Global viewpoint from South Africa
A view from Mike Abel

Global viewpoint from South Africa

When I returned to South Africa to open M&C Saatchi Abel in 2010, many local and international industry pundits thought us crazy.

M&C Saatchi Australia was doing really well despite the economic downturn, so why take the risk of opening a company with a relatively unknown brand in an over-traded market against enormous macro- and micro-economic challenges?

The answer lies in the multitude of opportunities for marketers and advertisers on the continent.

You see, South Africa and many countries in the region remain frontier economies. We are largely opportunity-led. We play to win versus not to lose. And, in many instances, we have a healthy disrespect for the status quo.

This is as a result of being a mix of cutting-edge first-world citizenry and larger "third world" population dynamics. It’s easy for outsiders to underestimate the level of aspiration and, in many cases, sophistication of the market here. Many incorrectly view the market as relatively unviable economically.

South Africa has always been an early adopter market. Our banking technology often rivals the most established global markets. Mobile phone penetration is practically 100 per cent and more than one million smartphones are distributed by the telcos and retailers monthly, to not only the well-off but virtually all levels of income. And so while ADSL and dial-up numbers might show a different picture of connectivity, the common denominator on the continent is that phones have given internet access to tens of millions of consumers. Facebook is engaged across almost all economic groups and is no longer the preserve of the educated or well-off.

South Africans, and indeed those in many other African countries, are entrepreneurial and experimental. So what barrier could there possibly be to starting a successful agency other than self-imposed ones, such as the relevance of the offer and quality of the product?

Jerry Welsh once said "the people with the best people win", and this is a truism spanning any industry or market. Applied locally and within our company, we went from start-up with no clients to successful and established large agency with extraordinary clients in five years.

An export market, South Africa is now on half-price sale to the world. When we opened, 10.3 rand equalled £1. Today, given both local economic factors and the global devaluation of emerging markets and commodity-based economies, it’s 22 rand to £1. To underestimate us is, in my view, to miss out.

Mike Abel is the chief executive partner at M&C Saatchi Abel