. There would be no room for “they are not good enough” because that would reflect directly on you as their manager.
VN: Why do you think the ad industry is failing to grow female talent to top positions in agencies?
TN: I think the world in general is failing at creating spaces where female talent can grow into top positions, because we don’t take gender diversity seriously. Most organisations talk about it, but there is no strategy or commitment from senior or executive leadership on this, even though research shows that companies with a greater share of women on their boards of directors and executive committees tend to perform better financially. In addition to this, the ideas around what people consider to be good, or rather necessary, leadership skills needs to change. There is still a significant amount of unlearning that needs to happen with regards to what qualifies as leadership.
VN: How do you perceive yourself as a woman leader in the creative industry?
TN: I am of the servant-leader school of thought. I am about inclusive leadership that makes people feel valued, heard and seen. I learnt very early on in my career that you get the best out of people when they want to work for and with you.
VN: What advice can you give to people wanting to get into the business?
TN: You need to be an all-rounder. Most of what you do is problem-solving, and time is expensive.
VN: What do you like most about your job? What is most challenging?
TN: I like being at the agency, being part of the creative process and part of people’s growth. The most-challenging part of the job is keeping great work sold in.
TN: What is your favourite ad campaign, past and present, and why?
VN: I can’t really think of any ad or ad campaign I am into right now, but a piece of moving content that I will always consider to be quite dope is the SABC 1 Ya Mampela ad [that I] pinned on my Twitter account. I just remember being quite moved by the ad and, even today, when I watch it, it is a piece of content that makes one feel something.
VN: What has been a highlight in your career?
TN: I have been really blessed to have a career of highlights; I mean, by the time I was 26, I had helped launch a TV channel. But, in general, if I have wanted something, I have managed to work for it. I wanted to work for a fashion magazine at some point, and managed to get a job working as a fashion assistant at Cosmo. I worked at Nike Sportswear’s PR agency during the 2010 FIFA World Cup as the PR manager on the account, and was the field marketing manager at Red Bull South Africa at some point. But I suppose if I was to call out one thing, I’d have to say that running my small boutique agency for three years and securing retainers with Nike Sportswear and G-Star RAW was a highlight. That period taught me a lot about doing the right things with your time, problem-solving and making decisions.
VN: What are the key trends to look out for in 2018 from an ad industry business perspective?
TN: Automation is going to continue to threaten the industry. Increased move to digital channels is going to continue to threaten the above-the-line production value. With the collapse of AMPS, we don’t actually know whether people are consuming content on TV on their phones. Which means we are all making calls on media and channel that are not backed up by data. The “black mirror”, aka our cellphone screens, is really where it’s at.
VN: What’s next for you in your career?
TN: Right now, I am really happy at FCB Joburg, doing what I am doing. Running an account of this size, with as much autonomy as I have, allows me to exercise my entrepreneurial spirit and really lead the way I want to lead. I am fortunate enough to be a black woman on exco because I have a say on how we do things, and I can actually contribute to the change.
VN: Tell us something about yourself not generally known.
TN: I am not really that good at self-promotion and I own a lot of sneakers. It’s embarrassing.
Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) entered the world of advertising with a passion after completing his BSocSci (law, politics and economics) at UCT and a post-graduate marketing diploma at Red & Yellow, where he’s currently advisory board chairman. He also sits on the IAB’s Transformation & Education Council, is a DMA board member and has judged the Loeries, Apex and AdFocus awards. He is CCO and founding partner of the largest black-owned and -managed full-service agencies in the country, AVATAR. He is also co-founder of M&N Brands, which is building an African network of agencies to rival the global giants. In his monthly column “Young, Gifted & Killing It”, he profiles award-winning, kick-ass black creative talent in South Africa.
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