Why we need to indigenise advertising in SA

Gary Leih

April 11 2013

Advertising is often described as a reflection of the state of a society. A quirk of the SA ad industry is that, in most cases, it is tasked with creating appeal for products and services aimed at the majority of the people in our country. Yet after nearly 20 years of democracy, the industry mostly continues to mirror the minority!

Where are we drawing our insights from? How do we understand the subtle nuances that can often determine the success or failure of so-called big ideas? Ironically, we continue to look to the European markets for our inspiration. Perhaps it started with the 1970s Cool Britannia spate of work that every creative in South Africa aspired to emulate. Thus, the work of legendary UK agencies such as CDP, AMV, BBH and Saatchi & Saatchi was held up, idolised and emulated by all of us. But it was British magic not South African muti. Thus, our advertising product remains blighted by our colonial past whether by accident or by design. And it needs to stop. Now.

Year after year, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, China, India and a host of other developing countries produce work that is unmistakably theirs and that stands out at international award shows as being fresh and original. And unashamedly indigenous! As a country we have strained to break into the Top 10 in the global creative stakes. While the Gunn Report (an annual publication detailing the most successful print and television advertising campaigns of the year) shows that we moved between 17th and 13th position in the years 2004-2009 (pretty good actually!), I would argue that our chances of breaking into the Top 10 would increase if we actually produced more locally relevant work. Certainly, it would stand out more. We need more Afro-innovative work, more indigenous insights and a workforce that is far more representative of mainstream South Africa.

Another reason why the Eurocentric work continues is because many in our industry see that approach as a ticket out of South Africa. I believe we still suffer from an attitude of produce work that produces a work permit in certain quarters. How does this help our country and industry in the long term? Our industry remains largely closed to skills transfer and social upliftment, while our advertising schools are prohibitively expensive and rarely offer bursaries of any real substance. The many, mainly international, agencies operating here are all feeling the pinch from their listed partners overseas and are thus forced to cut local training and development budgets. So how do we begin to change who we are and what we do? It's time for our industry agencies, media houses, production companies and schools to embrace a culture of learnership, paid internships and skills transfer. Perhaps we should even consider buying back some of our ad agencies from multinationals and direct their handsome profits back south into developing our people and our wealth as a nation and industry.