Putting five 'i's back into South African Advertising

Gary Leih

November 29 2013

As we near the end of 2013, it is perhaps both timeous and prudent to take stock of our place in the global world of advertising. Ours is a great South African industry, capable of producing great work, great leaders and great agencies. This we have all contributed to in the past, but the question is: are we capable of doing so in the future?

While most of advertising is a collaborative effort, there has always been and will always be lots of room for individual development through individual effort. And it is this effort on the part of each and every individual that we need now - more than ever.

Just think of all the great individual and international leaders we have produced. People who have gone on to do great things on the world advertising stage. The Jonathan Harries, the Robyn Putters, the John Hunts and the Tony Graingers of South Africa. Just think of all of the South African individuals holding down huge jobs internationally right now. Interestingly enough, three of the top seven agency offices in the world (as ranked by Cannes awards) are currently run creatively by South Africans ' take a bow, Ryan Reed, Gerry Human and Chris Garbutt.

And we have many other brave South African individuals who have hung out their own shingles in inordinately tough and competitive international markets - individuals like Jan, Colin, Noel, Mark and Matthew - to name but a few. But I would argue that this great international success we have enjoyed has come at a very high price locally......

We are currently ranked, as a country, at no 15 on the Gunn Report's worldwide creative ranking. Australia is no 3 by contrast and Argentina is ranked (alongside Brazil) as joint 5th. We have done much, much better in the past and we can and must do much, much better than this in the future.

We are in a period of transition; indeed of transformation. This transformation is occurring far too slowly and we all know why. We are still failing as an industry to attract and retain the very best of the previously disadvantaged talent available in order to transform our industry. Our learning institutions are prohibitively expensive and few offer bursaries of any real substance. The tough economic reality that most international agencies operating here are experiencing worldwide impacts on us directly, as local training budgets and investment are slashed in order to meet quarterly profits internationally.

And those graduates that we are creating can't get jobs because 'they have no experience''. But give them a year or two's experience and the same agencies who had no room for them will suddenly be outbidding each other for this talent that was readily available (but required some training) just two years before.

So the first 'i' we need to put back into advertising is increasing the representation of previously disadvantaged individuals into our industry ' and this is paramount. And one could argue that this would substantially reinvigorate the uniqueness of our product offering and therefore help differentiate it - something that is really needed if we are to climb back up that creative ratings table internationally.

So it follows that the second 'i' we need to add back into South African advertising is that we need to indigenise our work '

It riles us to see our South American friends and our Aussie mates in the top five worldwide, while we sit at a nochschlepper no.15. We can improve our rating if we are more true to ourselves in the style of work we produce. Indeed, at world advertising award shows, you can spot the work emanating out of South America and Australia a mile away. It's uniquely theirs. By contrast, far too much of our work could have come out of the UK or even Europe for that matter.

Both the South Americans and the Australians got there by being themselves and by not trying to emulate the Eurocentric style so much of our work seems to fall prey to. Let's rejoice in being South African; let's revel in it. Both God and Madiba know we have enough raw material here to do stunning, stand-out work.

The third 'i' we need to put back into South African advertising concerns integration. The argument is over internationally folks, and it's time to end it here too. Break down all the silly silos we built around crm, ecrm, ecommerce, activation, mobile, social media, etc etc etc. These silos were never structured around our clients' needs anyway, but our own. They serve no purpose but to cost our clients more, complicate an uncomplicated business and irritate everyone involved.

We all know that what we do starts with a unique consumer insight, is amplified by a brilliant creative thought and is delivered to its target audience by a cunning media mix. It's that simple and not that difficult and let's stop pretending it's more complicated that it really is - because the rest of the world has.

And while we are on the subject of integration, let's look at the strange parting of the 'creative agency' and the 'media agency' that occurred two generations ago. Again, this was done with no client need in mind whatsoever. It was just another way for the listed multinational agency groups to accumulate more wealth. But what it has left us with is two generations of media people who have little to no idea about the creative process and two generations of creative people who have little or no idea about the media planning process.

So as we move into 2014, let's think about bringing the planning process back to the creative table and vice versa. Buying, ironically, has now become a bit of a commodity and these selfsame accumulators who took the media function out of the agencies are having a very hard time justifying any kind of premium rates for their buying services. Shame! Our hearts bleed for them.

Again, the real genius in our industry comes from the quality of the insight, the brilliance of the creative idea and the technical precision of the targeting through the media mix and delivery. All working together in perfect harmony i.e. it's an integrated effort. Ironically then that the fourth 'i' we need to put back into South African advertising is for individualism.

Far too much of our industry is controlled by listed entities whose prime focus is return on shareholder wealth and nothing else. This stifles competition both locally and internationally and restricts investment in developing local talent. In fact, around seventy percent of our South African industry belongs to the 'international brands'. And this is way too much.

I had the opportunity to visit a number of young, independent agencies in Europe and the UK last month and yes, I am hoping to get to South America and Australia early next year to do the same. Independently-owned agencies are starting to win big brands and not just in their own markets. And they are coming together to build micro networks to service those clients. Yet they remain independently owned and operated. What a thought!

Time to break free, talented people! South African advertising needs more, many more, homegrown enterprises. Rise up and take our industry back, help develop our industry locally and then strive to export it internationally.

The final 'i' we need to put back into South African advertising is integrity. It's been a tough couple of years for our industry and there are probably a few more tough years ahead before things even out and we see some real growth again. But these tough conditions are no excuse for some of the extraordinarily bad behaviours that we have witnessed in the past couple of years. We need to treat each other as individuals, and our industry as a whole, with respect. We need to respect the rules of the pitches and the competitions we enter. We need to enter awards with real work, work that really ran, and work that is for real clients. Let's not embarrass ourselves or our industry with cheap shots in 2014.

Let's play a clean, hard and above all else, creative ' in the most positive sense ' game in 2014. To my mind, these are the five 'i's we need to put back into everything we do. Ask yourself as an individual as we head into 2014, "What can I do for myself, my industry and my country?' And ask yourself this at least once a day. Because only you can make a real difference for yourself and for us collectively.

So here's to 2014. A year in which we should all hope to see a big increase in the number of pdi interns admitted into the industry. A year in which we see far more indigenisation of our work. A year in which the individuals who comprise our industry stand up and be counted in as many ways as possible. And a year in which we welcome into our ranks the return to the levels of integrity that we used to take for granted, but cannot presently. And then and only then will we rank higher in the world creativity tables ' this I promise you.

And you can trust me ' because I am in advertising!

Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika

Gary Leih is co-founder and CEO of OFyt (Old Friends and young talent).