Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The transformation conversation in marketing and communications in SA has been confined to a few black stalwart advertising executives, the likes of Ivan Moroke, Monalisa Zwambila and Ahmed Tilly. There’s been much less engagement from white advertising executives.

This could be because white execs think this topic should be led by black execs, so they pass the proverbial mic to them and give them the space to lead. The other reason — possibly the truer one — could be that the silence from white execs reflects a lack of interest in the matter.

Co-Currency CEO Ivan Moroke calls it "copping out". That, frankly, does nothing to move the needle and stagnates an industry that will most definitely become stronger if SA gets transformation right. For an issue that many of us white execs continuously say we must get over and move on from, we are certainly not future-casting. If we must get over it, then we must be active and speed up this process so that we can sooner get to where we want to be as a country.

I am a pragmatic utopian. I work towards a utopia where we all get along and sing Kumbaya around the proverbial campfire. I also know that the context is far from this ideal so I straddle the line between our sometimes harsh reality of gender and racial imbalance and a utopia where we are all genderless, raceless unicorns doing amazing boundary-pushing work.

So what does this mean in my daily life as the CEO of a global agency group in SA? How does this approach keep the industry relevant now and fluent in future?

The new broad-based black economic empowerment codes may be steep but they are not unfair — it’s about time. The industry has been dragging its feet in effecting this diversity, and these amended codes are the result of its complacency. It’s unfortunate the industry had to be strong-armed to be more diverse in its agency businesses, but it left the powers that be little choice. While the requirements of this charter may not necessarily change attitudes towards transformation, they will influence actions, and actions have the most impact.

Agencies should be a microcosm of the world around them. They should mimic the dynamism of their consumer landscape.

We live in a country that has 80% black people. What that means is that in agencies, across all levels of management and execution staff, 80% of their people should be black talent.

Being a microcosm of the world within which agencies exist also means changing our approach to work. It means understanding that the consumer landscape morphs and warps and evolves. It means that agencies become intimately mindful of the nuances that make up the consumer’s various lived experiences because without that, agencies miss and omit important cultural markers and memes, and cracks will exist in their work.

In SA, it is safe to say that racial diversity is an ethics question, and I don’t have to take you through the annals of history to explain why

Mimicking that dynamic landscape means obsessively tracking the consumer and ensuring that agencies thoroughly understand what they engage with, when and how, where and for how long, with whom and why. It’s the first step to doing great work in this era.

In SA, it is safe to say that racial diversity is an ethics question, and I don’t have to take you through the annals of history to explain why. But it has also long been a business question. When agencies mimic their consumer landscape, they become bastions of diversity because South Africans come in many shapes and sizes. If agencies’ teams are that, the output of their insight-mining will give varied answers.

The work that comes from those diverse teams will be more representative and, as a result, more engaging to agencies’ consumers because a multitude of perspectives have influenced the work.

That, however, is only possible if in this good mix of talent, platforms are availed for voices to be heard. Otherwise what good is it to have 80% black talent and not listen to them?

When McDonald’s hired the first "black agency" in the US — called Burrell McBain in the ’70s and now Burrell Communications — the agency engaged and effectively grew McDonald’s in black communities in ways other ad agencies of that time had failed to do. Diversity makes business sense.

That said, how do agencies fix the plane while flying it? I have heard too many times that there is not enough black talent, especially senior talent, but, in truth, agencies have not done enough to nurture, support and grow black talent. They have not mentored, coached and trained enough.

Agencies should be deliberate about it.

They should do more to encourage black talent into the industry and, once there, they should grow and ensure they stay in an industry that badly needs them.

• Madeley is CEO of Havas Southern Africa.

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