There is a general sense that media in South Africa has different nuances to the rest of the world, so how positive is it that we are importing leadership? Melina Meletakos finds out.
A mismatch between the supply and demand of available skills is forcing media agencies to turn to other countries to find top talent to run the South African arms of global entities.
In South Africa, three high-level media agency positions were filled by expatriates in 2014. MediaCom South Africa, which falls under WPP’s Group M, replaced Ian Manning in April 2014 with interim chief executive officer Julian Neuburger, who hails from the United Kingdom. He was the company’s former chief global client services officer before coming to South Africa.
Ravi Bhaya, the former managing director of Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG) Indonesia, was appointed managing director of SMG South Africa in October 2014 after being at the helm of SMG businesses in Vietnam and Indonesia. Not long afterwards, SMG South Africa announced that it had appointed Alexander Kunz as client managing director. Kunz has been at SMG for four years, most recently in London as the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) account director for Samsung and prior to that with SMG Austria.
The primary goal for an appointment beyond a country’s borders, says Bhaya, is knowledge transfer. “But if you can do that, it doesn’t mean that your job is done because as media agencies we are constantly transforming and evolving. There are so many changes happening on a yearly basis from a global product perspective that change is constant,” he explains.
“I believe the addition of offshore interim senior resources will play a vital role in building a base of talent in the future,” says MEC Group and Group M CEO Michelle Meyjes. “It will play a valuable role assisting with the development of business and technology models. The growth currently in the digital realm is already being experienced by offshore markets, so it’s key to learn from available resources of knowledge.”
Wayne Bishop, the managing director of PHD Johannesburg, says this kind of knowledge transfer is necessary in South Africa because a number of good local leaders have gone to work overseas. “It makes sense to groom leaders in the international market because they come back with a new level of understanding. But they aren’t coming back, because they find that it’s easier to just focus on doing your job overseas,” he says.
Bishop notes that examples of first-rate home grown talent include Tony Granger (global chief creative officer of Young & Rubicam), Julian Watt (executive creative director at HOST in Australia) and Peter Vogel (CEO of MEC Australia). “In South Africa, we have a talent squeeze. We have great leaders who are in their 50s, 60s and then a gap between them and the next tier, who are in their 30s and early 40s. People then get promoted too quickly and the talent just dries up. There aren’t enough people to choose from here,” he says.
Joint managing director of Vizeum South Africa Richard Procter agrees, saying that the pool of talent is small partly because the industry hasn’t created the best perception of what it actually does. “It’s not seen as the best career destination. People would much rather go into something like digital,” he says. Employees also move between jobs a lot more nowadays, which doesn’t create a sense of company loyalty. This makes it difficult for them to move up the corporate ladder, adds Procter.
And as the world becomes even smaller because of globalisation, this interchange of ideas, knowledge and products has become all the more necessary, especially for global agencies with global network clients. “The experience you have had with those clients across different markets allows you to build teams here in Africa that can deliver the same sort of attitude to those clients. From a global level, clients can see that they have the same deliverables, the same sort of talent across all the markets and that there are no discrepancies between markets,” says Bhaya.
This kind of talent mobility – or ‘liquid talent’ as it is often referred to – allows global agencies to retain their best employees without losing them to competitors, adds Kunz.
But having a borderless workforce does of course come with its own set of challenges. “The fact that they aren’t from South Africa counts immensely against them,” says Harry Herber, director and former group managing director of The MediaShop. “The local reality is that people aren’t willing to do you any favours if they don’t know you.”
Understanding the South African market’s nuances and idiosyncrasies is also difficult, says Procter. “We have a history that is, unfortunately, still very much a part of where we are today. Our market is also very diverse. People coming in from other markets need to spend a lot of time understanding all these kinds of things.”
How much of a greeting with open arms you get as a foreigner is a question that expatriates in every market face, says Bhaya. “People want to accept you, people want to like you, people appreciate what you are bringing in but it’s a constant work in progress. I think no one victory decides your fate but one failure can, especially if you’re an outsider managing a business with folks who have been here a while. There is a natural first scepticism – what are you bringing to the table? What are you offering that I can’t deliver?” he explains. The solution for people such as Kunz and himself, he says, is to root themselves in the system and adapt to local market conditions rather than expecting people to adapt to you.
Kunz says the adjustment is made easier because of his and Bhaya’s combined extensive experience working in other emerging markets in Indonesia and Eastern Europe. “It’s much easier coming from markets like Albania or Serbia than having the UK or French or German attitude of saying, ‘I don’t know why things aren’t perfect. There’s a dashboard and you should be able to press the button and have all the data’,” he says.
For Bhaya and Kunz, a further headache is the question of how long South African authorities will allow them to stay in the country as foreigners. While their contracts are open-ended, Bhaya says there is a lot of ambiguity about the length of their stay. “Is it two years? Is it four years? Is it open-ended? Can it be extended? Can it not be extended? We don’t have those answers. We are here on a two-year contract but our contracts are open-ended. There are limitations that the South African government has recently put into play,” he says.
“If the South African government makes it difficult for global companies to do business in the country, these companies will simply take their headquarters to another region in Africa,” adds Kunz.
So will we be seeing more talent from other markets being brought into South Africa in future? Bishop says it is a possibility, especially because local agencies are increasingly being snapped up by global companies. “This is happening especially on the WPP side. They are big on acquisitions. They essentially have two options: the first is to continue with the brand but have local leaders. The second is to bring international leadership in. I think we will possibly see more of (the latter) with the digital agencies because their position is more advanced in other parts of the world in comparison to the local market,” he says.
As for Bhaya, he says organisations will approach the notion of liquid talent differently in future. “I think these are things that will internally be a matter of discussion. But if we’re talking globalisation and how we approach things, there is going to be a continuous cross-pollination between global companies as well as within them,” he says. While this may be the case, the fact that South Africa is so far away geographically and the state of the economy could determine whether more international leaders will be brought into local agencies, adds Bhaya.
Procter says that there are certainly benefits to having liquid talent, but it’s important that grooming local talent is not neglected in the process. “I think South Africans also have a lot to share and give to other markets so in this process I would hope that we are getting the opportunity to go (and) work in other markets too.”
This post was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.