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The Provocateur: Diversity beyond numbers


In 2002 I entered South Africa’s ad industry with very little idea of what I was letting myself in for. As a young boy from the Transkei herding his dad’s sheep, I never dreamed that my future lay in the art and science of communication – nor did I have a clue what the industry looked like and how it operated. I’ve come a long way since then and learned a lot of lessons. The major one is that diversity cannot be achieved or measured in numbers; we need to do much better than that, wherever we are in the world.

No1 Diversity is not a quota

In 2002 Draft FCB created a programme aimed at attracting young black staff and diversifying their workforce, driven by South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment legislation. Between 2002 and 2006, myself and the other participants offered guidance on strategy, insight, research and creative communication – simply because we were the only people with first-hand experience of some of Draft FCB’s client brands – Viceroy, Gordons, Commando, Shoprite and more.

We often found ourselves debunking established stereotypes. One such was the notion that English is aspirational in advertising. Ads for our client Viceroy brandy were written in high-end English vs South African mother tongue – our diverse team was able to restore the brand to its previous glory simply by embracing the consumer’s language, plus their lifestyle and music. What began as a quota resulted in Draft FCB creating more successful work that resonated with real people.

No2 Create a culture of acceptance

Fast forward a couple of years and I was at a mid-weight strategist at Ogilvy. HR asked me to do a survey to find out why so many diversity programme candidates leave the industry. The initial assumption was for more money, but after consulting more than 100 former participants we realised it was something more fundamental – culture.

I can attest to this even today as a CEO. While I have adapted to the industry, I still find its culture foreign. Many programme candidates have very different upbringings, values and habits to those that people in advertising and marketing see as normal. This industry tends to be insular, full of jargon and behaviour that one is simply expected to assimilate.

Our solution was to pair people with mentors who had walked a similar path. To attract and retain a diverse workforce it is essential to take care of the softer elements of human resources, ensuring that people from other backgrounds understand the industry – not simply expecting them to shape up or shift out.

No3 Qualifications are just the start

In 2011 I was part of an Africa team executing communication briefs across the continent. My biggest learning was that just because someone is qualified and intelligent, does not mean that they are work-ready or know what’s expected of them.

We built a programme that not just upskilled people, but would help candidates – often the first people in their families or communities to work in a professional environment, or in a global or regional team – to understand the company’s expectations.

I used to think these issues were unique to South Africa, but now I understand that they are universal. They challenge our industry and our agencies to be more human, to think about how they welcome people from other cultures, races or gender and make them feel accepted.

In 2020 just before lockdown, GroupM South Africa started a grad programme taking these learnings into account. So far, so good – 90% of candidates have been offered and accepted roles. It is far from perfect, but we are working to improve it every day. I’ll leave the last word to programme participant Navir Papa:

“The programme started with interactive training that prepared me for the pressured environment of media. I have never felt alone or lost, with the guidance from my team and seniors at Wavemaker. I continue to learn, gain knowledge and experience, and in the end continue to Grow Fearless.”

Navir Papa, programme participant 

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