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Sylvester Chauke Opinion: When race stands in the way of great ideas

Sylvester Chauke is an award-winning entrepreneur and cascader of the Stand Against Bland movement in marketing amongst other fun things. He is founder and Chief Architect of DNA Brand Architects, sits on the Advisory council for WEF Global Shapers and is a Board Member of the South African State Theatre.

Okay, another article about race in marketing communication – bleh. But you must admit that in the last few weeks there has been an underlying tone in brand communication that speaks to the lack of integration and “racial tension” in the ever so challenging and subjective world of brand building.

If you work at (or follow) Outsurance, MiWay or Pepsi (lest we forget Woolies and H&M at one point), you know exactly what I mean. Then again, how do we move forward if we do not highlight and address these niggles that hold us back as an industry? We have a real issue here and this is a qualm for thousands of marketing professionals in our colorful and diverse nation of winners (inserts wink).

I started working in the advertising industry in 1999, working for the biggest ad agency of its time, FCB. I joined a group of 12 graduates who made up the then Iziko Learnership Programme which aimed at stimulating black professionals into the ad industry. Well for me then, I was just so happy to get a placement so I can be part of this exciting creative bubble of ideas which I had been planning for way back when I was 12 years old. I did not however prepare myself for all the race negotiations, theatrics and gymnastics I would have to endure in my career….. deep sigh.

I was 19 years old then and it’s funny (and embarrassing) that for all these years, I have heard the word transformation being uttered in boardrooms and corridors more than eighty-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, six hundred and seventy-six times – you get my point, right? Yes, transformation and inclusiveness in the allure of the marketing and advertising bubble is slooooowly picking up but transformation of people’s minds is theee biggest stumbling block for all of us to play nicely together. Both sides!

I find myself in 2017 standing in boardrooms and still be seen and referred to as an excellent black professional. I repeat… an excellent black professional. Well for some, this could be such a nice compliment but to me, it is such a bother, which gets exacerbated the older I get. Can I not just be an excellent professional – full stop?

I get to sit in hundreds of boardrooms each month and it is quite scary that race is still standing in the way of great collaborations and great ideas in the advertising and marketing industry. I am not a saint myself I will admit, but why race hindering our progress in our boardrooms?

Without fail, Social Scientists would remind us that we come from a dark past in South Africa, that we are in the process of healing, that things are changing and that we will get there…..eventually. I do hope that in my lifetime, a great idea will be a great idea no matter the race, that excellence will be excellence and not just black or white excellence, that we would huddle together in boardrooms as professionals without that annoying classification of white and black… with white being so superior and black being somewhat short of white excellence.

I can guarantee that if race was not pervading our boardrooms, we would be whirling in great ideas and truly great collaborations - if we stopped tippy toeing! I imagine being in a room of professionals tackling brand communication issues without the usual cloud of race relations hovering around like an annoying drone. I believe a lot of magic would be unleashed and our industry would transform in leaps and bounds; based on mutual respect and appreciation in an increasingly tough economy and complex marketplace.

Anyway, it’s almost 2 decades in the industry for me and maybe, just maybe…we are about to hit the watershed. Pretty please!


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