An army of highly skilled advertising professionals who were partly motivated by black economic empowerment (BEE) promise to brave South Africa’s oligopolistic media and advertising market seem to have hit a brick wall and have resolved to go political.
SIBONELO RADEBE | THE NEW AGE
Positioned as Young Turks of sorts, the new crowd has, in its talk, dropped commercial civility that tends to go with conventional BEE and has been spewing radical political economy stuff. They charge that South Africa’s advertising industry remains overly dominated by a few multinational corporations, wrapped with pre-1994 whiteness that makes real BEE a pipe dream.
They have resolved to work towards establishing a lobby group, provisionally titled the Association of Black Communication Practitioners (ABCoP). They are lobbying for their fight to be picked up by the powers that be; the department of trade and industry (DTI) and the competition commission.
Those in the know say ABCoP’s hopes will live and die at the altar of the planned BBBEE Commission. The Commission planned under the latest amendments of the BBBEE Act, is billed to have legal teeth to make meaningful interventions where empowerment is seen to be flopping.
ABCoP’s voice comes with a “new radicalism”. One that can be traced inside the ANCYL’s “Economic Freedom in Our Life Time” line. It is the “new radicalism” which saw black professionals in the commercial property sector launch the Black Association of Commercial Property Owners (BACPO) a few months ago.
At the centre of the ABCoP crowd stands a somewhat eccentric figure, Taelo Immanuel. In the past 17 years Immanuel has dabbled in several fields, including religious ministry, but his ventures in the advertising industry are widely respected.
He has plied his skills for top advertising agencies, like Herdbuoys, TBWA and Inroads. In 2004 he decided to go entrepreneurial. He and many other independent black operators have not made headway.
Immanuel is labelled a maverick and a rebel in certain quarters. If you view this to be a negative attribute, think again. The battle he is waging requires just that, a maverick and warrior. He is up against what seems like a global oligopoly organised into what appears to be a local cartel.
ABCoP’s targets include UK based WPP, which describes itself as the world’s largest communications services group, active through 158000 employees working in 2500 offices in 107 countries. The target list includes names that are in WPP’s class; like Omnicom (US), Interpublic (US) and Publicis (France). The battle is not made easy by the fact that these giants are sleeping with the local black elite.
Immanuel is surrounded by a couple of other advertising professionals who have made their mark inside major players and are now braving the oligopolistic market from what looks like spaza-shops, considering what they are up against.
The ABCoP crowd include Dichaba Nkadimeng, Neo Segola and Sam Matutoane.
“We are surviving on crumbs,” said Immanuel. He said many talented black operators have been reduced to “business card designers and printers”. Several other independent black operators spoke to The New Age anonymously for fear of further retribution.
One said: “My business is effectively dead and I can say the same for many others. I’m now looking for a job. This means I’m submitting myself to be counted in bettering the empowerment scorecards of foreign multinationals. I will become a glorified employee in these local management ownership structures. We want to own the advertising economy.”
ABCoP seems to be fighting a battle lost by their predecessors, the likes of Peter Vundla and Happy Ntshingila who, about 20 years ago, put up a brave fight to secure a fair share of the advertising market but eventually cashed out in what some say passes for throwing in the towel.
Vundla and Ntshingila were main players in the making of a black owned and managed advertising agency then known as Herdbouys. It now stands like shadow of its former self on the scales of black people owning the space where they can tell their own stories in their own style and idiom.
Vundla’s views are telling. “Absolutely nothing has changed since we made calls for the transformation of the advertising industry about 20 years ago. We have been singing the same song and are now beginning to sound like a broken record.”
Says Vundla: “What is happening in the advertising industry is a microcosm of the lack of true transformation in the broader economy and mainly the private sector. The status quo remains.”
Vundla had strong words directed at the government, saying: “I doubt if there is political will to do what is required to transform the economy.” He said this could have something to do with “poor depth of leadership. The leadership (on economic transformation) leaves much to be desired”.
“We had thought that parastatals would drive transformation of the economy, but they failed to pick up this role,” said Vundla. He said corruption, which sees business being secured through underhanded tactics, was a major part of the problem.
“I was disgruntled, partly as result of corruption which saw businesses being bought and sold, but I became more of a businessman than an advertising person. I was also demotivated by the trend of bringing in non-advertising people who knew absolutely nothing about advertising, let alone investments. They were brought in as tokens.”
In this he connects with some of the voices inside ABCoP. They point out that BEE has been structured to become a barrier against independent operators who have to square up against multinationals. In some cases you are shocked to find that these multinationals can be deemed to be blacker than us, said an independent operator who declined to be named.
In early 2000 established advertising entities scurried around for BEE partners and brought in big wigs like Cyril Ramaphosa, Mavuso Msimang, Mthunzi Mdwaba and Bongani Khumalo.
Immanuel is somewhat diplomatic in his view of the BEE operators. “We are not necessarily dismissing the role played by the earlier BEE partners. We appreciate the role they played back then when there was not many senior black advertising professionals who could assume BEE ownership. But things have changed.
“Partly because of their role we have seen a mass of young, highly skilled black professionals coming through the ranks who can hold their own in the market. They need to be given the opportunity to prove their worth. The way the market is organised, the chances of seeing through a black-owned and managed entity rise to the top are next to zero.”
Immanuel has for some time been niggling at the periphery and may have been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist. In January this year, he wrote an open letter to the South African Competition Commission to complain that alleged anticompetitive behaviour against the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA). In his chronicles, Immanuel charges that the landscape of the market is structured to leave an impression that it is diverse when it is not.
“The incestuous nature of this industry has resulted in accounts changing hands between agencies but remaining in the same media groups for years.” His explosive phraseology may get in the way of the truth but Immanuel says: “These four firms have tentacles all over the place. For example, the US originated WPP controls big operating names like Ogilvy, Grey, Network BBD, Metropolitan Republic, MediaCom, Media Eagle and Nota Bene.”
In most of its South African ventures WPP has linked up with BEE partners as minority equity holders. At Grey (South Africa), a subsidiary of the globalised Grey, WPP partnered with serial BEE partner Bongani Khumalo, who was given 25% of the shares.
At Y&R (South Africa) another globalised player, WPP partnered with Memeza QRX which is owned by prominent BEE players like Mavuso Msimang and Mthuzi Mdwaba. This partnership was replicated at Media Edge, Nota Bene and Aquaonline. The relationship between WPP and Mememza has since soured, leading to charges that it was a BEE fronting exercise all along. The public spat which played out in the full public glare came to vilify what the ABCoP crowd was preaching.
The latter WPP picture can be painted in the ventures of Omnicon, Publicis and Interpublic. For example: Omnicon has Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka group as BEE partner in TBWA. Publicis has Koni Media as BEE partner at Starcom. Several other groups have structured their empowerment through staff and management ownership deals. This approach charges that the ABCoP crowd does very little for real BEE and the country, as it merely leads to cooptiing the new elite into old practices.
Immanuel followed his public letter, which caused a mini storm in digital spaces, with an official complaint to the competition commission. The commission said, after screening Immanuel’s complaint, it found no cause to investigate further.
The commission did acknowledge there could be challenges, barriers to entry faced by small and mainly black operators, and said these may be normal business challenges and the transformation issues raised in this case fall outside its mandate. The commission also said domination does not always equal prohibition.
“I think they should have done more, they wanted to do more but they are hamstrung by an outdated legislation.” Immanuel has also knocked at the DTI’s doors to no avail. The DTI, “Like other sectors of the economy, the advertising industry is lagging behind with regard to transformation.” It said the solution could be found in the process of bumping up the Media, Advertising and Communication (MAC) Charter into a legally binding code.
“The MAC Charter development process will allow stakeholders in the industry to negotiate and agree on a charter that will serve as transformation guidelines for the media, advertising and communication sector.” ABCoP dismisses the charter as a weak document in ways that are similar to criticisms faced by many other sector-focused charters.
“If we are talking about grooming black entrepreneurs who can take the commanding heights of the economy then we will need a structural reorganisation of the industry and transformation itself,” says Immanuel.
Outside the top guys, BEE partners and directors, the experience of black professionals is yet to change, he says. This is because the ineffective BEE approach is sanctioned by BEE regulation.
This argument will be familiar to those who have closely watched the BBBEE paradigm where empowerment has been codified and technichalised to a point that a 100% BEE rating can have scant relation with day to day experiences of workers. As such, ABCoP’s battle is perhaps wider than the advertising industry and should be pitched at the drafters of the whole BBBEE regulation, the DTI, who is throwing the discredit book at him.
ACA throws the same book in its response, saying the industry, under the MAC charter “met and continues to deliver on its transformation targets as per the required timelines”. ACA said it “has been the primary driver of transformation in the sector and while we remain committed to achieving our continued transformation goals for the sector, we are happy with the pace of transformation”.
Mdwaba said “The important thing when talking about transformation is strengthening the monitoring and enforcement capabilities of the DTI which is the custodian of BEE regulations. We have strong laws but enforcement and monitoring are rather abysmal. Until we strengthen these areas we will continue to have companies operating in complete disregard of the BEE regulations.”
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