Bonnke Shipalana. Picture: Thobeka Zazi Ndabula
Bonnke Shipalana. Picture: Thobeka Zazi Ndabula

A prominent public relations practitioner has hit out at the brand communications industry, claiming few agencies really understand black people.

In a frank discussion with the FM, Bonnke Shipalana, CEO of The Communications Firm, says: "The majority of South Africans were born in an era where their voices were restrained by the apartheid system. Unfortunately, after 24 years of freedom, little has changed as to how agencies communicate and engage with them.

"Knowledge about black people cannot be limited and restricted to who the target audience is but should rather be expanded to how they live and behave."

He says determining how agencies engage with black consumers based on who they are — unless the conversation is led and curated by black agency practitioners — leads to "undermining and undervaluing their power, influence and affluence".

The Communications Firm is part of the MSG Media Group and counts among its clients Sasol, Anglo Platinum, the Industrial Development Corp and the SA Football Association.

Shipalana is not raising a new issue. The brand industry has many stories of black-owned-and-managed agencies battling to win business from established companies, and if they are appointed it’s often as a second-string agency to partner with a more established concern. And that divisive approach, says Shipalana, often leads to a breakdown in customer understanding.

Bonnke Shipalana
Bonnke Shipalana

He believes agencies should invest more time in getting to understand their market and audience and less time getting to know their clients. "Clients don’t partner with an agency because they need a mirror but in order to be positioned or presented to the market."

Positioning and audience

So if agencies don’t understand black consumers, what impact is this having on brands? "Brand positioning can never be looked at in isolation from its primary target audience.

Unfortunately most brands continue to invest in engaging with black consumers, only to discover they are talking to their own aspirations or management."

Often the counterpoint to Shipalana’s argument is the industry cry that there is not a deep pool of skills to draw on in a sector that doesn’t always pay competitive rates.

He doesn’t buy it. "No-one is born skilled. As an industry, we should ask ourselves what role we have played to make sure that there is opportunity to train and advance future role-players in the industry. Bottlenecks are present in all industries, and it will take proactive and consistent action by leaders in building capacity in their own organisation. The new turf war is not about getting bigger clients but getting experienced and skilled resources."

If the industry gets that part of the equation right, will brands need to be convinced to use black-owned and -managed agencies?

"I believe the problem is no longer about black-owned and -managed agencies getting accounts to work on, but has evolved to the value of accounts awarded to black-owned and -managed agencies," he says.

"But the primary cause of the problem is not even between brands and agencies, but between agencies and banks. Most black-owned and -managed agencies struggle to grow and reach a point where only financial resources will move their businesses into operationally viable concerns and where they [can] hire the correct resources and be able to service higher-value accounts.

"Most are simply not able to self-fund."

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