When VMLY&R announced, earlier this year, that they had won the Vodacom account, the news made waves in advertising and media circles. It was a major coup, and the industry would be watching to see what they did with it – and who they felt would be the best man for the job. VMLY&R appointed a crack-team of strategists to the high-profile account – all of them women.
A New Era for Advertising
The appointment of an all-women strategy team to a flagship account may not sound revolutionary to those outside of advertising. Yes, audiences were delightedly appalled by the chauvinistic shenanigans in the television show Mad Men, but part of the appeal was that it offered a glimpse into a bygone era. One would assume the sexism and inequality rampant in agencies during the 1960s had long since given way to modern workspaces where women regularly occupy positions of leadership.
However, spectres of the time remain, haunting twenty-first-century agencies in the form of glass ceilings, boys’ club camaraderie and outdated ideas about what the face of leadership should look like. Those norms influence – whether directly or indirectly – who is afforded opportunities, which is why the enormity of this appointment has not been lost on the women who now have the platform to spearhead change.
“Occupying this role as a young black woman means that it is possible for many young black women who look like me to share their voice and write their own stories that will eventually influence many South Africans,” says strategic planner Tumelo Rabothata.
“It means that the industry is slowly but surely taking a step in the right direction, and it also means that I have a greater responsibility to inspire the next generation of young creatives of colour to join this industry and make a change,” adds strategist Mbali Cindi. “We still have a long way to go as an industry, but it is great to see the growing number of individuals of colour owning and taking up space in advertising.”
The Power of Representation
Transformation aside, diversity in the boardroom is good for business. For better or worse, social media has given audiences a voice. And in a world where audiences are no longer passive receivers of branded messages, being aware of who the customer is and engaging with them in a sensitive and appropriate way has never been more important.
“Representation matters. Too often we see work that is tone deaf and out of touch and we know this is a result of not having the right person in the room and the right person leading the team,” says Rabothata.
Cindi elaborates: “The advantages of having diversity in agencies is that it offers diverse insights, experiences, perspectives, and ideas that will not only be beneficial for agencies but for our clients. It ensures that every customer we speak to and connect with is represented in the work we produce. It is also key for the next generation to feel seen and be represented and inspired to enter the industry and showcase their skills to the world.”
Internally, more diverse leadership creates a space where staff feel emboldened to take ownership of their work, share ideas and perform to the best of their capabilities.
“It is affirming knowing that the person who manages and leads you not only looks like you but understands where you come from,” Rabothata says. “It opens up room for so much growth, conversation, understanding and general work-life comfort. You are more driven to learn, your talent is expanded and not boxed. It’s affirming knowing that someone like you can occupy spaces that were initially built for people who don’t look like you.”
Leading From the Front
For the Vodacom strategy team at VMLY&R, that leader is strategy director Atiyya Karodia. Unlike Cindi and Rabothata, who both knew early on that they wanted to pursue a career in advertising and planned their tertiary studies accordingly, Karodia’s path has been anything but ordinary for her station.
Having never considered a career in advertising, Karodia entered the workforce dabbling in artist management and fashion PR and later honed her skills at a tech start-up. This meandering career path eventually led her to VMLY&R, where she initially signed on – a mere four years ago – as a social media manager before moving into strategy.
While the Vodacom account is a big deal, this was not Karodia’s first rodeo. Since joining the strategy team, she has always worked on flagship accounts. She cut her teeth on Standard Bank and has previously worked on Nando’s, among others.
With no formal advertising training or qualification under her belt, Karodia’s impressive CV and trajectory can be attributed to good, old-fashioned talent, hard work and a willingness to learn. However, the last four years have not been without their difficulties. “It was like building the plane as we were flying,” she recalls of the early days. “I learnt how loud my self-doubt really was. It made me confront my imposter syndrome.”
What helped Karodia overcome these obstacles was a work environment where she received mentorship and was entrusted with opportunities to display her talent. That experience, albeit daunting, gave her the platform to prove her worth – to herself as much as anybody else – and built the confidence she would need for her current role. “Even though the Vodacom account is a beast, because of my experience in my very short journey, I’ve never been as confident as I am now,” she reflects.
Her personal experience has made her an empathetic and compassionate leader. It has also given her an alternative perspective – a valuable asset in the competitive world of strategy.
Work That Has Meaning
Overwhelmingly though, what stands out about this new generation of women strategists is their sincere desire to create meaningful work – on a personal level, as well as for clients and customers. “I grew up using Vodacom and still actually use my first Vodacom cell phone number to this day, so to be working for a brand that grew up with me is testament to the impact the brand has had on my life,” says Rabothata. “Working with a brand with such a rich history in our country and being able to share my stories through their voice shows the mark I will leave on many South Africans’ lives.”
“Working on an account like Vodacom means more purposeful work,” adds Cindi. “It means an opportunity to make an impact, it means an opportunity for learning and growth, and it means that we have a great responsibility to ensure that our client can make a successful transition from being a telecommunications company to being a technology company.”
Their sentiment is a far cry from the frivolous – and often downright misogynist – advertising of the 1960s, proof that one ghost of the Mad Men era has, at least, been laid to rest. And that the future of advertising is in capable hands.