by MarkLives (@marklives) The marketing and advertising industries are transforming. So why are so many black professionals disgruntled with the rate of progress? And is the quality of most of the work specifically directed at a black audiences still sub-par? We emailed a panel of key industry executives for their take. Next up is Ahmed Tilly of FCB Africa.

Ahmed Tilly

Ahmed TillyAhmed Tilly (@AhmedTilly) has been in the business of ideas for just over 20 years. Recently appointed joint CCO at FCB Africa, he was runner-up Most Admired Creative Leader in South Africa and joint Most Admired Creative Leader in Jozi in 2016, according to our MarkLives Agency Leaders’ Most Admired poll. Tilly, who left the agency he co-founded, Black River FC, to join fast-growing FCB in late 2016, is best-known for work he did on Nando’s, including the iconic “Last Dictator Standing” — MarkLives Ad of the Year for 2012 — and the Nando’s diversity advert. The transformation of the South African advertising industry and the country as a whole is something he has always championed for.

In order for this discussion to move forward, the responses to the question need to be blunt. It has been 22 years since the first discussion on the very same topic. We’ve run out of time.

The larger advertising industry has not transformed. We can all say some progress has been made but, after 22 years, “some” is simply not good enough.

And the reason for this is simple; there is no will to transform. There is neither desire to right the wrongs of the past nor is there a willingness to share power and wealth. We have all been inundated with excuses. I say excuses because, 22 years ago, we had reasons; now they are just excuses.

Boardrooms are too white — agency boardrooms

If you look around, you will find that, in most agencies in the country, if there is a black creative director, there’s always a white executive creative director. If the agency has a black ECD, the chief creative officer is still white. Power and control have not been transferred. One step down: creative teams in agencies are still largely skewed towards white talent. Twenty-two years later. It’s unacceptable. It’s not 1994. The work is still generally developed by white creatives, approved or rejected by white CDs, presented to white clients for a black audience. A population that comprises of 80% black people! This makes no sense to me at all.

The clients are predominantly white, too. It doesn’t matter how many black brand managers and marketing managers there are. Where are the black marketing directors? The black MDs and CEOs? As a result, there is no pressure been applied by companies onto their agencies to force change, either.

The work is vanilla

With clients also white, how is it possible to produce marketing that is incisive and insightful for a black audience?

This clearly is reflected in the work we see around us — “vanilla”. By “vanilla” I mean neither nuanced for the audience, nor exciting. Nothing breakthrough has ever come from caution and ignorance. It is no surprise that creative output is uninspiring when the decision-makers have to second-guess what the audience will love and, in most cases, the super-sensitivity around what may offend that audience.

Work that is designed to charm a black, South African audience cannot be fairly assessed by white individuals.

Black advertising professionals are gatvol

Black advertising professionals have seen all of this first-hand, for years. They have experienced the inappropriate comments made in boardrooms. They have heard first-hand the gross ignorance with regards to black audiences. No amount of “immersion-sessions” and “field trips into townships” will be enough. Black advertising professionals have seen the limitations for growth to the very top. It is demoralising. 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?

Is my opinion radical? Perhaps. I’m okay with that. I have always stressed that a transformed industry will help transform a country and, ultimately, a more-united population overall. The workplace is an incubator that forces people to learn about and understand each other. The workplace is where the country really transforms. I have never espoused an exclusionary culture in terms of diversity. I have never propagated that there is no place for white professionals in our industry.

The need to be normalised

However, I have always believed that the country and the industry need to be normalised before it can move forward. And it hasn’t. I believe that a transformed industry will be a more-robust industry with more work for everyone. 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.

If you’re reading this as an agency leader or as a CEO of a company that is not transformed, be radical in your approach. Your “reasons” had a time limit. That time limit has passed. Transform now. If you haven’t, try harder. No one is interested in your excuses anymore.

See also


MarkLives logoLaunched in 2016, “The Big Q” is a regular column on MarkLives in which we ask key industry execs for their thoughts on relevant issues facing the ad industry. If you’d like to be part of our pool of potential panellists, please contact editor Herman Manson via email (2mark at marklives dot com) or Twitter (@marklives). Suggestions for questions are also welcomed.

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9 replies on “Big Q: “Some” transformation is simply not good enough”

  1. EDITED IN LINE WITH OUR COMMENT POLICY. I’m sorry. But you seem to have done just fine Ahmed, if what you are arguing is correct than how did you get to the position of COO? What have you done to ensure black creatives go up the chain?

    PS: I also believe diversity is a beautiful thing, hypocrisy is what gets my goat.

  2. I always enjoy listening to you, Ahmed! You always speak with authenticity.
    Everything you say, you genuinely believe.

    The other thing that black professionals face is the constant goal of having to prove ourselves.
    Along with our day-to-day activities and tasks, we always have to prove that we are worthy. That we are capable. That we can. That we are competent. That we are professional. There is no end.

    I yearn for the day when everyone in an advertising agency is equal. But we all know that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

    The advertising dystopia is heavily entrenched, so much so that thinking about the utopia is futile. And disheartening.

    This is the struggle of the majority of black professionals.

  3. Hi Ahmed

    Great piece.

    It’s quite obvious from a lot of advertising targeted at a black audience that it’s conceptualized, created and approved by white people. The work is disingenuous and rarely builds an emotional connection. I ignore most of it and often wonder how they wager their ads were effective.

    There’s a quote I saw on Instagram the other day that said ‘black unemployment is high because black entrepreneurship is low.’ Perhaps a somewhat similar sentiment can be said for the ad industry – transformation will remain low until big black brands are high. As you said you can’t do it alone. Our black entrepreneurs need to build big, really big brands and we consumers need to vote with our money to make them happen. Then these entrepreneurs can let truly African creativity pitch for their ad spend.

    Until then, I don’t see how it could possibly change

  4. Well said and put, it is exactly as you say, being of darker skin in this industry 22 years later still sees one playing third fiddle to those of “white” skin color. Our industry is already not regulated and this already breeds a sense of entitlement that is harnessed by the few that control it in all aspects and leave the rest to hang dry and struggle to express and own our work.

    It is ridiculous to be called in to a boardroom give a black perspective cause the whole team comprises of non- black individuals that lived in Europe for the past years just to come solve communications to people they cant relate and often too much generalize from stereotypes, just to have some sort of black person in the room so that it doesn’t “Look” like they alienate us.

    Its hard out here for us non-whites, in a post modern democratic society, we still have to act like subordinates, still have to ask permission from our white counterparts, still demand equal and fair remuneration to our white counterparts, still demand to be seen…

    We we talk it is seen as us against them, but in all fairness it isn’t, whats wrong with leveling the playing field, we have excepted the white man into our society and they have thrived, so whats wrong with give the black man a chance as well. Give us a chance, stop hogging and pass the damn ball!

  5. This is so true. I find this in my line of business. I design and manufacture bicycles. For years iv been trying to move forward and there are always obsticles or as you say excuses. A simple thing like supplying me with parts. Still today I cannot buy parts from certain suppliers because I don’t by bulk. I’m forced to purchase goods at retail stores. I have a track record of custom buikds like no one else in the country. I have a track record with various other suppliers and they not willing to budge on there so called policy. I don’t have the capital to import bulk and have been importing small quantities as needed. If a German and Netherlands company can supply me one item at the same discounted rate of purchasing 100 units. Why can our locals not do the same.

  6. Well said Ahmed. In the same breath, black professionals have also run out of excuses. What has happened to boardroom activism (yes, lots of black fat cats in boardrooms as disconnected from the South African experience as their white counterparts) and our project to make South Africa an exceptional African (not a Eurocentric knock-off) global citizen?

  7. Hi MarkLives

    This is so true, but this question is only being answered by black creative heads. We need to hear the new ‘excuses’ from their white peers.

    Also, it seems that loyalty to one agency for many years is the only way a black creative can get promoted to a position of creative power. What’s up with that?

  8. Ahmed, Thank you for being the voice of so many of us who report to people who know less than we do.This link was sent to me by a colleague because this topic is brought up too many times within agencies and as you say nothing has been done – so what do we do? I feel like the reason agencies get away with this is because our industry is run on global power, global agencies and global client wins and no one globally cares about the South African issue. I believe that if we had more agencies where South Africans were in control and ran on local client support we could start tackling these concerns. In the meantime it might be worth starting some sort of mentorship program for talent that are told to get back into a box when there ideas don’t conform with the companies vision and mission because that vision and mission doesn’t see them at the top.

  9. Hi, Ahmed

    Again, this is a great piece.
    Just saw a nice PR article from FCB about Toyota’s new campaign:

    This idea is great and solid. But when I got to the Credits section where contributors to the campaign are listed, the sore thumb for me is the lack of black creative contribution. FCB must be one of the few agencies where black creatives are counted in more than one hand, but it would seem as though those creatives didn’t feature in this massive campaign. My question obviously is WHY? It’s one thing to have black creatives in boardrooms and in agencies, but are they contributing significantly to the business by doing work that is admired by the industry?

    I’d love to hear your feedback on this one.

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