Black insider: being a black creative in South Africa’s ad industry

One of the things you must accept when you work in the advertising industry is that it is made up of people who don’t care much about anything (except retaining clients). You, the reader, the listener, the audience are the least of advertising’s concerns. Ironically, you are also its raison d’ etre. This schizophrenia is built into the mechanisms that make the advertising agency and the client relationship work. It is this common contempt for what marketing calls the ‘consumer,’ namely, you, that keeps agency and clients happy. If advertising agencies are generally condescending to the public, in most instances it is at the request of clients whom, I later learned, care even less. This is always true – and it’s even more true when the imagined consumer is black.

I worked for five years in advertising in South Africa. My first job was as an unpaid intern at LOWEBULL (before it became LOWE & PARTNERS) in Cape Town. Kirk Gainsford was at the helm of the agency as Executive Creative Director and Alistair Morgan was his deputy, the Head of Copy and Creative Director. Alistair was a man of words. His debut novelSleeper’s Wake had just been released to critical acclaim, and I had read his short story “Icebergs” in a Caine Prize anthology. To work with a novelist in advertising is a novelty and during my five months of unpaid labour I was frequently in Alistair’s office to pick his brain about matters related to advertising and literature. He was sensitive to prose and textual aesthetics; he was not merely an adman, he was a cultural producer and it showed. He was, after all, the Creative Director on Hansa’s “Vuyo the Business Mogul” TV commercial, the cultural significance of which is best exemplified by the fact that years later a brand named Vuyo’s was launched by Miles Kubheka in Johannesburg. It followed the exact narrative of the advert, with Miles starting off as a vendor selling his Boerie rolls in a mobile van, and culminating with him opening up the first Vuyo’s restaurant in Braamfontein. Alistair Morgan, Kirk Gainsford – two white men nearing middle age – had tapped into popular sentiment (or had they been part of the engine that was creating it?). In any case, I was impressed. What had begun merely as a commercial to sell beer had exceeded its brief.

I moved from LOWEBULL and went to JWT  to work with Conn Bertish who was and is an activist, artist and surfer. He didn’t possess the literary qualities of Alistair, but he had the unpredictability of a visual artist and he pushed for work that pressed against boundaries – especially those set by clients. We were working on a new J&B campaign, with him being adamant that there was a way of selling the brand without appealing to the lowest common “I have arrived” denominator, which was endemic in advertising, at the time. When he left to join Quirk advertising, I stayed behind to finish the campaign. I had been thinking about Vuyo a lot and the how in that single advert black aspirations were bottled into the single, simplistic, superhuman rags to riches  narrative of ‘magical blacks’. I worried that the ad threatened to engulf every sphere of black social life – everyone was a Vuyo in the making, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and sneering at those who seemed trapped in the doldrums of poverty. Vuyo had made his way into my work as well. The challenging new J&B advert I had started writing with Conn, which would introduce a new way of viewing what it is we’re talking about when we talk about ‘being made’ was, by the end, just another rags to riches rag. I will admit that when it came out I was depressed, but the show had to go on. This singular narrative, this social engineering project, which we churned out with unfettered abandon, slowly unspooled, at least for me, what the post-South African state would be hinged on. It made it clear that the entire premise of our democracy, like all democracies I suppose, was self-interest. And as we all know, self-interest is always at the expense of someone else. Unfortunately, in South Africa, we know very well whom that ‘someone else’ is right down to his most minute demographic detail, and instead of speaking of ways to dismantle the oppressive structural organisation of power and privilege that would set him free to enjoy his country’s democracy, we insist that he becomes a Vuyo and pulls himself out of his bad situation without his country and state doing the work of undoing the terms that produce and reproduce his particular situation, namely, without dismantling the socio-economic structure that maintains white privilege. If we were honest with ourselves, we would surely accept Vuyo as a lie meant to bamboozle instead of empower South African blacks.

A month or two after Conn’s departure I received a call from Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town. This was after my own advert had been aired. I was still anxious about Vuyo’s granny’s exaggerated “Big! Big! Dreamer!”

“Hi, Lwandile. It’s Chris.” Chris Gotz, the Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy South Africa.

It was 2013 and Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town was the number one ad agency in all of Africa. A call from Chris Gotz meant that you left whatever it is you were doing and took his meeting. A few weeks later I was in his creative studio. And a few months later, I left the ad industry all together.

By the time I arrived at Ogilvy & Mather, I had become less interested in selling brands and more invested in the politics of representation in commercial images. I wanted to think about the extent to which advertising is a reflection of the society, or of particular articulations of society’s anxieties, and when it became a vehicle that socially engineered people’s aspirations and tastes. I wanted to think about how much of it was selling brands, and how much was it was the manufacturing of images that ill-served the people for whom they were intended? I’d sit on Chris Gotz’s couch in his office and we’d talk about books, politics, art and literature. He was an English major in varsity, but took up History in his post-graduate studies. He went to school with Eric Miyeni and Victor Dlamini, he told me one day. I don’t recall the conversation much, but it was something about upward social mobility and bourgeois blacks. I had become in some small or big way complicit in the way in which white corporate spaces were talking about blacks, rich or poor, partly because of how I emphasised my proximity to them (by virtue of pain and position in the post-apartheid socio-politico-economic drama) and partly because of how I tried to distance myself from them (by occupying nearly every conceivable elitist white space and consuming only the best of elitist culture). Owing to his wit, I’d always regarded Chris Gotz – privately – as the Noel Coward of South African advertising, without the characteristic hyperbole. I had never really regarded myself as anything in advertising, really, other than someone whom the industry created not out of want or desire but rather, out of the necessity to keep BEE scores on par with policy requirements.

Chris was happy when I resigned, I think. He saw that my heart was not in it anymore. Gradually, we’d stopped talking about the work and we talked about transformation and racism. Secondly, he knew that it was impossible to be a solitary voice of critique in an incestuous industry, which is unable to look itself in the mirror. Black creatives are in the industry, but they are in the minority and their voices are highly attenuated. At Ogilvy & Mather I was paired with a brilliant art director and illustrator from P.E.. He would leave 2 months after my early retirement from the advertising industry to become a freelance illustrator, just as I would become a freelance writer. I feel now as though we both got sick at the same time by the same disease in the same place. We had been working to pay the rent, and then Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town produced that “Feed a child” TV commercial and I lost any illusions I had about my industry. The infamous Black Twitter has become incensed. It was enough that whites were arrogant and racist, they went as far as creating an advert that depicted a black child as a dog, thus rubbing the salt into the open wound, which has refused to heal with time for time hasn’t changed their socio-economic circumstance and their servitude to white masters. Now, in his office we talked about the internet backlash. He was genuinely surprised by it. He had workshopped the idea with some black Joburg creatives and they had found nothing untoward in the advert. Then I had wished he had consulted my colleague and I, but it was too late. The damage was done. And it was for the best that things happened the way they did. At last I would be free of the position of explaining black pain to white indifference.

Although I had worked with inspiring minds in advertising, they were still white minds that thought through white bodies. Being white doesn’t automatically make one automatically racist, but white culture in South Africa is defined and sustained by racism: spatial racism, cultural racism, linguistic racism, economic racism, and every other form of racism imaginable. Chris asked me back then to write something about the advert and I had reluctantly agreed. But I knew I wasn’t going to do it. I thought this was the opportunity for the South African ad industry to ask itself some serious questions and to look at the way in which it curates and produces images and how its character narratives offend those it hopes to attract to the brand or brands and companies it represents.

My hope for common sense to prevail was misplaced in any case, for the advertising industry continued as though a poor black child had not been recently produced as a dog in our televisions; as though “Eugene” that Nedbank advert with that exasperated white narrator isn’t mocking and condescending toward our erstwhile protagonist who can’t seem, for the life of him, to make the “smart” choice with his money; had it been his own conscience speaking back to him the story would’ve been different, but then it would not be as entertaining to the white world had it not pandered to the god complex of white supremacy and its messianic tendency to manufacture the native as an unthinking subject who needs to be rescued from self-destruction.

To see the attitude towards the white and black consumer from a creative perspective within the advertising industry, one only needs to look at KFC adverts. A special consideration is made when the advert has white characters in it, while all sensitivity is discarded if the same advert has black characters instead. Black lives are not allowed to have nuance. Instead, we are laughing, singing caricatures of real human beings, our diverse aspirations contained in the swill of rags to riches. We are all kind and obsequious and forever willing to lend a helping hand. Are we not cynical and unkind and indifferent to the world around us. Why is it that nearly all black characters in adverts appear more deliberate than necessary, as though they had a grotesque deformity and therefore had to be treated with the most pitying gaze by the camera?

I have often questioned the validity and legitimacy of this communication industry, in particular, whose primary producers of information (the ad agencies and creative departments) could not be more different (read: white and privileged) and more removed from the realities and existential anxieties of those for whom their messages are intended. This distance is one of the reasons South African advertising industry produces offensive work, at best. Thankfully for the ad industry, clients are equally removed (read: white, male and privileged) from South African reality and they consent to the work. Here I need to note there is also the other phenomenon, the black representatives from the client side, who are too ashamed of their own blackness and its discomforting narrative and want the agency to produce work that plays to the white gaze, even when they are presented work that potentially restores black dignity in the way in which black South Africans are depicted and scripted in adverts. I met a few in my five years as a creative in the ad industry. There are also many black creatives without a hint of self-awareness who do not understand the first thing about the content and social impact of their work, to themselves, first, and to others. I’ve found this to be prevalent among black creatives who enjoy being tokens in the world of advertising. And there are many. You might see them on billboards of their own work; many aspire only to grow out of the advertising industry, to write books of rags-to-riches-esque themes as an extension of their advertising work. And some have done so. During the weeks leading to my departure from the industry, I tried to imagine South African advertising having the kind of creative revolution that happened in Latin America. There, in the mid-to-late 2000s, the work took on a very distinct cultural slant, as did the work out South East Asia. Both then tended to win big at international advertising award ceremonies like at Cannes.

But this is South Africa, a country that works best in denial. It would probably require someone to spend 27 years in prison before the players in the ad industry would be spurred to do a proper analysis of the missteps and implement remedial action to transform the industry. Actually, that would not be enough. Knowing the industry as I do, they would probably make room just for him, market his remarkable story of perseverance and overcoming the odds, and then award each other prizes for their contributions to transformation.

So instead, here is one my favourite South African adverts of all time. It was banned soon after it appeared on television, of course. I think the advert below, more than Vuyo, articulates popular sentiment (and as a propaganda piece it works brilliantly for it appeals to a shared sense of empowerment rather than democratic individualism), and begins to hint at something felt deep down by most black people since our moment of democracy in 1994. It is a moment of reversal, of the slave becoming master, of what liberation looks like in the mind of the previously oppressed subject in a post-colony. This it does, without sneering at the present material condition of most black people. It merely complicates the aspiration and the present lived experience in equal measure. The advert was written by the brilliant Festus Masekwaneng, co-founder and Executive Creative Director of Mother Russia (now, Mojo Mother Russia) ad agency in Joburg. And it is the advert that lured me into advertising, in the first place. I only wish there were more like it. Then, just maybe, I would still be working in advertising.

*Originally published in Africa Is A Country

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Somnyama Ngonyama by Zanele Muholi

“We have lost a lot of people because of hate crimes … You never know if you’re going to see this person again the following day,” says Zanele Muholi about Brave Beauties, her new, growing series of queer portraits. As with her series Faces and Phases, it is, in many ways, a protest against how the status quo marginalises and subjugates certain identities to make them its subclass.

In her new exhibition, Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi responds to a number of other issues, which intersect, even uncomfortably, with the work she is known for. These issues are rendered with the same urgency: the placid, solemn faces that look you straight in the eye.

The effect is not only that you are gazing into the lives of her subjects, but that her subjects are aware of you, and there is a reciprocated knowing. It exchanges the position of subject and viewer, which lends it its poignancy: that it is not queerness from without but our own queerness from within that we must acknowledge as not Other, but as Same within our peculiar humanness to be any possible human variation there is.

For me, her images have a neutralising effect by not objectifying “deviant” sexuality, but bringing us closer to our innate queerness and averting the fear of being intimidated by what we find in the mirror when we’re alone.

A laminated, larger-than-life image hangs on the wall to your left as you make your way to the reception area at Stevenson. It is a self-portrait of Muholi in what appears to be sheared black sheepskin draped around her head to give the illusion of an overgrown coif. A breast is in full view.

“You see a lot of nipple. I grew up in KZN. I’m Zulu,” she says. “Where I come from, a breast is a common point of your visual space. It is not sexual.” The portrait is unforgettable and almost haunting, with the added, heightened dramatic effect of the image having been drained of light, making its blackness appear to project light from within.

“I don’t paint myself black, because I’m black anyways,” she says. The images are computer manipulated to alter the contrast and bring out the melanin buried in her skin, pouring it out on to the surface like a thick, slick, oily blackness. The piece relates to the pencil test of apartheid in the 60s and 70s. A government bureaucrat would stick the pencil in your hair and if it stuck, then it proved your blackness. It was a violent act of Othering human beings to subjugate them.

The choice to use her body as a site of critique is a move away from using her friends in portraits. Aesthetically, the images are menacing and the allusion to blackface is highly troubling. If the earlier work read as the dignified resistance of an artist who felt (and still does) the need to document Othered identities, then Somnyama Ngonyama reveals a ferocity behind that placid work. It alludes to the frustration, the anger, the disappointments that come with dedicating yourself to a country that wants to kill you in nearly every corner for reasons you can’t change even if you tried: you’re a woman; you’re queer; you’re black.

The sheared black sheepskin suggests she is the black sheep of her family.

“It doesn’t matter how useless your straight brother can be … because he can have children, your mother and father will still respect him more,” she says.

“Queer allergies start from our families before we even face the world out there. In short, I cannot divorce my queer self from the person I am. Everything I do becomes the visual politic of who I am.”

Brave Beauties, on the other hand, is more classic Muholi. The portraits are of black trans women and/or feminine gay men. The project was inspired by traditional magazine covers.

“I was thinking: would South Africa as a democratic country have an image of a trans woman as the cover of a magazine?” She pauses. “I want to see 100% visibly for the queer community in this country as a way of challenging these phobias.”

It was upon seeing Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair that the idea crystallised.

“We need to build our own archives.”

Her work takes as its subject the importance of history and memory. “The name and surname in each portrait is significant. These girls enter beauty pageants to change mind-sets in the communities where they live, the same communities where they are most likely to be harassed, or worse, which is why I call them brave beauties,” says the artist.

*Originally appeared in City Press newspaper

**Cover image by Zanele Muholi