We are in a race to all understand the customer- Zibusiso Mkhwanazi

Thirty three year old Zibusiso Mkhwanazi is the co-founder of Avatar agency, one of South Africa’s largest integrated agencies and Medium Advertising Agency of the Year 2016, providing employment to 60 people in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In this interview, Mkhwanazi talked about the changing landscape in the integrated marketing communication industry in Africa and what the furure hold for operators.


What is your philosophy in business?

Always try and do business with a purpose, that has a different bottom-line to what we are traditionally used to. It’s about how much good your business does to others. To break it down, one of the projects I do supported by Avatar is an entrepreneurship mentorship programme called David’s League. The reason why I wake up every day to come to Avatar is it supports things I am passionate about that have greater fulfilment than just financial reward.

What influenced the setting up of Avatar?

I was at a conference in New-York where the realisation hit me that the future of marketing was not in silos but an integrated approach. Another influence was the realisation that South Africa is a very diverse country and with a history of Apartheid, it meant people were diverse in terms of income, location, race, and that has a host of challenges. This is where I saw the gap for a business that will speak to all of South Africa’s diverse communities. Integration was one and diversity was the second but the thing that pulls it all together is digital. It’s using digital technology so that marketing can speak digitally in an integrated way to diverse consumers and that’s the opportunity I identified. This can be seen in the diversity of clients we have which range from government to private entities.

What was the group’s vision and mission at inception? Has it changed? If yes, how, if not why?

Our vision is to be respected internationally and preferred locally were we operate. That’s why I’m particularly happy to be doing an interview with a West African magazine. We want our name to be known internationally because our business is measured on world-class standards. That is why it hasn’t changed because whatever we do we benchmark our work not with our South African peers but as international competitors around the globe. Ultimately we want to gain traction in being respected internationally and by achieving that, then we will be preferred locally in which ever market we operate in.

What were the initial challenges faced when setting up operations?

It all started as a two man show and a vision. Access to capital was one, as the company was never funded. It grew from pitch to pitch and some came our direction. We found people that believed in us as human beings and by believing in us they believed in our business. They have been our clients ever since and we will never disappoint them.

You started off as an advertising agency, later the agency evolved and grown into a full IMC mega force, what informed this?

Avatar has always been an integrated agency from day one, although I come from a digital agency background were I ran a digital agency and my business partner Veli Ngubane comes from an advertising agency background having been a director at Island Davenport. That was the strength of Avatar from the start. The fact that when we were established in 2012, people were only starting to talk about integrated marketing while we started as exactly that. Our advertising agency peers and digital agency peers were trying to convert to that but were not believable. This was our one trump card because we started off as exactly that so our systems and processes were geared for that.

There are peculiarities that are germane to the IMC business; like networks, affiliations, industry debts, winning and losing of accounts and the likes. How have you been able to navigate these landmines?

It’s the constant focus to achieving ones goals. I’m inspired a lot by Steve Jobs when he states that when he started Apple Inc. the goal was not to build a better PC but to do something completely different. In building Avatar I do not particularly focus on things outside my vision but on building my vision. My biggest competitor is myself and trying to do better than I did yesterday.

Human capital in this industry has thinned out and replacing or replenishing them is a herculean task industry wide. How have you been able to retain your level of productivity in spite of the problem?

I believe in building people. I wear another hat as a pastor over the weekend and I always tell people who complain about their spouses that you build your own spouse to what you want them to be instead of complaining about what they do. I apply the same policy in terms of people in the business. It’s very hard to find very good people but when you find them and they feel they are growing they will stay in the company and others will want to come to the business.

What are the clear landmarks contributions of Avatar to creativity in advertising in South Africa?

We’ve always been an agency that is results driven and when we started we were conscious to say that we do not want to be an agency that is obsessed about awards. We have adopted a philosophy that says that when the client is happy, that is the award we want. When we see our business grow at over 100% year on year four years straight it means we are winning lots and lots of creative awards because it translates to bottom line for our clients. This business is a goals driven, results orientated type of operation even from a creative perspective. We do not do it for the award we do it for the results. There’s one award that we are particularly proud of and that’s winning the Financial Mail Medium Ad Agency of the Year 2016. This award measures the agency all around, from creative output, quality of clients, quality of people and so many other factors.

What are the implications of this new status as a global player?

The M&C Saatchi Abel deal presented Avatar with a lot of opportunities but what I would like to highlight is that Avatar and M&C are independent collaborators. What happened is that we both bought stakes within the two businesses. They have a minority stake in Avatar and we have also bought a minority stake into M&C’s South African network as well as African operations.

This means Avatar now has access to do business throughout the continent and as we speak now, we are pitching in about 7 different countries, some are African and others European.

What are the challenges therein?

With all great marriages are great problems but we are here to discover them. (Chuckles)

What is your view on the South African advertising industry going through a generational shift? Do you subscribe to this view at all? If yes, what is the implication for your group?

Change is a constant and it’s about getting a complicated balance right where you have experience and young-blood but getting them to speak in one language. Just because you have done something for a while it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily irrelevant in today’s world and also, when you’re fresh in an industry it doesn’t mean you know everything.

People in advertising agencies in general are getting younger. I can see even in my own business how youngsters are the majority but they need the experienced people to guide them until a time they are ready.

What is Avatar’s positioning in the evolution of the South African advertising business?

We want to be part of the conversation. We want to drive transformation hard in our industry. We live in a country of two economies were you have the extremely rich and the extremely poor, while the gap in the middle is constantly widening. What does that mean? It means as an industry we have to come together and agree inequality is wrong. Once we get to that point we can start building an inclusive industry and not just an industry of people from the right schools and families.

If we do this as an industry, the work itself that comes out of this industry will be more relevant to the people we are trying to market to because we will have all the right diverse views, insights and balance in terms of what we produce.

How will you assess your generation and the impacts it made compared to older generations?

One of the things I want to do is to build South Africa’s first big black-owned agency. We have never had that in South Africa and beyond that we also have ambitions to grow with like-minded people within the continent. This means that agency must have a strong African network. That has never been done before by any agency, white or black.

How do you envisage the shape of things to come in the industry?

There is going to be a major shake-up. The only constant is change and there’s lots of change coming. We are seeing consulting businesses become agencies but 5-10 years ago it was not the case. We are in a race to all understand the customer and that race will bring about a paradigm shift were we are going to move into advertising that is numbers driven and not just from a research perspective.

We are going to need greater measurability from the client and we are going to need skills to solve that problem. Even corporate structures are going to change.

What is your group’s competitive edge?

Remember, Avatar has always been an integrated agency and that was our Achilles when we started because clients didn’t know where to place us because they didn’t know who to refer us to, the brand manager or the digital manager. What we do cuts across everything and we lost a lot of opportunities in the past because of that structure but sticking it out and hanging in there with that type of structure has now started to yield results because that’s what clients are increasingly starting to look for. A business that can adapt to a change in corporate structure, which is what we already are. So for us it’s just to be constantly listening more than



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