by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) With singleminded determination, Makosha Maja-Rasethaba (@luminousmk) has taken every opportunity to work her way into the job she wanted from the day she graduated from brand communications school. Young and gifted, she’s now killing it in her role as strategic planner at M&C Saatchi Abel. What she would particularly like to see is more local brands embracing campaigns that break down stereotyping of women and she gives us some stunning examples in this interview.
Veli Ngubane: Where did you grow up and how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be a creative?
Makosha Maja-Rasethaba: I grew up in the former Bophuthatswana homeland and, just before ’94, we moved to Pretoria. Advertising was never on my radar growing up. When I was in high school, I realised that I had a bit of a ‘creative’ streak: I loved sketching and writing — I even wrote a bit of bad girly fiction to be passed around during lunchtime. After high school, I attempted studying law at the behest of my parents but that didn’t last longer than a year; I realised during that very long year at RAU that I needed to go in a very different direction. When I told my parents (both professionals) that I wanted to study advertising, my dad was pretty shocked, to say the least, but my mom was amazingly supportive. My dad has since come around and they’re both pretty proud of my achievements.
VN: How did you a) get interested in strategic planning and b) break into the industry and land your first job?
MMR: When I studied at Vega, I had an amazing lecturer, Karen Roos, who introduced us to ‘consumer behavior’ and I fell headfirst in love with the psychology behind the choices we make. Karen really encouraged me to pursue a career in strategic planning, but what I didn’t know was how hard it would be to break into planning. I moved to Cape Town and figured I would email all the agencies and possibly land an internship but this was unfortunately not the case and I eventually worked my way through traffic (very short-lived), account management and eventually switching over to strategy while I was at The Jupiter Drawing Room Cape Town. I did this by really inserting (read pushing) myself into strategic conversations and making sure I expressed my point of view whenever I had the opportunity, nagging the strategists, offering my services to them and eventually applying for a job when there was a vacancy.
VN: How would you explain what you do to someone who has never heard of what a strategic planner is?
MMR: This is always such a tough question because, as a planner, your job is so many things. I always tell people that I use lots of different inspiration (including but not exclusive to consumer insight) to find a creative action/solution for a business challenge.
VN: What do you like most about your job? What is most challenging?
MMR: What I love most about my job is what I find the most challenging. In a lot of ways, as a strategist, you have to be the voice of the consumer; this means complete confidence in whatever it is you need to express about your audience and the ability to persuade clients, and even agency creatives sometimes, that your perspective on audience is relevant and will result in a creative solution that is resonant.
VN: What are the attributes of a good planning framework?
MMR: Simplicity. I tend to shy away from big marketing jargon and try to keep things as simple as possible while focusing on a compelling story. This is pretty much the philosophy at M&C Saatchi Abel and, while it sounds easy, it’s actually quite challenging to organise your thoughts into a concise but clear and simple story.
VN: Your job requires you to be organised. What techniques and tools do you use to keep yourself organised?
MMR: I wouldn’t necessarily say I have any specific techniques. I usually start my day by writing a simple to-do list, grabbing some coffee and getting on with it.
VN: You have been with M&C Saatchi Abel for some time now. Describe a typical day at work for a strategic planner in an advertising agency?
MMR: There is no typical workday. Every day is very different. I spend a lot of time in meetings, be it creative reviews, creative kickstarts, client workshops or client presentations. The rest of the time is spent having conversations, doing research, [and] thinking, thinking and more thinking, as well as ensuring that I’m up to speed with current affairs, industry news, thought leadership and constantly jotting down thoughts and musings that pop into my head as the day goes.
VN: What is your view on transformation in the advertising industry?
MMR: It’s actually pretty disheartening that the pace of transformation in the advertising industry has been so painfully slow. I think our industry doesn’t provide a lot of access at a school level and more work needs to be done in that regard. Most advertising schools are private and extremely expensive, so already many people are shut out at that level and, if we aren’t looking to transform at a school level, then how can we really expect our industry to be more representative? We also possibly need to not be as ‘exclusive’ and start looking to recruit young people who are slightly out the box of the traditional advertising school. Lastly, and very importantly, retention of black staff needs to be a major priority as most end up dropping out of the industry because they don’t see many avenues for growth and end up frustrated, and the lack of senior black mentors also doesn’t help.
VN: We often hear of ad agencies stereotyping or failing to connect with the black market, 22 years after achieving democracy. What do you think is the problem?
MMR: I think the biggest issue to date is viewing the black market as homogenous groups based on LSMs or income. While this may be helpful for segmentation purposes, it doesn’t serve to really understand the market because the relationship between consumer behaviour and income isn’t always so linear. I think it’s a lazy way to try and connect with an audience. Without an in-depth understanding of the cultural landscape that drives their identity, motivations and attitudes, there is no way we could really say we know an audience. I guess the real question is: What are we doing as an industry to change how we approach understanding our consumers and how are we trying to evolve the narrative around the black market?
VN: You are a woman in a highly male dominated industry. How have you dealt with this and how do you think we can get more females in the ad industry?
MMR: That’s a huge part of the transformation conversation, actually. A transformed industry is one that represents the country’s demographics. I think there should be massive focus on ad-agency culture as a whole. This is an industry like many others that was previously almost exclusively occupied by white males who created a space for themselves, as well as a very specific cultural environment. How does this culture then change to accommodate women? How does this culture evolve to recognise, include and embrace women? The fact that the Loeries Hall of Fame inducted its first woman (shout out to Nunu Ntshingila-Njeke!) in 2016 is pretty appalling. I think women empowerment needs to urgently form part of the transformation agenda.
VN: How has where you grew up and how you were raised shaped your view of South Africa, Africa and the world?
MMR: Well, I was born in the ’80s and thus during apartheid, and grew up during a time when black people like myself were restricted in many ways. I would wake up in a homeland and travel into ‘South Africa’ for school. This duality has stayed with me since. It’s something most black South Africans can identify with — this constant movement through many different, diverse, some still-restricted and -polarized worlds. I think this gives a unique perspective of SA and of the world because you are never looking at it through one lens but always through multiple ones.
VN: What has been a highlight in your career?
MMR: I don’t have a single highlight in my career, or maybe the highlight hasn’t happened yet. I mean it’s nice to win pitches and awards etc, but I haven’t had a defining career highlight yet and that’s pretty exciting for me. Who knows? Maybe next time I’m asked, my answer will be featuring in this column. LOL!
VN: Any interesting hobbies/second jobs/bits of information that make you pop as an individual?
MMR: I used to DJ with a friend of mine. It was dope. We got to play lots of parties and even made it into a newspaper once. I don’t do that anymore but I am still a massive music nerd and an unlikely hip-hop and jazz head.
VN: What advice would you give to youngsters who want to be strategic planners for advertising agencies?
MMR: I would advise young people interested in being planners to first ask themselves if they are problem-solvers. This is the crux of the job. Secondly, you need to want to absorb and be stimulated by the world. That means reading and engaging with a lot of ‘knowledge,’ from psychology to sociology to anthropology to behavioural economics to pop culture to current affairs and everything in between that will enable you to constantly have your ear to the ground and have your brain musing. Lastly, you need to be versatile; as a strategist, you wear many hats and you need to be comfortable with not just being a thinker but also a doer.
VN: What is your favourite ad campaign, past and present, and why?
MMR: What I am loving right now are advertising campaigns that challenge constructed social norms. I think for too long the advertising industry has been a culprit in gender-stereotyping and entrenching patriarchy, so it’s refreshing to see brands confronting this archaic way of presenting women. I think it’s important as advertisers that we begin to reflect the times we are living in. These are all global examples but I would love to see more local brands join in this re-articulation of identity.
Ariel India on challenging gender normative roles
Bodyform putting blood front and centre of a sanitary pad ad
UN Women confronting a tradition that strips women of their identity
Nike Women India presenting a multidimensional view of women
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.