by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) Hlamalani Sunshine Shibambo (@sunshineshibs) is a hero. I’ve been running this column since 2016 and this interview brought me to tears. The real and authentic account speaks directly to me and, I’m sure, will touch the hearts of fellow entrepreneurs; it reminds me of all our collective, sometimes unspoken, struggles as founders and owners of black-owned agencies in South Africa.
I’m happy to share this inspirational entrepreneurial journey, celebrating the bravery and determination of this female-run agency, Cheri Yase Kasi. I’m left in hope that we will overcome if we start collectively speaking about and breaking the barriers to entry and challenging this untransformed reality of the industry — not only for ourselves but the generations of black creatives that come after us.
Veli Ngubane: Tell us more about yourself: where did you grow up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
Hlamalani Sunshine Shibambo: I would just like to start by saying I’m a better storyteller than I am a writer, but here goes. My name is Hlamalani Sunshine Shibambo; I grew up in a small township, Mofolo Village in Soweto (we moved to the south in Naturena in 2007), raised by a single mom and an army of incredible men and women in my life. I have always been a creative child who was lucky enough to have a single mother who saw that potential and encouraged it from a very early age. I was exposed to the arts through my mom’s mzabalazo work with the New Nation newspaper…, a brave publication that was one of the few South African newspapers to be black-owned, black-edited, and almost entirely staffed by blacks. To be surrounded by such fearless minds and spirit at that young age turned me [into] an artistic, expressive, fearless and compassionate child. I played; accessed and met some of South Africa’s top musicians, authors, writers, photographers — you name it. From about four years, I was the child backstage with my mom dancing to Brenda Fassie at Share World in Nasrec or a film launch at Kine Centre on Small Street [Johannesburg], with all these journalists and celebrities. As time passed, I was in various dance troupes (local Sarafina productions), art classes, set painting on TV productions, music and I guess that’s where my love for the arts started.
I first wanted to a musical theatre producer; and then a fashion designer but there were no SA black designers to aspire to in those days that I knew of obviously; owning a hair and makeup studio after the success of Alex Hair; then it was a TV set design or production overseas after my mother introduced me to Mfundi Vundla; and later it become an art director. [Being a] business owner was always subtle but never the thing I thought I would be in my late 30s.
VN: Is that what inspired you to found Cheri Yase Kasi? Please tell us more about your business journey.
HSS: Not really. I had the typical black-girl plan to not waste my mama’s money: matriculate, then college and graduate, then I could start my life. I created a wish list of five companies that I desperately [wanted] to work for in my grad year:
- TBWA\Hunt Lascaris: [it] had the revolutionary SABC 1 campaign
- Net#work BBDO: [it was] running the Metro FM “What make you black?” campaign
- Metro FM: 6m urban listeners — who didn’t want to be part of that magic
- SABC 1/3 I wanted to be part of the black-content revolution
- MTN: [which] sponsored the arts in the early 2000s
Once I made the decision to resign from SAB on 26 May 2015, I knew, even though I didn’t have a solid business plan or any plan for that matter, that I needed to do something. I went on a holiday to Thailand with my housemate for 17 days and I really fell in love with the simplicity of the tenacity of the Thai street markets and stall owners. Hustling every day to make a living. They work to sustain themselves and their families; keep their business small; eat well and are generally a happy people. When I came back, I was clear on my dream and what I needed to do to get the idea into action. It’s been a build as we grow approach since.
VN: When is your earliest memory of you wanting to be an entrepreneur, or any community of family members who inspired you to start your own business?
HSS: Until I started my business, I had no desire to start or own a business. I didn’t want the pressure and responsibility then. My career started so well, from Hunts to SABC to Metro FM, and then Media24 into SAB; I guess I always believed I always had my dream job until I didn’t, which then forced me to start considering starting my own.
My dad, Joe Shibambo, has always been a pioneer in business. I remember, in the late ’80s, driving around with him doing his rounds to check on his coal business in Phiri; he later owned a Fish & Chips in Rockville and Jabulani in the ’90s; and eventually moved into construction early 2000.
As I got older, this always made me wonder how he could work for himself when he could have secured a cushy corporate job. My parents divorced when I was two and managing a relationship with my father was not easy; my parents are complete opposites and we lost contact around 2001–2011, which didn’t allow me the advantage of growing up with someone as knowledgeable as him but, since reuniting, he is always my source of wisdom.
VN: Tell us what you do and what does a typical day look like for you?
HSS: That’s one of the most-difficult questions to answer; I don’t have typical days in the office. Ask the people in the office. LOL.
VN: What do you think is the slowing the growth of black-owned agencies? Twenty-five years after achieving freedom, surely there should be more significant players in the ad industry?
HSS: There is this misconception that black agencies or creatives are always the cheaper option. What is slowing the industry down is the black creative willing/scrambling to cut their standard fee and years of expertise to get the job to survive. We shouldn’t have to be in this uncomfortable position in the first place. When will our time put in finally be acknowledged?
Our local and foreign counterparts have miles of experience, insight and knowledge in a head-start [over] any black agency in Africa. What I have seen over the past 10 years is that, when a black agency starts to peak or grow, a big non-black agency swiftly sweeps in and buys the agency for figures that would make anyone think twice. I’ve seen many examples of this situation with my peers getting taken by this cycle and what the association brings them as an individual.
This immediately defeats the purpose of black growth in my eyes or maybe I’m just naïve. We are always “the last to know” and have limited access to information. We have to pitch against each other for the scraps after watching many non-black agencies walk in and out of buildings with the real briefs. We don’t have the cashflow/systems/equipment/buildings or retainers that our counterparts have — this includes access to industry information that only a lucky few are privy to, individuals who won’t disrupt the comfort of being the only black. Black creatives and businesses struggle to collaborate and [no-one] wins. Usually the budget is already tiny and the [person] who brings in the job wants the biggest cut, irrespective of the skills or expertise the collaborators are bringing to the table
VN: What are the key things you’ve learnt in your business journey that you wish you’d known when you started the business?
HSS: I wish I’d paid attention to our back office, managing cashflow, HR and compliancy from day one and had not left it to the accountants or bookkeepers. I paid attention to my departments only and chased new clients and production work. I only started paying detailed attention once one of our business partners in charge of the back office resigned in March 2019; and we were left to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward. I had to learn that while juggling staff, mentoring and running sales in the business. That took a heavy emotional and physical toll on my wellbeing. Now I can do it with my eyes closed. LOL.
VN: What are some lessons you can share with female business owners and lessons you’ve learnt along the years?
HSS: You will always be treated differently as a woman, no matter how far you rise. It is important to adopt emotional intelligence as soon, as you can operating the day to day of a business. You will manage many people from many walks of life, the nicest to the most-frustrating client, but it is always important to keep your cool. I’ve learnt not to take it personally anymore: when I started a “no” always felt like an attack against me or our business, but sometimes clients just don’t get it or don’t like it and choose someone else. That’s all it is. Don’t take that personally.
VN: Why do you think the communications industry is struggling to transform and what do you think should be done to fast-track transformation?
HSS: Government laws and mandates must change for freelancers and creative business to grow and create jobs in SA. What the [coronavirus has been] able to do is shine a spotlight on how important the arts, creative and sports industries are — but also how many of these awarded men and women work from month to month to make a living —there [should] be systems in place to protect these individuals. I’m sure certain industries would say the same for their industry; I can only speak for mine. I dare our government to come up with a solution to retaining this working class. Transformation will not happen unless institutions [such as banking and financial institutions, insurance and medical change the way they treat the freelancer.
VN: What advice would you give someone completing their high-school education this year and looking to follow a career in the creative industry?
HSS: I would be honest with the state of affairs at the moment; I would tell them about where the black creatives come from and the struggles we’ve overcome to shift the needle. I [would] tell them success stories of black excellence and cross fingers [that] they will still want to pursue a career in this beautiful, mad world of advertising and marketing.
VN: What do you feel is missing in the creative industry today and what should the future look like in SA and the rest of the continent?
HSS: Respect and transparency for everyone in the game. Level the playing field for all creatives, from the invitation into the board to the budgets and brief that’s sent. Black creatives are judged on being black first before their work and it’s even worse when you are a black woman. The government and MAC [Marketing, Advertising and Communication sector] need to mandate that all corporates should ensure that work is split equally [between] local and international agencies. If this doesn’t change; the black creative industry will not grow and black agencies will always receive a fraction of the budget, compared to the global agencies [which] dominate SA and African markets.
VN: What legacy do you want to leave when you retire from the industry?
HSS: “She made a change and always fought for the black creatives and her community.”
VN: If you had a superpower, what would you want it to be?
HSS: The power to produce never-ending wealth. This would give me the power to change the lives of many people with no limitations, my own life and make an impact in the marginalised communities that I want to help develop.
VN: What exciting projects are you working on at the moment?
HSS: Nothing. All BTL has been heavily affected by covid-19 and will change the way our business operates in the future. Events and experiences that were signed off have been cancelled until 2021. It’s becoming harder and harder to see what the future looks like after covid-19. We do not have any retainers to sustain the business for the year and have survived five years on pitching and producing work for clients.
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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 MarkLives.com column, “Young, Gifted & Killing It”, he profiles award-winning, kick-ass black creative talent in South Africa.