Trevor Ndhlovu: Man on a mission
Black River’s new MD outlines his approach to transformation and brand-building in the middle of a content revolution, where consumer-generated content outnumbers brand-generated content
Trevor Ndhlovu, the new MD of ad agency Black River FC, is a man on two big missions. He is continuing an internal rebuild after the departure of his predecessor, Janine Allem, and, perhaps a bigger job, guiding and cajoling the industry to speed up transformation.
It’s the second issue — the sector still battles with ownership percentages and the placement of senior black management — that fires him up.
"Transformation in its current form feels like we’re asking for permission and begging for a seat at the table, and that approach messes with my head," he says. Black River is and will remain "an agency that’s reflective of the SA consumer and I will not be building a black or white agency".
Ndhlovu joined Black River in October 2017 as client service director on the Mazda account and led the pitch on online sales company OLX. Under his new leadership the agency has also just won the big financial services account of Metropolitan.
Black River is the Johannesburg operation of the WPP-aligned Jupiter Drawing Room Cape Town, which has been under some pressure in recent years after losing big accounts such as Sanlam and Woolworths.
But this isn’t going to affect Ndhlovu’s thinking. "We run Black River as a standalone agency and our ownership structure does not influence our performance as a business. We have a good client base which includes Mazda, OLX, Wonga, M-Net Channels and Computicket, and I’ve been tasked with growing that client base."
Part of Ndhlovu’s approach will be accentuating what he calls brand storytelling.
"I consider myself a brand storyteller, having been trained in media and entertainment business management … My new role will bring these skills to the fore, in addition to motivating a team of talented, creative people."
Storytelling, he believes, is an essential part of African culture. "It’s how we connect, educate and relate to one another. I’m of the view that storytelling gives us the opportunity to build distinctive brands and drive conversation. I’m finding more brands are open to this approach. We’re in the middle of a content revolution, where consumer-generated content outnumbers brand-generated content. If you do not drive your story from a brand perspective then the consumer will write the story for you.
"Just google the words ‘Uzzi and criminals’ [and] you’ll see how consumers are writing a story for the clothing brand Uzzi, and unfortunately it’s not a positive one. You have to earn your place in the consumer’s life, and you have to be credible and appropriate. Our role as an agency is to find a cultural tension and use that to help build consumer and brand connection. The challenge, of course, is in finding clients who are brave enough to embrace this approach."
Ndhlovu also has a staff reward philosophy which he calls "uncapped growth". He says: "I have a group of young people with an overwhelming amount of talent. Their ability to drive conversation and deliver against the agency’s commitment is beyond impeccable. So my mission is to help them accelerate and not limit their growth … I’m a big believer in rewarding people based on how quickly they can solve a problem and not how long they’ve been solving problems."