Young, Gifted & Killing It: Suhana Gordhan
by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) Suhana Gordhan’s introduction to adland wasn’t promising, so much so that, after being told what to wear to work and suggestions that she work upon tampon ads, she even left the industry. Thankfully, she returned and has risen to become FCB Joburg creative director. To succeed in adland, she says, “you need to fall in love with the work you do”. There’s also another great love in her life: capoeira. This young and gifted creative tells us how she’s killing it — and what capoeira is.
Veli Ngubane: Where did you grow up and how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be a creative?
Suhana Gordhan: I grew up in Durban. My parents weren’t too surprised when I wanted to pursue a creative career because I studied drama and performance and was always putting on shows for them — the pursuit of creativity was always in my blood. My parents encouraged me because, when they were growing up, the career opportunities were very limited and they were excited by what I was studying.
VN: How did you a) get interested in advertising and b) break into the industry and land your first job?
SG: I always enjoyed watching TV commercials with my siblings and we would know the best ones off by heart. I didn’t always know that I wanted to pursue a career in advertising. I just knew that, whatever I did, it had to be about creativity.
I left Durban to study at the AAA School of Advertising in Johannesburg (as there were no ad schools in Durban at the time). I did a one-year postgrad degree in copywriting and interned at Ogilvy, which was then called “Ogilvy & Mather, Rightford, Searle-Tripp & Makin”. After my internship, I didn’t know whether I would be hired or not, so I started looking into a waitressing job at Saigon (I liked their uniforms.) A day or two later, I got a call saying that Ogilvy wanted to hire me. Thankfully, I didn’t need to brush up on my knowledge of Vietnamese food.
VN: What are your specialisations/creative processes/most-important tools of the trade?
SG: I’m a copywriter by trade. I think you absolutely have to love writing to be a writer. It’s not good enough to just be proficient with words. You can always tell the difference between a writer who can write and a writer who relishes words and understands that finding the perfect way of expressing something is like finding the coconut chocolate and not orange crème in the box of All Sorts.
You have to be curious about people to work in advertising. You have to love the study of human behaviour so that you can reveal through your work everything that is outlandish, prickly and beautiful about this world.
VN: What is it like to work as a female in a male-dominated industry and how do you think the industry can attract more female creatives?
SG: It has changed a lot since I first started in advertising. In the early years, the discrimination I faced as a young female creative was blatant and debilitating. Now, the offences are subtle which is, perhaps, more challenging.
Women can sometimes be overlooked and spoken over, and often men have to get past what you look like first, before they’re even listening to you. It sometimes feels like women have to work extra-hard to be heard in the same way that men are heard.
I believe that there are many good men in this industry who are completely committed to gender transformation. But I believe that more conversations need to be opened up around the issues we’ve skirted over.
I also believe that, in order to attract more female creatives, we need to see more women in leadership. Visibility and access to senior creative women [are] desperately needed. There are also some really complex issues around being a mother in this industry that cause women to check out before they’ve had a chance to fully thrive. Our industry is simply not designed to be friendly to mothers.
While there are many issues we face, nothing should stand in the way of women. We need to tell better stories about advertising so that young women coming into the industry can see this as a place in which they can be their best selves and forge a brilliant and memorable career.
As I said when I was elected chairperson of the Loeries recently, advertising today is not appealing and progressive enough for young female talent. It is time for all of us to build a bridge for young women to step onto so that they can feel that the industry offers them powerful possibilities.
I appeal to young women to be more demanding of us, to let go of the crippling voices in your head and be more outspoken. You have nothing standing in your way. See this as a place where you can carve out an amazing career.
At Loeries 2017, we want to see young women who leave their seats only to step up to the stage.
VN: How do you perceive yourself as a woman leader in the creative industry?
SG: Sometimes it feels lonely because there are so few women in leadership. Sometimes the road is hard and it’s easy to doubt yourself. But I work at FCB, which is an environment that is hugely supportive of women and incredibly conscious of women empowerment, so I feel confident and grateful. I see myself as a nurturer and someone who is determined to see young women succeed and shine. It’s important to me and it gives an added layer of purpose to what I do.
VN: What characteristics do you need to have to succeed in the advertising industry?
SG: The ability to fall in love with the work you do — you cannot do great things if you are mildly amused.
Self belief — because while you put a bit of yourself into your work, rejection of ideas shouldn’t allow you to chip away at yourself. There’s more where that came from.
Grace — there are many losses to survive. How you survive each loss determines how well-equipped you will be for the wins, and how much integrity you will gather.
VN: What is the South African advertising and marketing industry doing right and what needs to change?
SG: We are slowly getting over our fear of digital and learning not to think in silos. We are a little behind when it comes to the rest of the world and how familiar they are with new tech. I think that familiarity will allow us to create outstanding digital work that is less about tech and more about great ideas.
We have such a unique and layered South African lived experience. I still feel like we don’t capitalise on our own experiences. There are still many truly South African stories that only we can tell, that remain untold.
VN: You got the chance to judge two of the most-respected awards in the advertising industry; please tell us more about your experience as a Loeries and Cannes judge?
SG: I always enjoy being a judge at any award show and I find the experience inspiring, educational and humbling. It also affords you the opportunity to self-assess and measure your own creative output. Cannes was such an extraordinary experience — gruelling but rewarding. Every day was a learning and a reminder of how massive the struggle is for ideas to earn metal. It was great to meet international judges and see how they view work. And, it was reassuring to know that ground-breaking, shoot-the-light-out ideas always rise to the top and are immune to personal prejudice or indifference.
VN: As a Loeries judge, what was the calibre of work like? And has it improved?
SG: I judged print and outdoor at the Loeries this year. While there were some outstanding pieces of work, overall the category felt a little sad. There seems to be love lost for print — a real love for big ideas and meticulous craft. We also seem to have stagnated and grown tired of being innovative in these mediums.
VN: Interesting hobbies/second jobs/bits of information that make you pop as an individual?
SG: When I’m not working, I’m doing capoeira. Capoeira is a 400-year-old Afro-Brazilian martial art. I absolutely love capoeira and, even though I’m teased by people at work who say it’s a dance, I know that if we were in a dark alley somewhere, they’d want me by their side. It’s a complete martial arts, a combination of music, acrobatics, self defense, creativity and strategy. It’s like a physical mediation and my sanity when the world feels off kilter.
VN: Where and when do you have your best ideas?
SG: In the shower, when I’m falling off to sleep and when I’m most relaxed.
VN: What has been the most-exciting project that you’ve worked on?
SG: It’s a recent project — the rebranding of a non-profit organisation that looks after the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. I liked it because it was a renaming job — so a pure form of copywriting — and also because it’s not often that one gets to be involved in the rebirth of a brand.
VN: Do you have any new exciting projects you working on at the moment that you can share with us?
SG: [At the time of this interview, I’d] just been invited to Michigan State University where I [was] a mentor and keynote speaker at The One Show’s “Minds (Wide) Open II” bootcamp. It [was] a week-long programme where we [got] to work with about 70 students. They receive[d] an advertising brief; we help[ed] them shape their ideas and pick[ed] a winner at the end of the week.
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.