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April 20, 2017

Article Written By Jabu Sigege, Creative Director, M&C Saatchi Abel for Financial Mail.


In an agency environment homogeneity means stagnation and lack of evolution. If a different language is a different view of life, imagine how a different religion, different cultural background and different upbringing can change how you see the world, and therefore how you see other people. Especially the people you want to talk to, the people who buy your products or use your services.

But lack of diversity of thought in agencies has contributed to the creation of stereotypes and tropes we see or hear daily in SA advertising: black people dancing for chicken, burgers, banking products, washing powder, airtime and cars. Every other word in a sentence by a black person is punctuated by an “eish”, a “hawu” or a “yoh”. It’s shallow and superficial thinking at its most patronising. With social media platforms giving a voice to the previously voiceless, this lack of true insights by brands into their consumers’ lives is being mercilessly exposed and analysed.

Diversity of thought isn’t important only for agencies, however – clients need to have it on their side as well. Too often, senior clients have no context for those they’re supposed to be selling their products or services to. Their knowledge about the consumer is based purely on research and focus groups, which can be a useful tool, but can never replace insight and experience gained from being part of the target audience. This insight gained from lived experiences is called cultural capital, and is what allows truly resonant and relevant work to be made – work that touches the hearts of consumers and stays in their minds.

We have seen glimpses and flashes of truly SA stories in advertising – stories that could have been created only by people tapping into their cultural capital. Think SABC’s “Take Another Look at Mzansi” TV ad, Axe’s “Knock” (aka as “Stevovo”) or KFC’s “Skop”. But these have been rare occurrences, compared with what most South Africans are subjected to daily on their TV or radio.

Only once both agencies and clients have ensured sufficient diversity of thought at all levels will SA consumers feel that brands really do know who they are, how they live and how they are portrayed, instead of just caring about consumers’ spending power. Diversity of thought will also allow for the creation of work that is rooted in a human truth that is universally recognised but has rich SA cultural nuances at the same time.

There are a number of quick-fix, albeit temporary, suggestions on how to improve lack of diversity of thought: encourage your staff to make friends with people who don’t look or talk like them, people who might actually be in tune with those you want to speak to. They’re not a focus group – they are human beings who know what they’re talking about because they live a certain way.

Encourage your staff to take an interest in other cultures – and by that I mean SA ones. You’re an expert on Spanish culture without having set foot in Spain, but you don’t understand why your neighbour has to slaughter a sheep on his property? It’s 2017 – get with the programme.

Learn SA languages. French and Italian aren’t going to help you in SA, much less connect you to the majority of South Africans. You can’t police and mock how people say “croissant” and then not be able to pronounce your colleague’s name properly. It’s Xolani, not Co-larney.

The big take-out: A lack of diversity of thought results in subconscious and conscious biases, which then spill out in the form of sub-par and clichéd work. The solution? Companies need to do more to create opportunities for diversity of thought, rather than excuses.

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