Tumi Rabanye, 2020 AdFocus jury chairperson, Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bernice Samuels and Jeremy Maggs, AdFocus editor. Picture: Paul Elliot
Tumi Rabanye, 2020 AdFocus jury chairperson, Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bernice Samuels and Jeremy Maggs, AdFocus editor. Picture: Paul Elliot

This year’s winner of the Lifetime Achiever award was a unanimous decision and is an individual for whom every jury member has the utmost respect and admiration. Her professional career spans large multinationals within the telecoms, broadcasting, information technology, financial services and brewing sectors.

Not only is this powerhouse marketer behind a number of iconic campaigns, but she has consistently delivered impactful and sexy work – in the process helping to create a number of creative rock stars.

This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Bernice Samuels, currently the chief marketing officer at MTN.

A top performing physical sciences student at school, marketing was not on her radar until she’d first accumulated a few degrees under her belt. Samuels grew up as an only child in Wentworth, south of Durban and spent 18 months on exchange in Kansas, USA after she matriculated. She returned to SA to study genetic engineering at UCT. Having registered to do her masters, her plans changed when she received a telegram from SAB, her bursary sponsors, informing her that she was expected to show up for work – in Johannesburg.

The plan to study further was put on hold while Samuels worked at SAB until her supervisor agreed that further study was an option. Deciding to focus on something different, Samuels elected to do a PDM Business Administration at Wits Business School and then went on to do an MBA, studying part time in her final year while working at IBM Consulting Group. 

However, it was a positon as a business development manager at M-Net that was her first real big opportunity – a position which would ultimately lead to one of her career highlights when she launched Channel O in Africa.

Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bernice Samuels. Picture: Paul Elliot
Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bernice Samuels. Picture: Paul Elliot

Her next job was at MTN SA where she had the opportunity to challenge the telco’s place in the world through the launch of MTN’s first youth offering, Free to Speak, including what kind of image and personality it needed to project. It was unlike anything that MTN had done before.

In 2007, having been promoted to chief marketing officer at MTN SA, Samuels broke the conventions around her – but at scale for the entire MTN SA brand. She was responsible for launching the MTN GO campaign, an experimental campaign which soon became part of South African culture. She defined the campaign as ‘fresh pizza’ - which basically meant creating enough content that it felt like there was a new ad every day. More than 80 TV commercials were created in that year.

She understood the campaigns intention and gave the agency and creatives the space to intuitively deliver on this, whilst simultaneously preparing the MTN business from the inside to leverage it. Ads like MTN Clap and MTN Stickies, both produced under her watch, went on to win awards all over the world. The GO campaign won marketing campaign of the year. For the first time in MTN’s history the brand overtook Vodacom as the number one telco in SA in terms of brand love and market size.

Samuels was also instrumental in MTN’s decision in 2006 to sponsor the 2020 FIFA World Cup, preparing the business case that convinced the board to approve the recommendation that saw MTN become the first African global sponsor in the history of the event. When she joined MTN in September 2000 the share price was R9. When she left in 2009 it was R137.

She joined FNB as CMO in 2010. At the time FNB’s innovation pipeline was almost ready to launch at scale. These unique innovations were intended to reposition FNB in the banking sector. Samuels led the ‘help’ positioning campaign that repositioned FNB in the banking sector.

This was followed by the Can Your Bank Do That - Switch to FNB campaign, which saw FNB attract more than 1.7 million new accounts in a year, which was unheard of in the sector. People didn’t just move from one bank to another in that time, they stayed with their current bank and sucked up the frustration. Until Samuels convinced them otherwise.

The bank launched an app, but to use the app customers needed devices and data. Samuels went into overdrive. She took everything she knew about telcos and collided it with banking, implementing at scale and speed.

The Switch to FNB campaign then introduced hapless Steve, the call centre agent from ‘Beep’ Bank, which enjoyed unprecedented success and went from strength to strength. Again, the campaign was awarded many times over the years in a plethora of marketing and advertising awards shows. The Steve campaign became the best radio campaign in South African history and continues to hold that title to this day, reports Peter Khoury, chairman of the Creative Circle.

In 2015 she joined SAB as an executive director of strategy and business development where she lead their profitable revenue growth management team and the strategic pivot from ‘win in beer’ to ‘win with beer’.  This saw the introduction of new products including Blue Label beer, the relaunch of Lion Lager and Castle Milk Stout Chocolate Infused, amongst others. When ABInBev’s offer to acquire SAB landed, she worked on the convergence team tasked to successfully close the SAB-ABInBev transaction by October 2016.

She was persuaded to rejoin MTN Group in 2017to help the company galvanise their marketing operations across their 21 countries and then 230 million subscribers.

At the time the MTN brand was disparate, inconsistent and had saliency scores that were far below their marketing spend. Samuels got to work creating distinctive assets and laid the foundation for memory structures that could extend into all of MTN’s operations.

Samuels has subsequently lead MTN to a position where it has been rated as the most valuable telco brand in Africa by Brand Finance for three consecutive years, and more recently, as the Most valuable African brand on the continent. It has also been rated the most admired African brand (unprompted) by Brand Africa in 2020 and in 2019 it was the number one telco brand at Loeries, winning the most Loeries ever won by MTN in a single year.

This year, for the first time in MTN’s history, the company launched a multi-market, multi-language, multi-channel campaign that went live simultaneously across all 20 markets where MTN is present. The ‘Wear It For Me’ campaign, from briefing to launch, took just six weeks to produce, all under lockdown. Samuels led the global team and produced assets that came in from the top down – but also created toolkits so that markets could localise and implement from the bottom up.

It is her collective career experience that has enabled a deliberate, disciplined and strategic approach to marketing, she says, an approach she believes many marketers today lack. “The profession of marketing is losing its integrity,” she maintains. “Nobody talks about customer immersions anymore, instead they spend a great deal of time talking about what a company can produce, in the process getting quite technocratic. What is being forgotten is the job which the customer is trying to accomplish and how we actually tap into customer’s needs, hopes and aspirations to buy into products.”

Marketers need to understand more implicitly what the customer is living through if they wish to get the nuance of the message right. To retain a seat at the c-suite table, she adds, requires that they are proficient in all areas of the discipline including product development, value proposition, price, place and promotion and commissioning structures, amongst others.

“My fear is that marketing has become advertising and it’s so much more than that; so much richer than that. Ideally, what is required is some kind of certification which is recognised by the industry as rigorous and valued as such.”

The advertising industry, she believes, continues to play a vital role at a tactical level but is constrained by its failure to advertise its unique selling proposition – which then leads it wide open to procurements departments haggling over price.

Maintaining that brands are fundamental to commercial success – something she has proved over and over again during the course of her career – she says Africa needs to start building its own brands in order to create economic opportunity.

Describing herself as an introvert by nature, Samuels says she has had to learn to become more extrovert. Pedantic about getting it right, she says she is consumed with the quest for perfection and excellence. “I’m never satisfied,” she concedes. “I’m always looking for ways to spit and polish.”

She demands much of those working for her, but never as much as she demands of herself, living by the mantra that, ‘You never win silver; you lose gold’. “I set very high expectations for myself; there’s always a stretched goal in place,” she admits.

Haydn Townsend, MD of Accenture Interactive Africa, says Samuels is one of the bravest client’s he has ever had the privilege of working with. “Her ability to spot a good idea all the way from the big idea down to the executional level is incredible. It’s been said that your client is the final creative director so it is perhaps no surprise that under her client leadership I did some of the best work of my career. Her skill is instilling confidence in creatives and strategists alike, knowing that her input will make the work better and not kill it. That is an incredible super-power to have as a marketer.”

The big take-out:

“She is always one of the bravest people in the room because she sees the status quo as an opportunity to disrupt and change things up to the benefit of her brand.”

Wendy Bergsteedt, group head of marketing at Coronation Fund Managers says Samuels has always been a tenacious marketer. “The bravery in the work that she’s produced with her partner agencies over the years is admirable. She has meticulously served the brands that she’s represented.

“Bernice has been an icon in the marketing industry with a solid track record of getting outstanding work over the line. Creatives who have engaged with her are testament to this fact. Bernice is a principled marketer who’s made some bold moves - and what are principles if they don’t hurt sometimes?”

Peter Khoury, chief creative officer at TBWA Hunt Lascaris is another creative who has worked with Samuels a number of times over the last 15 years on brands like MTN and FNB. “Bernice is in a league of her own and one of the smartest, boldest and most progressive marketers in our country right now. She is informed, ambitious, and knows a great idea when she sees it – and how to pull it off. She is always one of the bravest people in the room because she sees the status quo as an opportunity to disrupt and change things up to the benefit of her brand - ‘her brand’ because for Bernice, it's personal,” he says.

Awarding the title of Lifetime Achiever to Samuels is slightly ironic given that she is nowhere close to retirement and continues to display unparalleled energy levels. A larger than life personality whose energy reverberates, she is an uncompromising client and a remarkable leader with a distinct and memorable energy – certainly a worthy recipient of AdFocus’ 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award.


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