Young, Gifted & Killing It: O’Brien Manana
by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) O’Brien Manana (@obriezy; IG: @obriezy) didn’t stand a chance of any other career option — creativity runs in his blood. The son of Stompie Manana, the jazz legend, founder and member of the African Jazz Pioneers, he grew up in the vibrant Meadowlands in Soweto and is now living his destiny as the founder of Soulfilter Productions. We chat about his entrepreneurial journey, the impact that the novel coronavirus pandemic has had on his business, and the state of transformation and what needs to change to achieve an ad industry that reflects the demographics of the country it operates in.
[Full disclosure: Soulfilter Productions recently produced an agency profile video for Avatar Agency Group.]
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Veli Ngubane: No conversation starts these days without mentioning covid-19, so let’s start there. How have the past few weeks been for your business and how have you reacted to the crisis?
O’Brien Manana: The world changed in front of our eyes; there is a sense of bleak uncertainty, yet excitement. So, for me, I’m very comfortable in this world of uncertainty; I see tremendous opportunity in the covid-19 world. Business has been slow, as I expected it would be, but it hasn’t been bad. I’ve decided to focus on the branding aspect of the business, since I have time to do some marketing and cleaning up of the online presence of my brand and business. I’ve also been looking at other options to innovate the business into tech and content ideation, instead of just solely executing client briefs. Also just thinking of new ways to create work, opportunities, and products that I can sell to clients. Also learning some new skills that I can apply to this new business environment. So, I’ve been keeping busy! To be honest, as difficult as it is for businesses right now, I’m excited about the post-covid-19 future and what it’s going to bring from a digital, tech, content and production perspective for us. I’m open to the change and adaptation.
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VN: Okay, now that covid-19 is out of the way, let’s get to know you better: where did you grow up and what was your journey into the creative industry?
OM: I grew up in Soweto, Meadowlands, with a very loving and close family. I’m the sixth and lastborn child…the “laat lammetjie” of the family. I come from a musical and artistic background. My dad is the legendary South African Jazz musician and founding member of the African Jazz Pioneers, Stompie Manana. So, I grew up around music and art being a normal thing at home. My parents always cultivated an environment of creative expression, so it was written in the stars for me that, one day, I’d be in the creative world.
I started drawing from an early age, anywhere and everywhere I could, much to the delight of my mom LOL. I could draw before I could read as a child, because my dad was also a very good painter and I would emulate him all the time. By the time I was in high school, I was a seasoned artist and illustrator, but I also loved music and watching movies with my parents — it was a big part of my life. At the end of my high-school career, I wanted to study graphic design and film because I had about read about it in a book. Back then, there were not too many black graphic designers — well, I didn’t know any, especially in my surroundings. So, when I got to varsity, I did [a] year of graphic design but I was very interested in film and animation; I always wanted the logo to have some sort of motion LOL. [My] supervising lecturer suggested I should rather take up multimedia, because I’d be able to do art, film and animation all at once. I fit in well in the multimedia side of life. It was the first time I could work on a computer to execute all these different storytelling mediums; it was exciting.
My start in the industry happened when I had to produce a music video project for my final year project. It had to have elements of animation, live action, with elements of graphic design. It allowed me to find my creative voice with an existing up-and-coming musician. The video was playlisted on TV and won an international student film award. After that, I kind of dove head-first into directing and shooting music videos. I got the opportunity to work as an assistant director and editor for a company that produced music videos. After two years of working there, I was exposed to a lot of brands and made a lot of great contacts and networks from that opportunity. I got to work with the biggest artists at the time.
I registered my company, Soulfilter, in 2012, after going out on my own — working on music videos and shooting corporate videos. I took design jobs here and there so I could raise capital to buy equipment. At this point, I was living at home; my company was birthed in my bedroom, at my parent’s house. My family really supported my creative entrepreneurial dreams. I got an opportunity to do work for advertising clients and brands through some friends, as I was growing as a professional in the industry, and I’ve never looked back. Been doing it ever since, and now doing business as a director, editor and motion designer.
VN: Your educational background: where and what did you study?
OM: I attended Northcliff High School. I was actually the first in my family to attend a mixed-race school. So, my educational background was way different to my older siblings. For varsity, I went to University of Johannesburg. I studied multimedia design, which had art, animation, film and design as a focus. I graduated with a B-tech (with honours) in multimedia in 2009.
VN: Tell us more about your business: what do you do and what inspired you to start the business.
OM: The name of my company is Soulfilter Productions. It was started in 2012 and is a fully black-owned production company that does video production, animation, motion graphics. We tell brand stories, from concept to execution. We’re also a very collaborative business, as is the nature of production. So, we work with some very talented people. I started the business because unemployment became a reality at some point, so I just decided to start my company and it’s been the best decision ever made. I liked the idea of being in control of my destiny, being able to collaborate with other like-minded creative without any restrictions. I started working from an early age in varsity and I realised I wanted the freedom to create opportunities for myself and others. It has been a very difficult but fruitful decision.
VN: Why do you think the advertising industry is struggling to transform and what do you think should be done to fast-track transformation?
OM: I believe that the advertising industry is struggling to transform mainly because there hasn’t been an urgency by government or executives and decision-makers in advertising, to ensure that transformation is prioritised. Small companies are often swallowed by bigger companies and this causes a lack of competition, which contributes to a lack of diversity and, therefore, lack of transformation. Bigger companies are also more likely to hog more of the opportunities, based on their personal connections. So, a lot of the work we see might come from one entity and this hinders diversity. When we look at key decision-making positions as well, too many times, management and executives look the same, largely white and male. We can fast-track it, first, by making sure that government steps in to help enforce a policy that ensures that diversity and inclusion are a main focus. Secondly, by holding our peers in decision making and policy changing positions accountable, making sure that they understand that diversity is good for the overall business and adds value to the company’s work. When the faces and voices behind the work are diverse, it reflects in the work produced. Thirdly, we need to allow access for more black agencies to thrive, creating an environment where black-owned agencies can have access to all clients on merit, not because they they think a certain client is only good for that black client. And, lastly, making sure that agencies work with more black-owned production companies, directors and producers.
VN: I’m interested in your thoughts on how black people are portrayed on TV and in adverts, and what needs to change to reflect the realities of our black communities?
OM: I think a large contributor to this problem is the fact that we’re sitting with agencies that don’t have an understanding of black lives and the black experience, because the people writing and directing the ads are all white from the boardroom to client. They are catering to a largely black consumer/audience but are writing the ads from a biased, black stereotype perspective and point of view. They are struggling to resonate and connect with the audience and, instead of getting a black creative in a decision-making capacity to help steer that ship and help give perspective, context, and lived experience to the situation, it never happens. The one thing that needs to change is the idea that black people are constantly just happy-go-lucky, dancing caricatures. We need to change that narrative because we are just as multifaceted as any other race. We need to make sure that TV adverts project us in a fair light in relation to everyone else; we also have depth and range, and can play many other roles that others play. We need to eliminate any kind of stereotype and generalisation of people, period, on our creative.
VN: What advice would you give someone running a creative business in this time of crisis and what is this “new normal” that everyone talks about?
OM: Someone smart once said, “Never waste a good crisis”, and I believe there is an opportunity in this crisis, if you choose to see it that way. So, I would tell creatives to quickly adapt to the changes, [to] kill the noise, the fear, and focus on finding ways to redefine their purpose and mission again. That they should have the sense of hope, belief in themselves and their vision, and trust in the process. That they will get thorough it stronger and smarter on the other side. It is not the end but the beginning of something new and a different chapter. The “new normal” is firstly acceptance of the situation but also the realisation that world has, in a weird way, given us a different perspective and outlook on things. The reset button has been hit and it’s an opportunity to re-evaluate, re-energise, re-strategise, re-align and re-build yourself.
VN: What do you feel is missing in advertising industry today and what should the future look like in South Africa and the rest of the continent?
OM: I think unity and diversity is what we need now, more than ever. That’s gonna start by creating an environment that allows everyone to win, not just a few. I have hope the future of advertising can be better but it is dependent on how we uphold and protect those two values mentioned. I believe the future is Africa, period; we will be the world-standard sooner than later and SA is gonna [be] the forerunner in that journey.
VN: Where and when do you have your best ideas?
OM: To be honest, when I’m either under pressure or when I’m listening to music I love; music just opens up my mind and gives me clarity and space to process a lot.
VN: If you had a superpower, what would you want it to be?
OM: That’s a good question…LOL. I don’t have a decisive answer to that, because one superpower is just not enough hahaha but, if I must choose, I would say the ability to read people’s minds — very invasive but it [would] be good to know what people think about sometimes.
VN: Tell us something about yourself not generally known?
OM: I’m pretty decent beatmaker and producer. I’m hoping to pursue a music production career on the side; it’s a passion that keeps demanding my attention so I’m [going to] stop ignoring it, and work on music this year. Thanks to covid-19, I have a chance to dedicate time to it. And I’m having a lot fun being creative in [a] different release.
VN: What exciting projects are you working on at the moment?
OM: The biggest project I’m working on is me! Working on my self-development. I’ll be working on my own content this year — short films, online content that I’m developing. I also have three projects I’m about to work on: two I can’t say but the other is a documentary film project and the other two are in [thee] tech startup space from a content, AR/VR space. Although most of my projects left with covid-19, I’m very hopeful; the future is promising.
VN: You wake up tomorrow and you’re the president of the country: what measures and laws would you pass to build the creative industry for future generations?
OM: Very tough question…very tough job that might age one faster than normal.
- But I would definitely make sure data is cheap and affordable for the poor,
- Teach entrepreneurship as a subject in schools
- Implement coding as language in schools across the country
- I would erect fibre in all the townships, making sure there’s access to fast and reliable internet in townships
- I would implement STEM (science, technology, economics and maths) education as a priority in all schools — especially the ones in townships would be a priority
- Art, music and sports would be a compulsory
- Entrepreneurship funding programmes
- Fight unemployment and inequality by making sure that TVET collages work hand in hand with large corporates and government to help with skills development and job placement straight from collage, for youth and whoever wants the opportunity
- Strategic land redistribution
But this is honestly a tough question.
VN: Please would you supply two or three pieces of work you have been involved in?
OM: With pleasure.
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- #CoronavirusSA – Special Section
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.