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Some thoughts on various subjects

Spike Lee

Digitally On Edge

That one time you traveled a thousand miles (should be kilometres but miles sounds better) only to get re-told what you have been saying to everyone else all along.

As creative professionals in a small market, we might sometimes develop an inferiority complex when we see work from larger markets with bigger budgets and mandates. I guess its natural; we watch them do amazing things all the time, big budgets, big campaigns – pretty much big everything. When you compare all that with our ‘biggest’ work campaigns done with meagre resources, it’s hard not to sometimes feel wanting.

So as we boarded the plane that morning, we were excited. It had been another long night, working on wowing a potential client. We were tired, but we were excited. We were going to see the crème de la crème of the digital advertising world. We were like Moses going to the Mountain Top; the Gods of Advertising were going to give us the 10 commandments of how to kick ass and create even more powerful work for our clients.

The speakers and their works were as impressive as the set up. Giants, generals, masterminds and prophets of digital marketing took the stage and shared their successes, philosophies and hopes for the industry. The theme of the night (it was actually day but night sounds better) was creating stories. The Digital Edge sought to explore story telling and how we can harness its power to do more than win audiences- by creating partners and making a difference for brands, the community and (most importantly) the wallet.

I had expected (on some level) to be picking up and absorbing new knowledge to add to my own as I continue striving to one day bring home a Cannes Lion, Loerie or even a Gold Pencil Award. I found that the more closely I listened, the less I felt like Moses on the Mountain Top watching God type on a stone iPad.

Euphoria fading, I was now a witchdoctor sitting at a round table with fellow inyangas listening to their exploits of boloi; it felt oddly familiar #Siyavuma.

Unfolding like a story, the conference started with talks about how storytelling is a part of us. For as long as there has been humanity, there have been stories. In the words of the Native VML’s CEO, Jason Xenopoulos, “Storytelling is the organizing principle of reality.” It is our way of organizing the endless stream of information we are constantly bombarded with. We create our own world through stories, and technology has and continues to revolutionize the way we tell and are told stories.

Think about it: 10 years ago, only rich people like Paris Hilton made sex tapes that went viral. Today, give a camera phone and Facebook to anybody and with a bit of thought and creativity, anything can get a hashtag. And that content can be shared millions of times in an instant. Technology has democratized story telling and marketing (what we are really talking about). Gone are the days when marketers could tell lousy stories and get away with it. The people are too busy creating and telling their own stories to waste time on pretentious, out of touch and unresponsive brands. It’s scary that in this climate, some clients still insist on one- way communication with their customers when it’s apparent that people don’t want to be spoken at, they want to be communicated with.

‘Siyavuma’, I thought to myself as I remembered that this was the insight that we had when we started SKY Girls BW. SKY is a movement for girls by girls, not one that shouts at them to change or do things. It is a brand that walks alongside them and joins them in their story, empowering them to choose exactly what they want and do not want to be involved in.

And the data speaks for itself. Within a year and a half, SKY became one of the biggest pages in Botswana, with over 52, 000 ‘likes’ on their Facebook page, a bimonthly magazine and two radio shows. What makes SKY so unique is the fact that all of the content that is generated across the different platforms is sourced directly from the girls- it has truly become a mouthpiece for them. Girls around the country aspire to be SKY girls, consuming SKY content and engaging at an alarming rate, and all we did was talk to them. Isn’t that what we really want anyway, someone to talk to us?

The democratization of storytelling has now given power to everyone to reach out to the world. A perfect example was given by Dr Sindi Van Zyl (a real doctor), who spoke of her exploits in leveraging social media to make a difference in the lives of HIV-positive pregnant women. “The journey of HIV positive pregnant women is a long one and the system does not provide adequate support for them. This frustrated – and angered – me. I decided to use digital to make a difference.” Proclaimed the doctor. What started, as ‘a ke thuse hale’ (let me help, there), has now become a powerful initiative, helping many HIV-pregnant women in South Africa and around the world with personal advice about their healthcare and those of their loved ones.

Siyavuma’. If I had a penny for every time I heard someone say, “Mme kana, ha goromente a ka re…” (If only the government would…) It’s time we get off our (individual and collective) butts and just do stuff. Social media allows us so much opportunity to create change in our communities and create narratives of value for communities and businesses alike.

Where I work, (where my salary comes from) folks are pretty passionate- you could say extremist even- so when they see something that needs change they tend to move to create it. Among their ranks is @ObieDigital (also known as Obakeng Kokwe), founder of the first online entertainment magazine in Botswana, EBW Magazine. Miss T, (Taelo Maphanyane), eventer extraordinaire, who is passionate about documenting her beloved nation, recently started an initiative to document and promote the best places to visit all over the country. Even yours truly is passionate about promoting literacy, and co- founded Poets Passport, a poetry collective that seeks to get young people reading and expressing themselves.

I could go on, but I’m hoping you get the point; being proactive and leading the change is in our DNA, so as the social entrepreneurs and activists spoke, I found my head nodding by itself #MeTooVibes.

One of the speakers that really moved me was Musa Kalenga, the client value partner for Facebook in Africa. The core of his message was that it’s easy with all these many technologies for telling stories, to get lost in the tech and miss the most important part of the story, the humanity.

He is right. It’s important for a brand to bring to life the benefits of their product/ service in a way that speaks to our humanity, otherwise their message may never hit home. We had a similar challenge recently when one of our bigger clients, a local mobile operator, wanted to launch 4G LTE Internet. We wanted to speak about the speed and generous amount of data available, but were aware that the truth is- no one really focuses on the gigabytes of data, or fast Internet. What we want is what connectivity offers us the opportunity to do: work, play and talk to our loved ones.

The final product was a heartwarming TV ad about a man chatting with his wife and baby. There was no mention of gigabytes or MBPs. It was one of the most successful TV ads for the brand, and won a Segai at the recent Association of Communication Agency Awards. What we figured is, essentially, it doesn’t matter what medium or technology you use to tell your story- the key is to create a real connection.

Last, but definitely not least, was the world famous, award winning film director and master storyteller, Spike Lee. Like a master Jedi addressing padowans on the finer details of The Force, his words were few but his message was strong. Showcasing a preview of his latest movie, Lee emphasized the importance of using our power as story- tellers to create a positive change.

“Siyavuma for sure.” Thinking about home, I felt the same. We definitely need a positive change in our industry, we need brave clients and even braver agencies, brave enough to stand by their ideas and defend them until they bear fruit for our clients. If agencies are to create ground- breaking work, our clients should be willing to let them do what they do best, and together champion the success of the brand.

There is a need for us to collaborate with our clients and keep them in the loop as technology keeps improving and opening up new avenues and opportunities to engage our audiences. There is so much more we can do for our clients beyond TV, radio, print and Facebook. The connectivity of everything allows us to create dynamic campaigns across multiple touch-points (just a little marketing jargon) that speak to different people how and where they want to be spoken to. Few brands across the world have managed to get this right.

 

After Master Lee spoke, I was rather sober. I walked down feeling melancholy, as I pondered on the situation back home. The bar was resplendent with half filled Jameson whiskey glasses. They knew I would need a drink. God bless the sponsor. I stood on the balcony with Obie Digital, and we digested the conference in silence, for a moment. “You know, a lot of this stuff we’ve been doing with SKY,” Obie spoke as he looked at the bottom of his empty glass. “It works. We have proved that we can do it, now we just have to find another client brave enough to let us catapult them over the digital edge.” (Ugh! He always takes the coolest lines)

Thato Ntshabele is a Copywriter and Strategic Planner at The Dialogue Group. He recently attended the Digital Edge Conference headlined by acclaimed film director Spike Lee in Johannesburg, South Africa, together with Obakeng Kokwe the firm’s Head of Digital. Ntshabele penned his musings about how their work has, at its core, the spirit of telling human stories about brands that really resonate with an audience.


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