Josh Dovey is used to tough places: born in South Africa, he was educated at an English boarding school. These days, he is back in South Africa as the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group. When he is not overseeing billings of more than £200 million, he eases his stress by racing classic cars around the local circuit. Campaign caught up with him taking a holiday on the farm he recently purchased. "It's great for the kids at weekends, and I get to play with a 1956 Massey Ferguson Tractor," he enthuses.
- So you were born in Cape Town but educated in London?
That's right. I went to a boarding school in west London called St Paul's. It was either that or the South African army. I'm sure the food at St Paul's was worse. But at least there were no guns.
- You should've gone to my comprehensive. I'm pretty sure there were guns.
(Laughs) You're probably right! Anyway, after a stint back in South Africa for Mobil Oil, I started my advertising career at Saatchi & Saatchi in London in the 80s. I worked at Zenith, then CKT, then a fabulous stint with Charlie Makin, Steve Booth, Nick Lockett and Alec Kenny. We were huddling together for warmth, but even then it had the makings of something cool. But my ambition was always to come back to South Africa and start my own agency. My last London position was deputy managing director of what was then CIA Medianetwork. I set up OMD in Johannesburg in 1996 with my business partner Gary Westwater, the financial director.
- Johannesburg seems to get a bit of a bad rap compared with Cape Town, which gets all the tourists. Is the city as ridden with crime as people say? Are there armed security guards on every door?
To compare Johannesburg with the UK in terms of crime is unfair. It's more along the lines of Brazil, Mexico and parts of Asia. You can't compare Johannesburg to, say, Dorking. There is crime here, and, as in the US, there are a lot of firearms in circulation. But it's not oppressive. There are no kidnappings of executives like there are in Brazil. Of course, I grew up here, so I don't even think about it. I get the impression that some people think South Africa is all about crime. But Johannesburg is also a vibrant city of eight million people that contributes 35 per cent of the entire country's GDP. In fact, the city's GDP is five times that of the whole of New Zealand.
- We should talk about your job. You're the chief executive of OMD. Where does the agency stand in the rankings over there?
We're number one. We sold a 54 per cent stake to Omnicom in 2001 and have since opened OMD in Cape Town and Durban, and also Lagos and Nairobi. We launched PHD in June to form OMG Africa. Group billings are now in excess of 2.6 billion rand (about $380 million). Not only that, but 80 per cent of our clients are South African companies, so if a client in Chicago decides to change their media agency we don't get too badly hurt.
- How is media buying regarded in South Africa? Do clients look upon you as strategic consultants, or merely as providers of a service?
We've moved upstream pretty quickly into roughly the same space as the creative agencies. But remember that before 1995, media agencies didn't exist. That's one of the reasons I came back - I saw an opportunity.
- Is there discussion in South Africa, as in other markets, about whether media and creative have grown too far apart?
Of course there is - it's because the creative agencies want their revenue back. But the change was driven by clients and they're happy with the system. When this country first opened up in 1994 and multinational clients came in, they were saying: "Where are all the media agencies?" Now all the big names are here.
- What are the peculiarities of the media landscape? Are South Africans big newspaper readers, for example? Or is it mainly a TV market?
Radio has the largest penetration because it reaches rural areas and is affordable. TV is perceived as less so, but that's changing. There's no national newspaper because the country is just too big, so each urban centre has its own group of competing national dailies. There's also a strong outdoor sector. For a full run-down, I suggest you go to omdmedia.co.za and click on our "media facts" report. But I can assure you that it's a very well-developed and vibrant market, where creative media buying is welcomed.
- South Africa seems to be a political minefield: we've heard rumours about corruption within the African National Congress, and accusations that the South African press was gagged over the topic. Is there a genuinely free press in South Africa?
There is absolutely a free press in South Africa. In any case, many of the newspapers are owned by Tony O'Reilly, of Independent News & Media. Editors remain objective, and while I am sure that they occasionally come under pressure to take a certain line, that's no different from other markets. But South Africa is certainly a democracy: the government was elected on a huge mandate and is probably one of the most legitimate in the world.
- Do clients ever base decisions on whether they appreciate the political slant of the medium concerned?
No, I don't think it's an issue.
- What's the next step for OMG?
Well, obviously we would like to keep building the network in Africa. We are already in Nigeria and Kenya, but we would like to continue. For a lot of South African companies, such as the telecoms company MTN, it's the next big frontier.