At a time when many South African professionals are considering a move out of the country and many others have already left, Chris Gotz, one of South Africa’s top creative directors, has returned to South Africa after a brief stint as executive chief creative officer at Ogilvy Chicago. He joined OFyt as national creative director, partner and shareholder in September this year. Here he gives his ballsy views on agencies in SA and in the US.
But why did he leave for the US in the first place? “Ogilvy really looked after me, and I know I helped to further their business interests in this country, so it was a mutually beneficial relationship. But my role as national creative director meant I was moving further and further away from the shop floor and from the work that I wanted to do,” he says.
“I always say the longer you stay somewhere the greater the chance that you’ll stay even longer and I felt it was time to make a move. When Ogilvy New York offered me the position in Chicago it was an easy step for me to take. It felt like I was staying in the family.”
Gotz says that his appointment as a South African was quite unusual as not many South Africans have taken up leadership positions in agencies in the United States. He was given a global position on all SC Johnson brands and admits he “went in quite naively, wanting to change the world”.
In general I found advertising in the US about doing a lot of work and then throwing pasta at the wall and seeing what sticks
Gotz is forthright when describing the business environment he experienced while working in the States. “The world out there is incrementally slow to move. It’s hard to get anything done. Trying to get somebody to make a decision is not easy. In general I found advertising in the US about doing a lot of work and then throwing pasta at the wall and seeing what sticks,” he says.
Although Gotz says he personally had a very good relationship with the agency’s most senior client, he felt that there were very few agencies in the States who had healthy relationships with their clients.
“Mostly, they were more like master and servant. It’s an environment where everyone is obsessed with ‘What’s the client’s next move?’ and ‘What can we do to make them happy?’ It’s not nearly as confident and assertive and resourceful as the industry in this country and I have to admit, I was hugely disappointed in what I saw,” he says.
Gotz believes South Africans have a vastly different approach from the rest of the world in business, especially from an advertising point of view.
“In this country, our clients respect us a lot more as ad people and what we do than they do in the US. Over there clients are very much in the ascendency, as they should be, after all they pay the bills. But a client that’s going to get the best value out of the agency is the client that has a partnership as opposed to a supplier relationship. And in the States, even at the highest level, they’re maintaining supplier relationships and not true partnerships.”
If you look at all the good ad people over the years, they’ve all been fearless. The singular characteristic that they shared was bravery. So if you look at an advertising agency that’s losing its balls, so to speak – that’s all we ever had in the first place
Advertising agencies there are not courageous enough because they’re guarding the money pipeline too fiercely. “If you look at all the good ad people over the years, they’ve all been fearless. The singular characteristic that they shared was bravery. So if you look at an advertising agency that’s losing its balls, so to speak – that’s all we ever had in the first place,” he says.
Gotz had some great creative and strategy people to work with and a very good relationship with the client. “But it was all the other toxicity and the way the agency behaved when the client was in the room was weird. The way everyone in the agency ran around after the client – you could see that the nature of the relationship from the CEO of Ogilvy down was subservient.
“So when you’re walking into a room with a really brave idea but your behaviour on the account, from a normative point of view is subservient in a ‘What can I do for you, sir? Yes sir, no sir’ kind of a way I don’t know if they’re going to buy your ideas,” he says.
He believes that the big full-service agencies in the States have lost their confidence, which has allowed smaller agencies to get through the door. Clients can pick and choose who will sit at the table with them, unlike in SA where clients generally work “through the line” with one agency group.
“You’d go for a big briefing and you end up with various agencies sitting at the table, like the shopper marketing guys, the experiential agency and various others all taking the brief at the same time. Everyone would then leave and come back with a solution. We were supposed to be talking to each other and collaborating. We were all supposed to have this really cosy relationship, but in truth it’s really not going to happen because we’re all from different agencies and everyone’s trying to fuck everyone over all the time.
“The client’s saying ‘play nicely’, but we’re saying they’re our competitors, we hate them, they’re trying to steal our lunch at every opportunity so real collaboration is not going to happen,” he says.
It’s quite the most dishonest business culture that I’ve ever been part of. Everyone’s sparing everyone’s feelings.
The fact that he didn’t love the business culture didn’t stop Gotz from delivering great work in his usual style and he continued his winning form helping Ogilvy Chicago take their first ever Gold at Cannes.
Gotz admits that this was his particular experience and a hyper-generalisation, but the business environment didn’t feel right to him and he chose to hand in in his resignation.
“It’s quite the most dishonest business culture that I’ve ever been part of. Everyone’s sparing everyone’s feelings. Everyone’s got to be positive, everyone’s got to be smiling and no one ever says what they’re feeling. I found it very duplicitous actually,” he says.
Gotz had no plans to leave the US but while back in South Africa on holiday he was chatting to Gary Leih, the founder of OFyt and the other directors, in a “what if” conversation. Gotz was looking at two positions in New York, but the opportunity to benefit the wider industry in South Africa that was offered by OFyt appealed to him more. “It’s always easier to do what you’re closest to,” he says.
Even though we’re quite polarised here, with lots of people having many different opinions, there are definitely large overwhelming characteristics that bind us together. We’re resilient, we’re resourceful, we can make a plan
Gotz says he finds the business culture in South Africa is a lot more honest and visceral. “We’re very direct in this country, we say what we feel. Being in Chicago in the mid-West, everyone was very nice and well mannered, but I found there was an inherent lack of passion and passionate affirmation. Even though we’re quite polarised here, with lots of people having many different opinions, there are definitely large overwhelming characteristics that bind us together. We’re resilient, we’re resourceful, we can make a plan,” he says.
OFyt’s unique fusion of seasoned advertising professionals and friends, with young talent drawn primarily from historically disadvantaged backgrounds appeals to Gotz.
As an agency we’re not making a huge amount of money, but we’ve spent nearly R2m on an intern programme over the last two years and that’s more than the profit that we’ve taken out of this business. What this really is, is just a big skills transfer incubator
“There’s a very sincere commitment on the part of the old friends, which is why this agency started, to benefit the wider industry in this country as a whole. As an agency we’re not making a huge amount of money, but we’ve spent nearly R2m on an intern programme over the last two years and that’s more than the profit that we’ve taken out of this business. What this really is, is just a big skills transfer incubator,” he says.
Whereas the bigger agencies generally take on a substantial number of interns, less than 10% of them actually land jobs there, according to Gotz. “Our hiring rate on interns here is much higher than that. And if we don’t hire them, we place them all. We won’t let an intern leave here without finding them a position first. Throughout account management, creative and strategy, you’ll see interns that we’ve hired and are now working their way up. We bring them in from a diverse range of backgrounds and then place them in the disciplines that they’re best in. At any one time here, 25% of the entire agency are interns. And another 40% of the agency are ex-interns. The plan is for the interns to become the nucleus of this agency’s future,” he says.
He’s excited about the partnership that OFyt has with Learn 2 Earn – a Khayelitsha based NPO, and the Kasi Friends Kasi Talent agency, which provides advertising and marketing services as well as business skills development to entrepreneurs and SMME’s in townships, and to businesses and brands operating in the township space.
They’re also working with the newly established Philippi Business Village, a R500m development entrepreneurial hub and are about to open an agency there to service the SMMEs who are based there. This has led to them being awarded the account to market the development itself, which is the first big client for the Kasi agency.
We’re offering township businesses whatever marketing and advertising services they need to help them grow. The whole process is iterative so it’s exciting to see where it’s going to go next
“There’s no other agency who has a constant presence beyond the city centre. It’s a virtual agency at the moment, populated by our interns. We do have a bricks and mortar presence at Learn 2 Earn and we will be setting up a bricks and mortar agency at Philippi Business Village. We’re offering township businesses whatever marketing and advertising services they need to help them grow. The whole process is iterative so it’s exciting to see where it’s going to go next,” he says.
The township agency is not only for SMMEs. Gotz says there are large businesses with networks turning over R20 – R30m per month that need strategic advice.
“The benefit for us here is that it allows us to learn so much about the market, because when you’re teaching, you’re also learning – working with township businesses has allowed us access to knowledge, insights and inspiration that we would never had access to otherwise, so it’s a symbiotic growth for everyone involved,” he says.
The fast-paced, dynamically evolving township business sector is growing at a much higher rate than the formal economy in South Africa and Gotz is excited to be part of that growth. “It’s so inspiring as a South African, where we spend so much time complaining that this country is so fucked, and then you go out there and see how unfucked it actually is. Put aside government and put aside big business and look at the potential of small businesses. It’s extraordinary,” he says.
For Gotz, one of the benefits of working for a smaller, independent agency is the fact that money is not being repatriated to New York or London, but is going back to the people that actually need it.
I think it’s naïve to say that it’s a pity that 50% of the money that we make in South African advertising gets repatriated to London, but quite frankly I do think it’s a shame
“I’m happier with the idea now that if I go into a pitch situation and win, that I win the pitch for the agency and half the money is not going to someone in New York or London. Of course I understand the nature of commerce and I think it’s naïve to say that it’s a pity that 50% of the money that we make in South African advertising gets repatriated to London, but quite frankly I do think it’s a shame,” he says.
He feels local agencies don’t need to be part of a huge global conglomerate in order to succeed. “If you look at smaller entrepreneurial ventures like OFyt and some of the small black-owned agencies that are starting to do well in Joburg, it makes you think why do we have to be so beholden to the big holding companies? We know how to do advertising here, do we really need them to tell us how to do it in this country? I know it’s how big business works, but when every second dollar you make in a company of 80 000 people is going to pay the chairman of the holding company’s bonus, it starts feeling a bit wrong when you live in South Africa,” he says.
Gotz is concerned about the lack of diversity in South Africa’s advertising industry and believes that the barrier to entry needs to come down. “We have a problem in this country because we don’t develop young creative talent that is right on our doorstep. Historically there’s been a barrier to entry into the industry here – it’s often been a closed club for those who went to private school and expensive advertising colleges and are connected to people in the industry.
“Agencies here are largely populated by one particular type of person that doesn’t reflect South Africa in the greater context. White privilege is very pronounced in this industry, and even looking at myself, I believe that my background and family connections definitely helped me to get started,” he says.
This should be addressed not just in advertising, but by all the creative industries in South Africa. “We need to actively look for talented people and make opportunities available to them, because it is often too difficult for those people to break through,” he says.
South Africa has a history of producing great artists, writers and filmmakers and Gotz stresses the importance of nurturing the creative industries for the future. “There is so much creative talent here that can be unlocked and tapped into.”