Only Connect Podcast: Meet the multi-talented Khaya Dlanga • Ep 7
by Bradley Elliott (@BradElliottSA) I’ve steered clear of interviewing advertising figureheads, mainly because I feel the industry is in a pretty sorry state (IMHO), but Khaya Dlanga (@khayadlanga) is an exception — he learnt the ropes in the hurly-burly of top ad agencies, both as copywriter and strategist, before moving client-side. Now he heads up marketing for a dynamic new company that is sticking to the principles of KISS: Keeping It Simple (Seriously).
Full podcast transcript
Bradley Elliott: Welcome to Episode 7 of Only Connect, a MarkeLives.com podcast. I’m your host, Bradley Elliott, founder of Continuon and Platinum Seed. This month I get to interview one of South Africa’s most recognised creators, Khaya Dlanga. Khaya started off on the agency side as a copywriter for agencies such as MetropolitanRepublic and The Jupiter Drawing Room before moving to client side, where he was senior communications manager at Coca-Cola, as well as the marketing manager at Amstel and is now the CMO at Rain. He has also published a number of books — over five, if I remember correctly — and is one of the most-influential creators in South Africa. In fact, he has over 400 000 followers on Twitter [now close on 500k — ed-at-large], and is really seen as a force in the creative industry. We unpack a whole bunch of topics and just a really, really good chat in general. So, I hope you enjoy this and strap in.
Firstly, thanks for taking the time to chat to me obviously. Today I wanted to chat to you a bit about working for Nando’s. I want to chat a bit about humour in advertising and how do you use comedy in advertising. I’m focusing quite a bit on advertising, which is something that I tend not to do. The first thing is this interesting research going around, around how millennials in South Africa actually are ranking happiness as their no. 1 priority and spending time with their family and actually quite an optimistic view. The point is that, apparently, they are quite optimistic about the future which, given our economic history, is interesting but it’s great. So, I think you know, having worked on Nando’s as a start and humour, in general, how do you see that playing to the audience, given that they are going after happiness? Does it play into the audience? Nando’s really are the best. If you look at their community management, their Twitter account…
Khaya Dlanga: If Nando’s community manager is listening, I might be hiring. [Laughs]
BE: Me too! Although I don’t think I’ve got the same budget!
KD: Happiness is a fundamental human driver, so it just makes a lot of sense. And especially when people are going through really hard times they want to look beyond their horrible existence at this point in time. Brands that do that will win, and I think that’s why Coca-Cola for many years has just been really driving the idea of happiness even though they don’t really speak; it’s not always ha-ha humour, you know, there’s an emotion that it evokes and because happiness is one of the most-important human needs for us to survive. And I also think that happiness also helps with optimism. I think it also talks to the mindset myth that maybe South Africans have that resilience and the fact that things will get better — that, if they’re worse, they can only get better from there. When I look at some creative people, who are from South Africa, have done very recently some pretty amazing things, like Nelson Makamo, who is a South African artist. I mean, he was on the cover of Time magazine.
BE: Wasn’t he on the Daily Show as well?
KD: Yes, yes, he was on The Daily Show [very recently]. And Oprah bought his work, Black Coffee buys his work, Alicia Keys — I just think that there is an amazing sense of optimism on account of South African creativity. When I saw his art on the cover of Time Magazine, I smiled —it’s funny enough, actually — that issue was called “The Art of Optimism”. And then you have Laduma [Ngxokolo]’s clothing label, [Laduma]. He was in New York Fashion Week just a few weeks ago…
BE: He got a standing ovation
KD: … and he got a standing ovation, got raving reviews, and his work is going to be on “Coming to America 2”, Eddie Murphy is going to be out there wearing his clothes. This movie that’s coming out next year is going to be huge. And Sho Madjozi, [recently], Ellen posted a video of John Cena dancing to her song called John Cena. I think that our creative people are really beginning to show us that we can bridge the world — we can become explosive on a global scale by actually embracing our South African-ness.
BE: It’s all about having that local root context, as opposed to trying to bridge it through an inauthentic sort of western…
KD: Because that’s already been done. And, so for, me that’s the one thing that I really appreciate and I love to see. If we are not optimistic, I don’t know if we’d be able to break the boundaries that these guys are actually breaking around the world.
BE: There’s a lot of inauthenticity around brands at the moment. People don’t trust brands and they don’t trust the media and all the indexes —
KD: By the way, I also hate the word authenticity —
BE: Yeah, when it’s right…
KD: What do you mean by inauthentic?
BE: What I mean is, brands typically [are] just using all the new media as a platform to broadcast messaging and not add value to people’s lives, and not really actually live the values that a lot of them stand for. Right?
KD: So, what I mean when one is authentic is that, when people are presenting to your brand, the brand owner, the agency, you know that — what do you mean?
BE: 100%, yeah, but do you think it allows brands to be more personable and accessible if done in a human way? Like Nando’s do[es] it well, and I keep on mentioning Nando’s — and that’ll go into my next question — you see guys like Pick n Pay trying to [be funny], and you just know that it’s not their value to be funny or humorous or optimistic…
KD: Also, I think that if you are funny in a way that makes sense [for] who you are, that makes sense. For [PnP], it was condescending. Someone said, there was that black intern, no one listened to [laughs] — and that’s what happened in that execution!
And then Nando’s obviously came in and hopped in on that … it was brilliant.
So, with humour, it’s got to make sense. Does it make sense for the brand?
BE: Because it’s hard. Lots of brands take themselves — or companies — I hate the word brands — companies take themselves too seriously. “Oh, we cannot talk like that!”
KD: But [for] some companies that works and it’s fine, it’s perfect. It is also very important that the brand owners who are working on the brand also understand the zeitgeist/what is happening in society, and also in connection with the brand itself. That will then translate into the work that is created. I almost feel, when you hire certain people to work for you, one needs to look beyond the person’s capabilities but at the personality of the person and what they are bringing to the brand itself and the fit, exactly. I feel a lot of the time that goes missing. And that is how humour does go completely off.
BE: So Nando’s have done a great job. You can tell the person sitting behind that account (whoever you are again, I’ve tried to find you a few times) is literally living it. They are the brand, you can tell.
I thought we’d come to a question about Rain. What are you doing at Rain? What are the values of Rain and what are you up to here?
KD: The most-important thing we want to deliver is to get out of people’s way. Give you great, affordable data and that is it. That’s what we want to do. Because a lot of people are complaining about data — it’s expensive, #datamustfall. We want to be able to answer that question so that people can have access to the internet and do the things that they really love doing. Something that I loved — and I always reference it — [is] that apparently when you get to Facebook, there’s a booklet that you get given and you read: one of the lines or the mantras is, “People don’t use Facebook because they love Facebook. They use Facebook because they love their friends.” For us, I never want to live under the illusion that people love Rain. People love what they can do, because of it. They love the fact that they can access the internet and watch videos, I don’t have to worry about how much money I’m spending because it’s so affordable. And it works.
BE: But isn’t that the true value of a good brand?
KD: Yes. When it doesn’t work, people are frustrated with Rain. They’re so mad at Rain. When it works, they don’t think about Rain. And what that means is it’s not just about the brand. It’s not about the product itself; it’s making sure that everything in the background is working toward—
BE: It’s what the product enables. That’s going to mean value. The true value.
KD: And to give you that value, so that you don’t have to think about it.
BE: Firstly, it’s an awesome position and message that you’re getting out, but I’ve seen you practice it. I’ll give you two quick examples that I’m thinking of. Your website — super-simple, super-clean; no over-complicated value proposition and fancy navigation. That’s the one thing. The second thing is I’m actually working with another company; I reached out to Michael, Willem and a few guys to partner — and it just was cool, very refreshing [to have them come back and say]: “That’s cool, we can partner but, bear in mind, we give our partners no special rates. Because we’ve got one price, one offering. And whether you are a partner, whether you’re a corporate — that’s what it is. All we want to do to provide good data affordably…”
KD: One of the dangers of marketing is thinking that you need to create all the fluff, whereas the key is actually simplicity. Creating simplicity is extremely difficult. It took us quite a while to actually go and say, “The unlimited data network”.
BE: And people get scared that it’s so…
KD: We’ve been offering unlimited data. So that’s the network that we are. Why are we not saying that? It’s very obvious in hindsight but to get to that point was not as simple as it seems. Again, for us, we have to try to be as simple as possible. But we’re also okay with being wrong. For example, now we’ve decided that we’re going to remove devices from the website because that’s not our core business; our core business is selling data. Is it a good decision? We don’t know, we might figure out, in a month or two that okay, you know what? Actually—
BE: How do you — I guess [a] bit more of a rhetorical question is — how do you compete against the big guys, like Vodacom, all of them… but I think you’ve indirectly answered it, in that it’s just that relentless focus and actually giving value to the customer as — could you can’t outspend them. You can’t outspend them, so how do you…
KD: How I see it is that we’re not competing because we’re providing data only; that’s what we do. And we don’t really offer a similar product, because our products we have [are] like R250 unlimited. I don’t know if there’s anyone else who offers unlimited that way. For 19 hours of the day, you can use as much internet as you want. But we also encourage our customers to keep their other network, whatever network it is they use, because you can make a phone call because [we] can’t make them, and in some areas there are parts where you’re not going to have connectivity. Our philosophy really is that we want to play nicely with others. That philosophy is a driver to where we are because, even the people that work for us, we make sure that they’re really good, decent, nice people; there are no big egos [who] are running around, because the moment we have these big egos is when we will contradict everything that we’re trying to build as a company.
BE: I mean, that’s a great philosophy. I’m sure ‘the competitors’ don’t share the same values. I hate to break it to you, but—
KD: You know what I find interesting? I think individuals are actually more likely to be that way inclined and I think, sometimes, when people are in a boardroom setting, there is a posturing that maybe sometimes may take place. Ultimately, I think every company (hopefully) that exists, the original intention was to always to provide something good to people. And it was never to be this monster that goes to kill the competition and do all that; it’s an ecosystem where everybody can survive. I don’t think you’ve got bad players and [those] who have bad intentions. Maybe I’m naive but I really don’t—
BE: No, I don’t think so. Unless you look at the likes of Steinhoff [laughs]. Greed doesn’t bring out the best in people! But, on that note, I’m going to give you a bit of context around it. Som you’ve got a strong agency background, you just mentioned the agency and actually partnering with the agency as partners. I think agencies are dying — I know you’ve read all about consultancies vs agencies. Can you really partner with an agency? And what I mean, when someone’s cutting a check, is it really a partnership?
KD: Because we’re the kind of business that we are, just because I happen to have that marketing function doesn’t mean that I’m not involved in product development. That doesn’t mean I’m not involved in business development. I’m literally involved in as many parts of the business as my abilities can handle. So, I will go and work with other parts…
BE: Sorry, [the] reason for my question is because the role of marketing, in my mind, has changed. It’s now across business functions [rather] than isolated silo functions. Agencies are still working at the silo…
KD: You’re right. That’s precisely the reason why — because this is how we work here internally — that I find that, in a lot of organisations, product development will come up with an idea and they say, “Hey, guys/marketing, [here are] all the bells and whistles, now go and to sell this thing.” And, so, what we do here is, “Okay, we need to go and sell this thing. Okay but why do we need to sell it? What is the problem? Oh, people don’t understand. Why don’t they understand it? Because when they get to the website, they don’t know where to click. Why don’t they know where to click? Oh, so the issue then is not marketing; it is that we need to fix something at first, in the background.” So, what I tried to do and that everybody in the business tries to do is to fix the actual issue first. Maybe we have the luxury because it’s still new and young; we can just go back and fix. If it means we have to change the product, then we change the product. That’s how you actually spend less money on your advertising because you fix the real issue, the real problem. Then, when it comes to partnerships, I see these partnerships as very crucial to the success of an organisation. For example — and I agree with you — I think that the current business model of agencies is not sustainable, does not work, and I think neither clients nor agencies really know how to fix them. There are a number of issues there; it’s one where agencies feel that they’re being underpaid for what they’re delivering and, secondly, where clients feel that they’re not receiving any value for what they’re paying.
BE: I was about to say that agencies are overvaluing themselves, and the clients don’t feel the value.
KD: Exactly. So now there is this chasm; there’s no agreement at all between the two because, again, the client is signing the check, they’re going to have the power and I hate that word. But it does create the power dynamic. Our model here is we ensure that our partners are in the room even when we’re brainstorming a product. When we’re not even sure what we are going to do yet, they are in the room.
BE: And do you find that they add value? It must be something they’re not used to; they must be taken aback!
KD: For now, the partner that we have, with the only partner that we deal with, I really do feel this is the kind of ideal partnership.
BE: But it’s collaboration.
KD: Yes, it is. Like if I walk out of the boardroom here, in two minutes I’m in their offices, and I’m talking to them.
BE: They’re an extension of your team. It’s almost like you act as one company. Exactly. And I think that’s great. I mean, in our business, that’s the way we’ve operated best with our clients, as well. You actually are just an extension of that team.
KD: One of the biggest challenges as a creative person, when I went to Coca-Cola, was I would be working with an agency and my involvement in the creative process — you could feel that it was making people tense, not knowing how to deal with me or work with me because I’m a client who understands the entire process. It’s just that they still see you as a client who is trying to destroy their — kill their baby — whereas I’m trying to make the baby better.
BE: They’re very protective over their own ideas, right?
KD: Because everyone is trying to make something better. I used to say, for me, the creatives [who] I liked the least are the ones who’re the most-protective over their ideas, because what does that tell me about me you as a creative? It tells me that you don’t think you can have a better one.
BE: Also, the whole thing about being creative is thinking outside of the box, so if you can’t let your own idea go, then you don’t have the ability to actually just think outside the box.
KD: But my favourite ones listen; they hear you say, “Oh, alright”, and then they’re thinking, and then their work is even better. I love the collaborative process; I am super-involved in the thinking, the strategy, the actual creative itself, how we should work together. And for example, I want to make sure that the agency is not under any financial constraints because, if they are, the agency is strained financially. And this is also the vision of the founders of the company: let’s make sure that the hygiene issues are covered because [then] they will give us their best.
BE: At least that item’s off the table. It’s like when you pay someone a decent salary, the money topic doesn’t become anything anymore; you just know they can perform.
KD: That way, you’re going to have a happy agency. And then you’re going to have a happy client.
BE: Did you go through a pitch for that partner? And do you believe in the pitching process? Do you not think that it’ll really just skew the dynamic and bring in that powerplay even more so?
KD: It’s a tricky one, because I think…
BE: Was there a pitch for your accountant?
KD: That’s hilarious!
BE: Just saying — we don’t do it. You don’t get, say three sets of auditors [to] come and pitch—
KD: You know, I think the problem with marketing is because everyone thinks that they have a great opinion and view of it — whereas no one has an opinion about the accounting — and therefore everyone thinks that they have something to say about it. I feel [that] this is one function that in almost any organisation that everybody has a point of view on, and which you can’t really dismiss everyone’s views, because it’s living and they can see it.
BE: Yeah, my teenager can do social media. This marketing cross function across business and you touched on a few points about collaboration and learning and solving the problem quickly, and that comes back to feedback loops. Marketing, for a while, was always one-way communication. But, if you look what its real job was, it was for growth. And I read a great LinkedIn post recently, and it was [about] ‘can we stop calling people “chief growth officer”? It’s still marketing; it’s just now we’re actually able to measure the growth and sales. You’re now actually accountable because now we can actually tie numbers to you, as opposed to you putting up a billboard and saying, “Oh, well, I’ve done my job”, right?
KD: There was a Harvard Business Review, I think last year/the year before (I don’t remember) that I read and it was talking about how the one function most-dissatisfied with in the C-Suite — it was marketing. And the reason for it was because CEOs, when they hire the new CMO, they are like, ‘Great, you’re going to turn the business around; you’re going to create miracles.’ But then they are not given the power to make that happen. So, if I need to speak to finance so that they can fix the processes so things can happen faster, they don’t have the power to do that. Actually, that the problem is, it’s actually the product itself, “Can we add a change?”—
BE: No, you don’t touch it.
KD: No, you [can’t] do that. And I think the mistake sometimes for marketers is where you impose your ego on what you’re creating. It’s not about you; it’s about this thing that you are selling and growing or solving. For us, what is the issue that we’re solving? The issue we’re solving is the issue of affordable data.
BE: But you’re also empowered to do it. That’s all the big companies — I don’t know if you’ve seen, I think McDonald’s and all of them — they’ve all lost CMOs; none of them are replacing global CMOs. I don’t think the CMO is a function. I think everyone’s going, “Oh, CMOs aren’t needed.” It’s not the title that’s the problem; tt’s the organisational structure.
KD: Because it’s siloed. That’s the problem. It’s siloed.
BE: Some really big retailers that we work with, for customer experience and marketing, forget about sitting in the same room. They sit in two separate buildings, kilometres apart, and I’m like, “Do you guys chat?” “Oh no, IT will link us up.”
KD: What tends to happen is the creation of functions that don’t need to be there sometimes. And then, because you’ve created it, [it] needs a reason to exist, and will create work that is not necessary.
BE: And just on that note you talking about being Harvard Business Review, what are your top resources/podcasts/books that you read?
KD: I love reading—
BE: Outside of your own Twitter account?! [laughs]
KD: I love reading Harvard Business Review; to be honest, whenever it comes out, I go and buy one. What I’ve also said to marketing students — I always say, you guys are really behind. If it’s in a textbook, in this time, it’s already too late. And you almost have to be quite curious about what is currently taking place rather than what are you reading in the textbook. I feel like we’re living in such a fast-changing world, that what I read is literally — it could be an article that I find online about something that is amazing, rather than something that I found in… Because, at some point, it’s already outdated
BE: Like when you go to YouTube and you watch a music video and the next thing you’re watching [something else] — and you don’t know how you got there?
KD: I promise you, that’s literally it, and I just find myself going deeper, and then I go and, maybe if I’m reading about a particular subject, then I just go in and deeper and deeper into it.
BE: Like what you said earlier, I think curiosity is actually something we need to hire for as well. Because, like you said, you can’t have this person sitting in these chief marketing positions or whatever just so isolated. Okay, man, Khaya, it’s been awesome chatting to you. I really appreciate it; I enjoyed that. That was great.
KD: Thank you so much.
BE: This has been Only Connect, a MarkLives.com podcast… Until next time — keep connecting!
Transcribed using otter.ai and then edited lightly.
The founder of Continuon and Platinum Seed, Bradley Elliott (@BradElliottSA) has created a number of businesses in the digital and technology sectors. He believes that marketing needs to be reinvented so that it becomes more useful to humans and brands. He’s also a collector of fine whisky. Bradley contributes “Only Connect”, exclusively to MarkLives.com. In this podcast, he chats to custodians of the world’s top brands about what matters most to them.