by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) Mimi Kalinda (@MKalinda), group CEO and co-founder of Africa Communications Media Group (ACG), has juggled crisis comms in Nigeria, airline work in Ethiopia and B2B work in Zambia; she’s also an author and has led workshops on telling stories and narrative in leadership locally and internationally. Get a taste of this powerhouse storyteller here.
Veli Ngubane: Tell us more about yourself: where did you grow up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
Mimi Kalinda: I grew up in South Africa, and I have Rwandan and Congolese roots. I always had a special fascination for storytelling, so I knew I would either end up in media or be a lawyer. Both careers depend on being able to tell great stories.
VN: What is it like doing business in so many countries across the African continent?
MK: It’s exciting most of the time, frustrating sometimes, and rewarding all the time. It’s a great time to be African and to be working in Africa. The continent exudes confidence more than ever before. We see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and we’re making steady progress towards reaching it. I love Africa deeply, so I really can’t imagine doing business anywhere else. With all of its challenges, the opportunities for success are ripe if you have a vision, are willing to take risks and adopt a long-term lens.
VN: Tell us what you do and what does a typical day look like for you?
MK: I am the group CEO of Africa Communications Media Group (ACG), a company that I co-founded and lead. I am also a mom, a partner, a friend, a sister, and so much more. On a typical day, I wear all of the hats, some of which I chose, others that were assigned to me. I’m an early riser and I like to wake up before the sun comes up and before my household begins to buzz with the sound of my children getting ready for school. I meditate, pray, and clear my inbox so that I begin the day stress-free. After doing schools runs, I usually take a yoga class or run, then go straight to the office, where I split my day between spending time with my team and ensuring we’re on track with our business and client objectives, meeting with clients and potential clients, and working on a strategy, pitch or whatever else required of me at ACG on that day. Evenings are spent with my family. I like routine and thrive in it so, unless I am travelling, I try to stick to it daily. It keeps me sane.
VN: Tell us more about your company, Africa Communications Group, and its future plans.
MK: We are a communications and public relations company that prides itself on its network in Africa and our tangible understanding of the continent’s nuances. We innovate on the bread-and-butter PR model by doing two things well: 1) Understand[ing] the sociopolitical, economic and cultural context of the countries where our clients want to communicate and apply[ing] these insights to the development of their communications strategies. 2. Think[ing] outside the box about how we tell our clients stories with compelling content, which is increasingly visual. We plan to continue growing our business both vertically and horizontally, by increasing our reach into Africa and integrating complementary services into the work we offer clients.
VN: There is a buzz word, “culture”, in referring to the youth market; what is “culture” and how can brands align with the “culture” ?
MK: For me, culture encompasses the behaviours, perceptions, ideas, concepts and attitudes we collectively agree to use as a reference of what’s acceptable in terms of how we relate to each other in our society (or, to be more accurate, various factions of our societies). To align, brands need to be observant of these factors, as well as lead, facilitate and/or be part of the conversations we have to reach those agreements.
VN: What are some lessons you can share with black female business owners, lessons you’ve learnt in your journey?
MK: Be clear about the intentions that drive your decision-making processes. Are you building a company you want to run forever or do you envision selling it one day if the offer came your way? The way you build your company for these different eventualities will differ. Also, it is never too early or too late to start thinking about company culture, processes and structures. Lastly, make peace very early on with the fact that you cannot be a leader to everyone, everywhere, in everything. Women tend to feel too much self-imposed pressure to be overachievers.
VN: How can the creative industry attract and keep more black female creatives?
MK: The same way you would attract anyone else whom you think can bring tremendous value and ROI: by speaking directly to their personal as well as professional aspirations. People generally want the same thing, which is to be heard and to feel valued.
VN: Why do you think the advertising industry is struggling to transform and what do you think should be done to fast track transformation in the advertising and events industry?
MK: I don’t know about advertising but the PR industry is very female-dominated, not just in South Africa but globally. I think it’s time we had a conversation about where all the men are and why they’re not choosing PR as a career. It is also quite a diverse industry in terms of race in SA. However, the diversity needs to filter up to management and ownership level, where you begin to see a completely different picture, which is more reflective of the challenges we face with transformation across all industries in the country.
VN: What is your career highlight thus far in your business journey?
MK: Landing our first airline and telco accounts, as well as our first client from China. We love new challenges, especially ones that allow us to learn from our clients and push our boundaries. Because I am a content producer at heart, I also love every piece of work where we get to tell stories through films, short- or long-format. But I think my biggest career highlight was moving from pen and paper to action, and starting the company in the first place. It was the hardest, most-rewarding decision I have ever made.
VN: What advice would you give someone completing their high-school education this year and looking to follow a career in the PR or creative industry?
MK: Find a great mentor who will teach you the ropes and push you to your limits. You will hate the process sometimes, but it will be worth it if you stick it through. Also, you don’t know much. Be comfortable with and humble enough to seize every opportunity to learn. Finally, be flexible. You don’t need to have a plan for every single step of the journey. It’s perfectly fine to go with the flow, as long as you let excellence be the guiding value of everything you do.
VN: What do you feel is missing in the PR industry today and what should the future look like in SA and the rest of the continent?
MK: More honest conversations about the fact that global is not necessarily better. Big, international PR agencies working in Africa are not always better placed to understand how the continent works, the uniqueness of each market, and how client stories can be tied to the realities of the companies where they work. I also think we need to speak about gender equity and how to groom more male PR professionals.
VN: Where and when do you have your best ideas?
MK: In the morning, in the shower
VN: If you had a superpower, what would you want it to be?
MK: The ability to know people’s real intentions, beyond what they say they are.
VN: Tell us something about yourself not generally known?
MK: I only learned to speak English when I was 13/14 years old, so I find it difficult and awkward to count in English. I usually count in French in my head and translate.
VN: What exciting projects are you working on at the moment?
MK: A book about storytelling and branding.
VN: Brag a bit, tell us about your awards, brands you’ve worked on… don’t be shy, tell us.
MK: I am proud to be the first African to own a pan-African communications agency. I also authored a book, Talking to Africa: Considering Culture in Communications for a Complex Continent, which is available on Amazon. I [have] led workshops on storytelling and narrative in leadership as a trainer for the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa programme, as well as for the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business Women in Business Conference, and the Africa Trade and Investment Global Summit 2018 in Washington, DC. I am also the Rebranding Africa Champion for Africa 2.0 and was a finalist for International African Woman of the Year at the Women4Africa Awards 2016.
VN: Please would you supply two or three pieces of work you have been involved in?
MK: ACG was involved in the recent MTN crisis in Nigeria; we work with Ethiopian Airlines and also j, who are embarking on CSI initiatives around the communities in which they work.
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 Loeries, APEX, Pendoring, Bookmarks and AdFocus. He is the group MD of AVATAR and 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.