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Africa: An advertising voyage of discovery

After a year of my boss convincing me that real opportunities are in the rest of Africa, I decided to follow him and take up an art director post in Kenya. Like an insane explorer, I resigned at a reputable agency end of last year. After all, economists have been ranting about the swift progress in East and West Africa, and some known South African agencies are expanding out in search of opportune land.
So I placed my furniture and car in storage, hoping I'd be one of the early adapters - an African visionary trying to spread good advertising to a people that needs it.

The background: The Kenyan advertising story

I won't go into the details of Kenya itself despite its immeasurable natural beauty, a few good surprises, and some expected challenges - not to mention the recent Westgate Mall tragedy. But work-wise I'm learning a big lesson: It's not a group of companies that can change the advertising of a country. Advertising agencies such as Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and Y&R are already represented here but they have not yet gained the industry esteem that comes with their names elsewhere. To transform an advertising industry takes massive change, investments from creative organisations, and it takes years of exposure, of setting up good creative schools, empowering locals and, above all, educating clients to want more.

The agencies that are most prominent in Kenya are mostly design agencies capitalising on the lack of well-established and competitive advertising firms. And by Kenya, I'm learning that it is a problem prevalent in all East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia) and most of Africa.

Many times selling ideas to clients involves schooling them first: Not just with insight on their brands, but also on what we've assessed to be their true needs. Half of the time they think a rebrand will solve all their problems. But what we are also learning, and are grateful for, is that more and more clients are getting exposed. What they really need are agencies that care beyond delivering the expected 'deliverables'.

The challenge: Creative infrastructure

One of the challenges for me is being part of a team that has a different world experience; being told that "Kenyans don't think like that". But in general, our agency's day-to-day challenges are proving to be general industry shortcomings. When I first realised this, I began to question why East African advertising is generally poor or why South African or affiliated agencies win all international advertising awards that go to Africa. And one soon learns that it isn't as simple as "there's no creativity in East Africa".

So in the end I started asking myself, what does a South African consumer of a certain class want that a Kenyan consumer of the same class doesn't want? Of course, there are obvious cultural and lifestyle differences that may or may not translate into different needs. Yet it seems that it is lack of solid creative infrastructure that differentiates the Kenyan advertising industry. In addition, half the good work goes to South African agencies anyway so the Kenyan creative graduate doesn't always have as much of an advantage in learning through exposure and experience.

The real discovery: The art of selling on the black market

I'm not trying to sell the idea that we all should park our bags and land in Nairobi or Kigali to educate and spread the creative word while holding brand bibles. No. Personally, I'm tired of the world saying Kenya isn't this or that. I am tired of the slow progress we are making in advancing our industry across Africa. But mostly, I'm tired because the East or West African problem is in fact, though not obvious or acknowledged, a South African problem too.

We are very lucky to work within societies that are rich in cultural diversity and with unique stories. South Africa has come a long way and advanced in advertising. Now vernacular radio ads are as engaging as English ads. But still, of the brands making noticeable news in advertising, I'm not seeing the mass brands advancing as much - and by "mass brands" I mean essential everyday products such as the cooking oils, teas and soaps that cater for the South African bulk of the population (the black lower class). I'm not seeing these products engaging with the people or applying insight-driven approaches and solutions as much as they ought to. They have generally been choosing the route of expired insights and gimmicky approaches. And even more uninspiring (a mentality that spreads across Africa), brands strip the consumer of everything but "low prices" in the world that he exists.

That's why I really took this job: Because I think what we really need in Africa is not new agencies but creative investment and I wouldn't mind being part of the movement. I feel that Kenya, and Africa in general - inclusive of South Africa - has room for growth, room to sell "people's brands" via approaches that are based on real, fresh and, above all, localised insight and thought platforms; brands that resonate with the people; brands that speak to vibrant urbanites while bearing in mind the aliveness of various tribal cultures; brands that speak to a predominantly black market while encompassing the strong Arab presence that is Kenya; in short, brands that are willing to learn that there is a specialised art to selling on the black African market.

Africa rising

Kenya is transforming, growing economically and its people are becoming more and more aware and specific in their needs. Though not at the same pace, this applies to the rest of Africa. So for now, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, I'm going to end the year with high spirits and hope that one day, Kenya will stand as a Creative Republic and show the world that there's more to East Africa than the known stereotypes of head wraps and rustic images; that Kenyans (and the rest of Africans) are growing more and more hungry for creative transformation. And if the world is ready, then "karibu"! - It means "welcome", by the way.

About Vanita 'Bezi Phiri

Although I have a deep portfolio as a writer, art director and designer, it is really my gift of storytelling as a whole that makes me an ideal partner for conceptualising and developing any identity or story. I am involved in jumpstarting movements and platforms by articulating their value-inspired truths into value-enhancing visual and literary content.
mario diplock
Hi VanitaI too worked in Kenya for a while and totally understand where you're coming from.Luckily most of the client bigwigs were peeps schooled in the industry in their respective countries from where they came.But they were far and few between and frustration was the order of the day, most days.You're right, catch phrases in Swahili and gimmicks are preferred and "risk-taking" is discouraged. I do applaud your desire to change things for the better, but you have a massive task ahead.You'll have to balance getting your own work done with inspiring the creative revolution.I suggest you start small within you own agency and see if you can get a few believers.And since you're a foreigner, your task will be a little more tougher.But it's not all doom and gloom.Give it your best shot.
Posted on 15 Oct 2013 10:58
Sindiswa Matheula
Hi Bezi,What a well written article! Thanks for the insight regarding state of advertising in Africa. I admire your quest to penetrate and shift things for the better there. I'm inspired.Regards from SA, wishing you all the best!
Posted on 16 Oct 2013 14:12
Sandile Bunjwa
Hi Nyembezi,Good article, I love it, it's authentic. I can say that co's I've worked in EA and have also worked in and/or with a lot of other countries in the spread of Africa as a whole and I'm currently in Lusaka. The issues you stated in your article are real even where I am. As you say, even SA has come a long way - so broaden your network(s) and keep the fire burning. Well done!
Posted on 16 Oct 2013 16:33
Kiarie John
Interesting read. Interesting indeed.I guess this is important in that it's her "initial surface observation". A first reading so to say. I guess this is an individual who's exposure so far has been Nairobi. Hence statements like: "brands that speak to a predominantly black market while encompassing the strong Arab (sic) presence that is Kenya".In the 70s and early 80s a strong needless to say reputable gang of mainly European-trained creatives, unquestionable credentials in hand, invaded Nairobi brandishing a similar gospel of a "creative revolution". At the end of the day, they were re-schooled on what can be changed and what can NEVER be changed in communication in Kenya.The second Creative missionaries were the Australian Creative Directors from the land down under. Crusading with international silver-ware they had collected from the global awards, they had their go at schooling Kenyans on how to communicate brands. They got their fair share of the Kenyanese way of getting the job done! Other than transform, they humbly conformed.The first South African explorers made a grand entry in the late 90s after a successful run in neighbouring Tanzania but in a few years, with tails between their legs retreated back to go and restrategize! South African brand builders are only recently making a re entry into the market hopefully with the lessons learnt in mind.Best recent case study is the Indian-South African thinking behind the Africa-wide launch of brand Airtel. It took less than 7 months for the Indian/SA teams to learn the hard way that theres' nothing like a "homogeneous Africa market." What works in English-Speaking Kenya is worlds apart from what is understandable in Congo Brazzavile. The language, culture, political influence, sub-cultural nuances all make for more than simple conclusions made from just a casual surface observation.There must be a reason why "sloganish' and "catch-phrasish" Safaricom is white-washing (more like "pea-greening") Airtel in Kenya.Case in point: Airtel is running what would conventionally be seen as a fairly successful campaign of their AirtelMoney mobile money service. The campaign is creating a buzz in the market for it's use of a popular lady comedian as the voice of the service. It is successful by any marketing manager's judgement. Then WESTGATE HAPPENS! With Safaricom's intimate understanding of the Kenyan Spirit, they launch a digital, mobile "HARAMBEE" (look up that word) on their M-Pesa mobile money platform. In less than 4 days, M-Pesa raises close to Kshs 100,000,000 in less than 5 days in aid of the Westgate attack victims!!!So as the Asian tiger shouts from the roof tops of it's "Tigritude", the Kenyan Lion is just being, well, the King of it's jungle. By word and deed.
Posted on 17 Oct 2013 09:57
Thomas Mucheni
Hi,Nice article as you are willing to chsnge how people think in the industry am willing to learn and be an apprentice.
Posted on 22 Oct 2013 07:11
Festus Mbuimwe
howzit bezi. karibu kenya! lack of creative schools like vega, aaa, etc in kenya contributes the most, i reckon, to the lack of a strong creative culture in my country. count the number of ads that still show an image of a handshake to signify trust, reliability, etc.
Posted on 21 Nov 2013 11:43

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