When Donald Liphoko arrives at his new government offices in Pretoria, you could be excused for thinking he was one of the working minions. He is slightly built, drives a clapped-out 1991 Volkswagen Golf, is soft-spoken and has no airs and graces. But as the chief director of media buying and advertising at the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), he commands a massive advertising budget for which all in our industry are clambering.
He represents 36 government departments. He is not making life easy for anyone in the media because while he has a deep understanding of this industry, he is a true patriot and is intent on doing the right thing by his bosses. He is also determined, against what many see as all odds, to build confidence in and create space for innovation in government.
Big dreams, you might think. But many in the media rate this man as a strategist and someone who gets the job done. Media agency gurus, Harry Herber and Gordon Patterson, have worked with Liphoko through his career and believe his entrée into government is a loss to the commercial media.
Patterson spotted the young Liphoko as a student, encouraged him to start a career in the media industry and mentored him. “Over the years I’ve kept track of his movements and, while he is currently with GCIS, I still see a far brighter commercial future for Donald,” says Patterson. “He has a future full of opportunity to make a real difference in a commercial environment where every decision builds individual brand equity and value. Far from this being selfish, I see individual brand equity as essential to leaving a legacy for other talented young men to follow. And, boy, we need them!”
Says media consultant Luisa Belter: “Donald has an intuitive media mind. He has the rare ability to zone in on important issues concisely, creatively and strategically. He is a thinker.”
Words like “driven”, “determined”, “thoughtful” and “strategic” are most commonly used by his media peers to describe him.
Liphoko, the son of ANC exiles, spent his childhood in various African countries before landing up in England for his A-levels. At the time, he fancied himself as a commercial artist, but his parents thought it frivolous. So he embarked on a B.Com at the University of the Witwatersrand. But it didn’t take too much of a nudge to get him into a media agency. “Gordon helped me develop the skills and the rigour for this industry,” he says.
But the media agency world wasn’t an easy place for a young black man. The challenge was the culture that enveloped certain “hard-living jock” and “anti-intellectual” types. “I understand the culture, but I am not a ‘lad’; it’s just not my thing. I started out with a group of black guys and, not having been in South Africa long, I could identify with the culture. But for the other guys, it was very alienating,” he says. Many of the others joined media owners or went into other fields. But Liphoko found his way and made a name for himself.
“When I started, I was aware that my circumstances were exceptional because not every young black guy gets offered what I did. I believed I had to prove that, as a black guy, I could excel at this.”
Now, his aim is to leave a legacy, hence moving into government. “I wanted to be in a situation where I could contribute as a citizen. I get deeply offended when things aren’t working in the country. I know it can be done better. We are heading for 20 years of democracy and I don’t want my kids to ask what we did in the first 20. We wasted time and put off hard decisions, but we need to change that now. So, I am doing this so I can show my kids I made a positive difference.”
Liphoko says he had contemplated moving into government for a number of years. He first met people from the GCIS many years ago while working on the industry transformation charter (which still hasn’t materialised). Initially, he tried to convince them to outsource media to the private sector. His opinion on the need for this has since changed.
Then, he worked with Hunt Lascaris on the 1999 election campaign. “From sitting with brand managers talking about shoes, I was suddenly working with the likes of serious thinkers in the ANC: Joel Netshitenzhe, Gill Marcus and Pallo Jordan. This made me realise I could do more with my talents.”
He then moved to the SABC where, he says, he learnt a lot about politics. He didn’t have an easy time there. He was a 27-year-old manager in an organisation “beholden to hierarchy and tenure”.
He left the SABC in April 2001 and returned to media agencies. He first worked as deputy media director at FCB Johannesburg, then as director at MindShare before he moved to The MediaShop in 2007 as associate media director. In April 2012 he joined the GCIS. There were many who thought he was the person to take over when Herber stepped down as group MD. He left the company a little more than a year after Chris Botha assumed that position.
Liphoko is the son of a Methodist minister who drummed it into his head how important it was “to live life with purpose” and that is what he believes he is doing now.
“I want to avoid being the only black guy on the board getting a great salary and rubber-stamping things.”
He sees government as giving him the “opportunity to innovate and the space to experiment” and try new things. “If government is the brand owner, the GCIS is the innovation hub – it is an open system where we interact with numerous stakeholders.” There is nobody telling him this is how the job should be done. “I have a talent in communicating ideas and it is time now to put this talent to use for the state.”
He is aware that great people leave government in desperation because they struggle to get others to work with the same passion. “I am going to make lasting changes. I get that I have to take one step forward and two steps back but eventually we will get there.”
Liphoko’s goal is to bring costs down and increase trust in his department. In terms of GCIS media planning and buying, they have gone from nothing to billing of R250 million in just 32 months. His strategy is to create a centre of excellence in media buying. “We need to use taxpayers’ money as effectively as possible and make sure everything is accountable and logical. It is essential for the stakeholders to be able to believe in us and know that what we promise, we can deliver,” he says.
He no longer believes in outsourcing government media. “I don’t know a media agency that can do the breadth of this work, so it makes sense to structure this in-house and have our own methodology that is specific to government.”
He sees it as a duty to protect taxpayers’ money. In one year, Liphoko’s department has saved R30 million in discount and added-value deals and he believes they can do more. “I am opposed to government spending at premium rates. It is taxpayers’ money that could be doing something else.”
Also, he says the GCIS doesn’t need help with traditional media, but he is not averse to outsourcing strategy in areas like social media, where skills are lacking.
As for government ads becoming more creative, he says, “We need to acknowledge where South Africa is at and the demographics of the country. We do not need a whole lot of creativity to put out information about services. I don’t need to hire Ogilvy to tell pregnant women to get unabridged birth certificates. We need to communicate effectively, not win awards.”
He tackles the sensitive issue of government having a quota of ad spend specifically for community media. “I will do what is right with taxpayers’ money and commercial media must know they do not have any special right to government ad spend. When I started early last year, I contacted all the top media owners who made a point of insisting this was their money. It is certainly not guaranteed: they have to compete for it.”
He is upset that those who are assigned to deal with government in the media houses are “hardly the top execs” despite the amount of ad spend. “I find this quite demeaning. We are putting emphasis on excellence and we expect them to work hard at getting us to take ads.”
Apart from that, he says he is committed to transformation and diversity but that supporting community media is more than that. The amount of money spent in one weekend newspaper can be spent over three months in 80% of the community newspapers, he says. His commitment to community media shows in the R37 million spent on them in the last 12 months.
He insists that using community media makes sense for the kind of messages government needs to convey about social services, health, grants and the like. “I challenge my friends in the mainstream to show me how we can better reach the local communities who need these services. This is not a vanity purchase, it is a utility for government and serves a specific purpose.”
He says that surely the media should all be working to improve diversity and fragmentation “or should we be moving back to having only one television channel?” Rather than complain about community media, he says, other media should be trying to help them. He is ensuring they get the training they need to improve their operations. “Our approach is to partner with this sector to get it to be more accountable.”
Liphoko flies to four provinces a year to meet with community media to give them an update and to see what help they require.
He makes it plain that while media inflation is up by 12.3%, government won’t grow the advertising pie. “We have to tighten our belts and think smartly. And there will be fewer ads.”
He insists though that the pricing of ads in the traditional media has to drop. Print has to become more competitive and rates for TV will have to drop once digital television launches. “The number of television stations will grow and they will be competing at a fraction of the present cost.”
As for the brouhaha over the relationship between The New Age (or its bosses, the Guptas) and government, he is amazed at the constant interest. “Last year, we received questions every day about this newspaper. What would they [the other mainstream media] like us to do exactly? People go on about them not having ABCs, but we have bought and placed ads in many unaudited publications before because everyone has to start somewhere. We are being fair, consistent and accountable. The emphasis is placed on the amount of advertising – how much should The New Age get? One percent? It is the same old issue – the commercial media’s sense of entitlement to taxpayers’ money. I eventually pulled the numbers to see how much was spent on each publication. It was all above board and transparent.
“If we didn’t buy ads in newspapers without ABCs, there wouldn’t be a Mail & Guardian today. When Trevor Ncube bought it, advertisers wouldn’t touch it because, although there was a change of government, this hadn’t filtered down to the marketing directors. As for the complaints about The New Age thought leadership functions, we used to do the same with the M&G. Tomorrow it will be someone else…
“I am waiting for people to start questioning government ads in Independent Newspapers, asking if we are advertising there because of [new owner Iqbal] Survé’s connection to government,” he says, chuckling.
He says that the relationship between media and government advertising is an “odd one” because the latter is invariably one of the biggest advertisers. “But media fear that acknowledging government money will taint them. I remember when there was the issue around Jimmy Manyi and the media was afraid government advertising would dry up. The weird thing is that even in tough times, government still advertises because they need to communicate with the public.”
His five-year goal at the GCIS is to create space for measurable innovation in government. His first year has been about driving down costs, to get people to listen and trust. Then, the conversation will move to efficacy and communicating effectively.
He says he gets his kicks from other departments coming to him to find out how he is saving money and doing his job so well and they then learn from him. He says that government is all about service and he wants it to “service the living daylights out of” this country. He then wants every citizen to be able to go into a government department and rate the service.
“The only way we can get where we are going is to start small and show results,” says the man with big dreams and expectations, who drives off in his clapped-out car with a smile on his face and purpose in his step.