Q5: Out of the box, onto the scene, with Cognitive Agency [interview]
by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Thando Somacele (@tsomacele) and Sanele Pesane (@sanelepesane), the co-founders of Cognitive Agency (@CognitiveAgency), talk about building a successful business without a traditional background in advertising.
Q5: Talk us through the agency’s roots and rise: what led you into adland, and what has kept you here?
Sanele Pesane: We started off as an IT company that did more brand design and web development work than IT. We did this for schools and small businesses in Soweto. We eventually made contact with Alistair King and James Barty, co-founders of King James Group, asking them to help train and mentor us into the next integrated marketing agency that would build on strong consumer strategy and produce relevant creative communication with a slice of homegrown perspective. We’ve tried not to be a “hype”-based agency but more of a “substance”-based agency, and so we’ve always relished in the success of creating a positive impact, not only for our clients’ brands but also for the products and services they sell.
Q5: What are some of the highlights and challenges you’ve had since inception?
SP: We’ve had the privilege to work with Alexander Forbes, Corona, Old Mutual and many other brands, but the highlight for our agency was when we worked on and integrated a campaign for Cotlands (“I’m Previously Advantaged”). Though the campaign was intended to run only in 2017, it was so impactful that the client extended it to 2018. Another highlight was an integrated campaign we did for Game SA (Get More Out of iGroza). The campaign was well-received by the market and had a positive impact on food sales for the client. We were very excited when we were given a Hero status for this campaign by the one and only Andy Rice on his show Heroes & Zeros on 702 FM.
Some of the challenges we’ve faced are similar to what most agencies go through, and these have been finding clients, costing, or finding the right individuals to work with us, etc. But the challenge that has always stood out is adapting to the constantly changing landscape of advertising, and maintaining relevance for our clients’ brands or messages and making them resonate with the current consumer.
Q5: What would you say are the most-important skills to cultivate for success in this space?
Thando Somacele: Having a good understanding of your clients’ challenges and being able to interpret and identify the core objectives beyond their briefs is one of, if not the most-important, skills to cultivate for success in this space. The next is having a good understanding of human nature or behaviour, both the rational and irrational, because when you have this skill you can map out a strong strategy and produce brilliant yet relevant creative communication for your clients and audience.
Q5: What are some things you think South African adland gets right, and where does it need to change?
TS: We’ve managed to create communication that is relatable across a wider audience and culture because of the diversity that exists in our unique country; this is what we’ve done right and still often do right. Humour is another way we’ve managed to do well for our local brands over the decades.
What needs to change is something felt across the entire industry, and it has to do with the fact that, to some degree, we’ve lost the essence of true advertising. It began when we heavily relied on transient digital wagons, which worked very well for single-minded strategies and simple yet relevant creative. We need to go back to the basics of speaking to humans, to their emotions and their truths, and find ways of merging innovation with these and also become more courageous with our ideas and give them proper time to stick and build brands.
Q5: What are your goals for the next 12–24 months?
SP: Our primary goal is to continue to improve and to keep working on projects that build brands and sell products.
Note: This interview occurred before the coronavirus pandemic reached South Africa.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with over decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her regular column “Q5” hones in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with inspiring professionals in diversive fields.