by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) The world is changing in ways we’ve yet to comprehend. Everything is going to transform. Change has become the only constant. In this type of environment, the only answer is to become adaptable enough to process change to your benefit — to become future-fit.

Until debt tear us apartTransformers Transform 2020” is a special series produced by MarkLives and HumanInsight and sponsored by the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA), running Jun–Sep 2020. Together with Lebogang Tshetlo, we’ll be profiling remarkable local #Transformers every other Friday until September, featuring Tshetlo’s photography. The objective of this an independently managed, journalism-driven research project is to explore and map new paths for brands and marketers to transform, adapt and build resilience while the world adapts to covid-19 and its resultant social, political and economic toll.

Five distinct phases

Crawford Del Prete, International Data Corporation (IDC) president, predicts that post-covid-19 recovery will go through five distinct phases. The global market intelligence firm predicts that the winners will be brave pioneers, powered by technology, that can accelerate opportunity to market.

IDC leverage tech to transition to the next normal
Source: IDC

As the diagram above shows, the IDC anticipates that one key business imperative will rule the C-suite agenda during each stage as businesses move forward to survive and thrive. But South Africa will be different: we were already in recession when the pandemic hit, and this country’s capacity to respond had been denuded by corruption, factionalism and weak state‑leadership.

The latest financial data from Bloomberg shows that the national lockdown has resulted in a “record economic contraction,” deepening SA’s recession. “We, therefore, expect a weak recovery,” says Boingotlo Gasealahwe, Bloomberg economist for Africa. “What matters now is the strength and pace of recovery,” he adds. This means the role of business and leadership will need to radically change if this country is to survive its struggle with weak government, rampant unemployment, poverty, vice and an ever-deepening recession.

Transformation icon and activist

Bozoma Saint John. Source: LinkedIn
Source: LinkedIn

“Brands must get political because, right now, there is no safe space for us to sit and idly watch. If you’re on the sidelines, then you’re part of the problem,” Bozoma Saint John, Netflix CMO, said in a prescient address to the C2 creativity festival in Montréal, Canada, last year. A celebrated transformation icon and activist, Saint John told the creativity festival that transformation was inevitable, not optional.

“It is actually unfair to our human race to continue to tell stories from one perspective. We must diversify,” said Saint John, who’s had transformational roles at Endeavor, Apple, and PepsiCo. She was also brought in to repair Uber’s reputation after a series of humiliating gender crises.

The biggest change brands, marketing businesses and entrepreneurs will face in the coming months is the changing nature of their relationships with their employees and customers. This will mean addressing the marketing sector’s laggardly response to empowerment and gender at the same time as grappling with a recession and stepping into the breach left by a dysfunctional government.

Leadership primer

Accenture has created a leadership primer that shows one way of doing so. The downloadable pdf, Human Resilience — What your people need now (1.5MB), advises: “Responsible Leadership has taken on an even deeper meaning, as our workforces and our customers find themselves in an unfamiliar, fast-moving global environment. COVID-19 has changed the way we live and work already, with far-reaching impact. Leading with compassion and caring for our workforces and communities is more essential than ever.”

Accenture maintains that, to build trust now and into the future, employers will need to step up to the plate and knit together cohesion and continuity with leadership teams that are “focused on compassion and the care of its people.”

“Distilled to one essential message: Your workforce is looking to trust you. And it will trust if it believes leadership cares for each individual, their community and humanity as a whole. But beyond caring, leaders must show they have a plan. You don’t have to know everything, but you do need to be transparent about what is driving decisions,” Accenture advises.

Help drive survival

Ultimately, entrepreneurs and businesses can help drive survival for the more marginalised, particularly through collaboration and participation. Beyond that, entrepreneurs, innovators, responsible brands and inventive enterprises offer the best hope for the future. With restrictions now lifted on most sectors, we need to both save our country and reimagine ourselves, our industry and the future.

There is purpose and meaning in being brave enough to want to rebuild ourselves, and we should fight anyone who dares take this hope away from us. Here we can look to Saint James, who is a great believer in purpose, meaning and making a difference.

I want to be significant. I want to do things that are more significant, and so the purpose of my life has changed to be more focused on that,” Forbes quotes her as saying. “How am I going to be significant, in our conversations, in our movement towards women’s empowerment? How am I going to be significant in the conversation and movement towards diversity and inclusion?”

Local sector

A powerful question to answer from a South Africa poised between despair and hope, and in an industry that doesn’t have many options. When it comes to transformation, the local sector would do well to take Saint John’s advice and become fearless.

“Change. That’s the biggest lesson. Not to be afraid of it… I have now become fearless of change and it, therefore, makes me that much stronger. I also don’t make five-year plans, because I want to keep myself open to change and be able to be nimble,” the mega-CMO says in the Forbes interview.

No stranger to transformation, in 2014 Saint John’s life altered forever after her partner was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In a touching interview with Daughters of Africa, the careerist CMO says her partner’s passing, after a battle with cancer, “gave her the ‘gift of urgency’ and ‘the grace’ to be more determined to execute tasks,”, and advised, “Never settle for the things that you think are impossible to attain… and never take no for an answer. Do it right now.”

Change is coming, whether you like it or not. You will transform or be transformed. Technology will aid you but our common fate will depend on our ability to care about social justice, embrace diversity, become more adaptable, destroy hierarchies, reorganise, digitise, digitalise and collaborate unlike ever before.

See also


Charlie MathewsAs an entrepreneur, Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) has worked in growth teams with Naspers, Microsoft, and (the global prepaid card company). Mathews has also successfully founded and exited two marketing companies. Published in Rolling Stone magazine, Guardian UK, and SA’s Greatest Entrepreneurs, edited by Moky Makura, Mathews wrote for Daily Maverick during the title’s legendary startup era. Today, Mathews is the founder and CEO of HumanInsight, a research, insights and learning company that helps brands better understand, and serve — humans.


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