Creative juices

Abey Mokgwatsane, Ogilvy CEO

Heading South Africa’s leading advertising agency is a creative man with a futurological style of thinking he is passionate about the new science of marketing.

Embracing change with open arms, Abey Mokgwatsane is firmly focused on the future – which is why, with him at the helm, Ogilvy is in pole position as the advertising industry negotiates the chicanes of disruptive trends in technology, creativity and consumer interaction. 

Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Mokgwatsane began his career as a marketing intern at VWV, South Africa’s leading experiential agency, while he was still completing his marketing degree. The agency promptly appointed him marketing manager and his career took flight when he was made Chief Group Executive in 2007. 

Under his leadership VWV has won numerous awards such as a 2010 Loerie Grand Prix and a Special Achievement Award from Finweek’s AdReview. The company was also named the Financial Mail’s Specialist Agency of the Year under his  leadership. Mokgwatsane is a founding member of Young Business for South Africa and one of South Africa’s top 200 leaders, as named by the Mail & Guardian Top Leaders Programme in 2011. 

His promotion to CEO of Ogilvy & Mather in January 2012  has seen the agency achieving an extraordinary standard of excellence, garnering ever more accolades and international bragging rights. Mokgwatsane speaks to Leadership about the changing face of the advertising industry, the digitisation of the agency and the enigmatic figure of the data scientist.

To what does Ogilvy owe its extraordinary reputation for creativity, innovative thinking, originality and success today?

Our business philosophy is called Twin Peaks. We strive to be both creative and effective at the same time. I think clients have found agencies that are either very creative but haven’t been able to convert that into sales, or very serious and effective agencies without any flair. We work very hard at maintaining that balance. We have to exist in that paradox.  

Ogilvy has a confident public image and is revered as an excellent environment in which to work and develop your career. What is the culture of Ogilvy? 

We want to be the most creative agency and we are in the most creative industry in the country. We are the most effective industry in the country. We exist to have fun and live in a world that embraces diversity, change and art. On the other hand, our business runs like a proper business. The average staff age at Ogilvy is 27, but we also have people who have been here for 35 years. We work hard, we play hard. We’re effective, we’re creative. We are both young and old. We are a learning organisation and are considered to be the university of advertising in South Africa. We are an agency that has some amazing characters and we’ve been around for a very long time. But at the same time consider ourself  to be an agency of the future. 

When you became CEO in January 2012, you must have had a clear vision and strategy. Has that vision changed within the two years you have held office?

I was an outsider to the industry. I’m not from an advertising background. If you look at the big guns in the industry, they are born and bred in the business. The board wanted someone from the outside to give this business an outsider’s perspective. My main aim was to make this the agency of the future and that hasn’t changed. How do we create an agency that is going to be able to predict change and that is going to leverage that particular change? I have a very clear mandate: We do whatever we need to do to leverage the future of marketing services. 

What do you most enjoy about your position? Are you still able to be involved creatively?

I wouldn’t be doing anything else. What I love most is working in a creative environment with amazing people. Yes, I get involved in projects and pitches. But my creative involvement goes beyond work – it’s also about how we design our business. By virtue of where we exist in this business value chain, we have to be creative, we have to be innovative all the time and I love being in that type of environment.

Under your leadership, Ogilvy has garnered a bevy of awards. What has been your proudest moment?

What we celebrate most in our organization is being effective and being creative. I think my proudest moment is that we’ve been the most creative and the most effective agency in the country, for five years consistently. So again, that encapsulates the products and everything we do. If we can be creative and be recognised for that, that’s amazing. But if our creativity works, that’s even better.

What has been your greatest success?

Delivery through great work. If we were just producing results for our clients, I would be happy. However, I am excited that we can do amazing work in all sectors of the economy and sell our clients’ products at the same time. 

Has there been a particularly successful campaign to date?

The most successful is our Carling Black Label work – probably the most awarded campaign in South African history. It won at Cannes (Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity), it won a D&AD (formerly British Design & Art Direction), it won digital competitions, it won so many different things. It is still winning. This year at the Loeries, our client got the effectiveness award, which goes to a client who’s done really amazing work. But while that is a campaign it is part of a long story of our involvement with the Carling Black Label brand. In fact, about a month ago, the Carling brand stopped its negative growth trajectory and started growing again. 

Please would you explain about the Ogilvy & Hope in support of world hunger?

The initiative was really about raising awareness for child hunger month [October]. We came up with an amazing idea a couple of years ago to actually add an ‘add hope’ button in all the KFC points of sale. People were to shy to ask people for R2 for child hunger, and we weren’t raising any money; it’s much easier for the teller to ask if they can press the add hope button. That means you can generate R2 for hunger relief. That campaign,  since its inception, has raised millions for child hunger relief. So in October we were raising awareness for it by asking businesses to change their name and add hope to their brand name. We changed from Ogilvy & Mather to Ogilvy & Hope for the month of October. We all donated our Facebook profiles and our Twitter profiles to the initiative. For all intended purposes it has gone really well. 

Your Volkswagen Street Quest Campaign won at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Can you please tell us more about the campaign and its success?

The most amazing thing about it is that the campaign won us the Digital Grand Prix at Loeries this year. Against all the other pure digital agencies. That just goes to show that you don’t have to be a digital agency to come up with breakthrough digital ideas. What I love about the campaign, is that it has leveraged existing technology in a really new and innovative way. Technology platforms (Facebook, Twitter and 4square) will continue to change. There will be another Twitter and Facebook in ten years time, but finding a unique application where we can leverage the existing technology in an innovative way was the most exciting. Who would have ever thought of using Google Street View as a promotional platform for Volkswagen? And we were able to weave such a neat narrative with a pervasive platform — that is the magic for me. 

What are the massive challenges the advertising industry is faced with at the moment?

I believe it is the client’s need for increasing value and this happens across every single industry. But how we engage that challenge is going to be key. The pervasive digitisation of our industry is proving the greatest challenge. Its not just about being able to build websites and think digitally about everything that you do. The major problem is transformation and diversification in our business – making sure that we have a diverse pool of talent in our business that is digitally savvy and ready for the challenges of the future.

How is digital technology transforming clients’ ideas on how to market and advertise their brand? 

A lot of clients still don’t know what to do with the deluge of data that they have access to. In most organisations, the data department is separate from marketing and sales. What this new advent of data and technology has inspired in clients, is that those things are beginning to converge. That is creating all kinds of conflict in the client’s environment. Think about the banks: your credit card information sits in a different place than your home loan information which sits in a different place to your car loan information. Even people that have every single piece of data about what we do on a daily basis, struggle with integrating it and making it meaningful. Our role as agency is to lead clients into a new world where we are engaging with consumers on multiple platforms. We are still seeing the permutations of that evolution. 

Are the clients developing their understanding at different rates then?

The interesting thing is that in the 60s and 70s and maybe even the 80s, the advertising industry led clients. Agencies dictated the colour, the brand, the name and the song. These days, 

clients have got to a point where they are confident in their own understanding of brand marketing, where agencies are relegated to being service providers that put the pretty pictures together. I think data and technology has once again put us as at the forefront because the clients are too big and too lethargic to be able to embrace those things. We are smaller, we are nimbler and we are able to understand how that manifests in modern marketing. 

Amidst a very tired economy in South Africa many companies are slashing their advertising budgets and shifting focus towards marketing exercises. Do you believe this is a wise decision?

If you apply the old model of advertising as a broadcast medium, I’m not surprised the clients are cutting that part of the budget. If you look at it broadly as communicating to consumers and engaging with consumers, I think its ludicrous to cut your communication budget, your engagement budget with consumers. Even with publishing, the sooner that those industries digitise and are able to leverage one-to-one relationships, the sooner that would show integration into communication and influence the budget. Once you have someone’s name, you know what they buy, what they read, what their preferences are, what they love, there is no reason to stop being relevant to them as a service provider. Whether you are a magazine or a service provider or a brand, there is never a need to stop engaging with those people. So I believe all advertising is dying, and it will continue to die. A new form of marketing and advertising will continue to grow in this new world that is enabled by technology. 

Do you believe that it is a continuous conversation between the brand and it’s consumer?

It is an ongoing conversation. That is the final frontier of marketing. It’s the one-to-one engagement with consumers. Everything else is at parity. We have out advertised each other, we have out-promoted each other, we have out-discounted each other, we have out-distributed each other. The only thing that is left is whether you can build a meaningful relationship with me as a brand and as a consumer, and out of that comes lifetime value. To maintain your brand-consumer relationship you must keep a constant flow of authentic communication. 

How do you develop an authentic and intimate conversation with your consumer?

You need to apply  the same fundamentals of any meaningful relationship. So your most meaningful relationships with the people who you love are there because those people genuinely care about you. They have your best interests at heart and you feel that there is a value exchange that is congruent between the two of you. The moment one of your buddies stops adding value to your life, they will slowly start sliding out of your life. As brands we need to have that understanding in mind. Brands have to understand that they have to give me utility value in order to sustain that relationship. It is not just about Castle giving free alcohol, its about them saying, ‘OK, you are into rugby. What services can I give you? How can I facilitate your love for rugby though our sponsorship?’

There would seem to be a new role in the marketplace — that of the data scientist. Is this a new and necessary position within all agencies and what does it entail?

It’s a new space within marketing services. I think a lot of the data scientists as we’ve known them have been in a terrible fight. Look at what they have been doing for insurance companies. They have worked out what kind of premiums to sell to which target market that will give them a return in the long term. We are now having that conversation because all of a sudden brand engagement is something that is important for us to do in our industry. Therefore we need people who can build models of lifetime value. People who can understand how to get insight. People who can understand how to target not only one homogenous group but how to target people differently with the same message. 

How much value do you place on social media marketing? 

Our social media revenue is growing more than 100% year to year, and that is because social media is the rescue of the PR industry. Consumers want to engage, they are wanting to talk to each other. If brands can be part of that conversation, facilitate that conversation and add value, then it is a great thing. We place a lot of emphasis on social media, but for us social media is just another digital channel. So social media, data, CRM and mobile are important as part of that whole conversation. That is where we are investing a disproportionate amount of our profit in talent and resources. 

You once said: “It is only a matter of time before one-to-one channels outweigh the reach of mass media.” Can you explain?

In my opinion it is already happening in specific channels. Twitter has 5.5 million active users. The most effective advertising campaigns to get to 5 million people that are looking at you, is quite a stretch. Yes, there are some campaigns and conversations that are already outreaching mass media. I don’t think it is a ‘them against us’ situation. It is about making sure that you are using the right application at the right time.

What does the future agency look like?

It is an agency that is able to create breakthrough ideas, generate those ideas in a completely connected and transparent world. It is an agency that strives to understand that world and how you are connected to everything at the same time. It is not going to be an agency that understands Facebook or Twitter, but an agency that understands all the different mediums and that remains flexible and agile enough to move in and out of those mediums. 

What lessons did you learn from attending the Cannes Festival?

The talk of the town was content. Agencies are becoming production companies for brands. It is exactly the point that I was making earlier, that we are production companies who are producing branded content and that branded content used to only go through four channels, print, above the line, radio and TV.  Now there are 1 000 channels and they’re growing every day. People are starting to grapple with how do we do that because we are designed at our very core to produce traditional above the line communication. The question is, how do you re-engineer your business to be able to deliver branded content across multiple platforms seamlessly?

What inspires you and your creativity?

To create and help develop the leadership capability in the people around me. That is my fundamental job. The more leaders we have, the more efficient and effective an organisation we are going to become, the more proactive people are going to be, the more responsible they are going to be, the more inspiring they are going to be in their own way. 

Would you please share with us your top three tips for successful leadership?

Be clear on what the objective is. Listen, because its only through listening that you will gain the empathy of people and be able to influence them. Look on the bright side. There is enough negativity out there surrounding our people and as a leader you’ve got to be the cheerleader. 

Megan Sell


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