Global viewpoint from South Africa
A view from Gavin Whitfield

Global viewpoint from South Africa

On 8 April, South Africans took to the voting polls to celebrate 20 years since this country's first free and fair elections. A lot has changed in that time. A lot hasn't. But what about the advertising industry?

In the "free" period, South African agencies have won, among others, five Cannes Grands Prix – not bad for an industry whose collective advertising spend is a fraction of that in markets such as the UK and the US. Also, take a look at the nationality of many of the top global chief creative officers and you will see a few rainbow-coloured flags there too. In fact, it was suggested to me the other day that South Africa is, per capita, the most creative country in the world. It’s debatable, but not unbelievable.

So, creativity isn’t our biggest issue.

As a country struggling to right the wrongs of our past, it is important for all industries – ours included – to create opportunities for previously disadvantaged sections of the population. This is not a nice-to-have. It’s an imperative and something that is fairly unique to us. Yet the top jobs in our industry are still overwhelmingly populated by white men. I know – I’m one of them.

Why is this? Well, if you consider that there are only a handful of jobs at the top that pay the equivalent of an average chartered accountant’s salary, you can start to appreciate that, for many, advertising just doesn’t add up. (My parents had to pay my rent for the first two years that I spent in the glamorous world of adland – a luxury few can afford.)

The majority are more interested in putting money in their pockets than pictures in their portfolios

Add to this the fact that advertising "schools" are among the most expensive educational institutions in the country, and the effort and resource required to get into the industry don’t seem to make a lot of sense to a rapidly growing middle class. After years of living below the breadline, it’s understandable that the majority are more interested in putting money in their pockets than pictures in their portfolios.

The truth is that the scores of smart, young black men and women out there who we desperately want to attract to our industry just have better options. Options that pay better. Options that seem more exciting.

Options that are advertising themselves better to the potential workforce than we are. Options that are far more easily accessible.

So, where does that leave us? Well, like our country, our industry is in desperate need of real democracy.

We need to open our industry to more people. We need to create more opportunities for people to get in. In short: we have to start campaigning for people’s careers.

It’s time for advertising to start advertising. And, as we like to tell our clients, the best place to start is by making sure we have a great product. If we can do that, our industry could experience genuine, meaningful change.

Gavin Whitfield is the executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi South Africa