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From Soweto to the Super Bowl... and back home to Jozi

Who would give up a coveted advertising job in New York to come home to start to fix Jozi? Not many, but then Melusi Mhlungu isn’t your regular, run-of-the-mill creative. Melusi returned home to Jozi last year, opened an agency called We Are Bizarre (the name says it all) and is the creative force behind the Jozi My Jozi movement.
From Soweto to the Super Bowl... and back home to Jozi

His brief: to create hope and instil pride as a catalyst for change across the city and ultimately the whole country, to inject positivity back into the city and inspire everyone to re-love, re-imagine and re-experience Jozi.

“This is not another marketing campaign. It’s a movement for the people by the people, rooted in actions, big or small, to create a city we can all proudly call Jozi My Jozi. It’s an ode to the city we love. We want to remind each other of what we have as well as our future potential, and to encourage people to use the love we have for our city to help fix it. This is a catalyst of change. A super connector. A call to action,” says Mhlungu.

Melusi Mhlungu
Melusi Mhlungu

Melusi Mhlungu's journey isn't your typical suit-and-tie ascent. Born in Soweto and raised by his grandparents, he became captivated by the magic in the world of advertising. He defied expectations and swapped the rigid letter of the law for creative wisdom at the Vega School of Branding. From there, his talent landed him at FCB among other ad agencies, where he honed his craft as an art director on many creative campaigns for several iconic South African brands.

But still he craved more. A shift from art direction to copywriting unlocked his true voice, and his words earned him the prestigious Young Creative of the Year award at Ogilvy. This wasn't just recognition; it was a passport to new opportunities.

The U.S. beckoned, and he took his talents to Miami's David Agency. Melusi conceptualised two back-to-back Super Bowl commercials for Budweiser and Kraft Heinz, an honour that most creatives would not have the privilege of working on their entire career. He also represented the agency at the Cannes Young Lions competition. International experience amplified his vision, but his South African roots remained his anchor.

On to Ogilvy in Chicago for two years during the Covid lockdown, then to New York and agency Johannes Leonardo where he continued to excel by recognising and using the power of his unique South African perspective on global brands.

He acknowledged that while accolades could open doors and offer opportunities, they didn't necessarily lead to the kind of change he wished to see in the world. “My work is different from anybody else’s, and my different view of the world is the fabric of my creative that I still keep close to me.

“I realised that you have to be a bit bizarre to do the things that I have done, including coming back home to work on this massive project called Jozi My Jozi, which at the time I didn’t know much about, or even if it would work.

“I was introduced to Nando’s Robbie Brozin (a founding member and director of the Jozi My Jozi movement) by my mentor, advertising guru Brett Morris. I wondered why the ‘chicken guy’ wanted to meet me but when he told me the creatives and crazies need to be the country’s next leaders, I was hooked and the rest, as they say, is history!” says Mhlungu.

Jozi My Jozi, a movement close to his heart, became the catalyst for his return. Inspired by the South African constitution, the movement aims to instil hope and pride back into Johannesburg, connecting individuals from all walks of life to create sustainable solutions for the inner city. It embodies Mhlungu’s belief that getting Jozi right is a microcosm of getting South Africa right. He decided to prioritise a purpose-driven approach over the pursuit of recognition, focusing on projects that aligned with his values and vision for his country to create better communities.

Bizarre’s use of different typefaces for the Jozi My Jozi logo comes to life as shadows forming from a projected light, emphasising the hidden potential we all have inside of us, as well as an expression of how we are imperfect in just the right way, he explains. “It’s this imperfection that makes us beautiful, unique and one of a kind. This is the imperfection we wanted to embrace and celebrate in our design language.”

Opening his own agency, We Are Bizarre, Mhlungu emphasises the transformative power of ideas, the process of learning and relearning as a creative, and the significance of small actions and collaborations that can lead to big change. “We need to shine the spotlight on people who are already doing great work and making a difference in the city – there are many of them, and we need to highlight their work and appreciate them more. The city might be broken, but the engine of this city is its people, and it is their resilience that we need to tap into.”

By focusing on creating positive change in Johannesburg, Mhlungu hopes to inspire and uplift communities throughout South Africa, demonstrating how targeted, thoughtful actions can resonate across the entire country. His commitment to his purpose not only reflects his deep love for his country but also his belief in the potential of South Africa to achieve greatness.

He is also passionate about telling South African stories. “I believe we have unique stories to tell and I’m that kind of creative who just wants to tell them to the world.”

This new chapter isn't without its own hurdles and challenges as he navigates the shift from creative to a businessperson, a leader, while balancing agency demands with his passion projects. “For me, the success of Jozi My Jozi is the success of We Are Bizarre, and the success of We Are Bizarre is the success of Jozi My Jozi – the two entities are aligned and intertwined, and that is my commitment to the project. I have taken the leap of faith and am fully invested in it.”

Mhlungu says that Jozi is the city where he grew up, the city that made his dreams come true, and now he is back to make a meaningful difference to the city that will hopefully go out to the world. “It’s like full circle,” he says. “My dream for the agency is to remain small but work on big brands with big thinking, be agile, produce impactful work on a global scale, and achieve results.”

Melusi's story is one of unwavering resilience. He's a testament to the power of creativity, a champion for his country, and a man determined to use his talents to uplift South Africa, one idea at a time.

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