Sitting in a spacious office at their premises in Bryanston, Johannesburg, Mathe Okaba is relaxed as she talks about her appointment as CEO and her plans for the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA).
“My first impression is, ‘wow, what a well-oiled run machine’. Everything is in order. Odette van der Haar was at the helm for 11 years and for someone to be sitting in the same position for that long is not small. It shows the impact she was making and Odette was making great contributions to the industry,” says Okaba.
She has nothing but praise for Van Der Haar, but stresses that now that she’s taken up the role, it’s about “how I can take it to the next level”. She admits that there is still work to be done, especially as the business landscape is ever changing with new audiences, sub-sections and methods of communication, but reassures the industry that her mission is to ensure the ACA is future-fit.
Okaba has already had her first board meeting, getting to know the executive committee behind the organisation, and has visited four agencies already to introduce herself and hear their take on the state of the industry and their concerns.
Okaba only has to present her strategy for the ACA’s future in February 2019, so at present she is doing massive amounts of research into the industry, the players in it, and what is happening – including the trends.
One of the priority areas she wants to focus on is talent retention, and changing the perceptions of a career in advertising and communications, and creating an appetite for it from school goers and university students.
“For this industry to grow, we need to come up with retention mechanisms to keep people within the industry. That is going to be a big ask as I am dependent on agencies to make that happen. I can create the appetite for people to come into the industry, but agencies have to retain them,” she stresses.
Okaba identifies inclusivity as still a challenge for the ACA and the industry as a whole. “To see the industry transform and become inclusive, will be a flag on Kilimanjaro when we don’t even have to talk about it anymore. We are still talking about it because it is not done. We still have a lot to do,” she stresses.
She wants to see thee pace of transformation pick up in order to create a truly inclusive space.
Closer relationships between marketers and ad agencies
A growing area of concern, says Okaba, is the lack of close relationships between marketers and advertising agencies. Because marketers pay for the services that advertising agencies offer, Okaba wants to build closer relationships between the two sides to ensure that each understands the difficulties that the other faces.
“Margins are low in the industry and because of this, people aren’t getting paid. Marketers need to hear this and with them hearing it, how do we change this cycle. People working in ad agencies are working bloody hard and are expected to turn miracles, but then they are paid peanuts. For marketers to have empathy for our cause, they need to come closer to understand what ad agencies are saying,” Okaba emphasises.
Describing the South African advertising industry as a tough space, but with very clever people, she stresses that marketers need to see the value offered by players in the space.
Growing the membership
Sitting at 70 members at present, Okaba is looking to grow the organisation’s membership by at least 10%. She intends embarking on an information campaign about membership benefits via a series industry engagement sessions, with the first scheduled for 31 October.
She is targeting smaller agencies as she believes they need to sit with the big players so everyone is able to have the same conversation on the same level.
She adds that her listening skills are very valuable: “The ACA is not about me. It’s about all the member agencies and I have to listen to them and our stakeholders and bring the conversation closer. And in bringing them closer, the engagement should be tighter,” she says.
“Let’s stop having conversations in silos; let’s start having them together and building conversations. They may be difficult ones but we need to have them, and when we come out of them, everyone needs to feel as though they have won”.
Protection of advertising agencies (ensuring fair pitches and remuneration) and their IP is one of the main benefits of ACA membership, as are transformation initiatives, and research offered at more affordable rates.
Priorities for the rest of the year
The creation of a MAC Charter Sector Council is top of the priority list for Okaba and the ACA, which will audit the industry and ensure compliance with the MAC Charter. The release of the salary survey for the industry is also top of mind.
Okaba has a strong message about the industry for people. “The ACA is here to transform the industry, grow the industry, and professionalise the industry. People shouldn’t just think that advertising people are party people and drunk people. We are professionals and our careers need to be taken seriously.”
A diverse career history
Okaba has had a diverse career, working on all sides of media. She began in the advertising agency world at Grey Advertising, before moving to Herdbuoys McCann. A stint followed at Starcom, before she switched to the media owner side, spending 10 years at the SABC. The client side beckoned her next, as she made the move to Old Mutual, before she started her own venture. After that, she applied for and was appointed in her current position.
“I have an overall perspective. In terms of my knowledge, it goes deep and it goes broad,” she comments.
She describes her leadership style as tough, but inclusive. She delegates tasks and lets them get on with it, and believes she is “as good as my team”. A small, but very efficient, team of five people drives the ACA and its operations.
When she is at work, Okaba is kept busy by looking after her daughter. She used to scuba dive, but gave that up, but she enjoys travelling.
“I’m not here to create an ACA that is a watchdog that will bite people,” she says. “I don’t want to bite people. I want to offer supportive solutions to our membership… I look forward to working in the industry and creating an impact… I want ACA to be known from the ground up.”