/ 26 August 2016

Imagining the Loeries from the future, where the current inequalities are dealt with

Imagining The

It is Saturday night in the Durban Convention Centre. The Loeries, a live commercial for the advertising industry, are about to begin. A woman’s voice welcomes everyone — in film, they call this the Voice of God and it controls the course of the narrative with its authoritative voice. In the old days, the Voice of God was a man’s but because the Loeries are transformed, it is now a woman’s.

The evening begins with live entertainment. In the old days, the entertainers were mostly black because black people are incompetent in many things but not when it comes to entertaining. At the transformed Loeries, it’s not only “Mafeekeezowlow” and other chart-topping dance stars such as Babes Wodumo and NaakMusiq shuckin’ and jivin’ on stage. In 2016, when black entertainers opened the show, it gave the impression that the Loeries were overcompensating for not having enough black people on stage winning advertising awards. So this year, Original Swimming Party, Sannie Fox and Timo ODV are also there.

The awards begin. In the old days, there were two long-legged, short-skirted women handing them out. They had a boxing-ring girl vibe about them, so they were replaced. Now the chairperson hands out the awards like a school principal does at the end of each term.

Speaking of chairperson, the job has become less of a token role over the years. They used to window-dress the transformation problem by picking a deserving black man or woman to chair the Loeries committee, even though the actual industry and its pervasive narratives remained in the control of white men. But at the transformed Loeries, the committee includes more women of all races and more than 35% queer and trans voices to balance the representation scales.

In the old days, in 2016 to be exact, the stage practically belonged to the chino- and shirt-wearing ad men, far more casual than their suit-armoured heroes and predecessors on Mad Men. Sure, almost a dozen women were part of the groups that won awards. Some of them were even presenters. One was even flown in from the United States to be part of the judging panel. Sure, Nunu Ntshingila was the first woman to be given an industry Hall of Fame award in the Loeries’ 38-year history. They were so proud of themselves for this shem. They kind of had to do something grand as there had been no female speakers at that 2015 conference. Not that she deserved it at all, as the head of Facebook Africa.

But the stage could have easily been mistaken for the training ground for the Springbok starting 15 that year.

Somebody was overheard saying: “This whole evening is an advert for white male heroes. Most of the people who won that night were men who happened to be white. More than 90% of the featured adverts were narrated in South African English accents. The hipster aesthetic of urban coffee roasteries and Tumblr was the dominant aesthetic for the entire advertising industry. In a lot of the winning narratives black and brown people of the Middle East were victims — of fires, slavery, Islamophobia, not knowing how to speak English, living in rural places where only Amarok bakkies driven by city people could access. That said, the white men were not overt heroes and didn’t appear in most of the ads: they just conceptualised them, which was the problem.

Take, for example, the threesome of white men who won a gold Loerie for a calendar they created for the Slave Lodge in Cape Town. To commemorate South Africa’s slave history, they photographed, quite beautifully, descendants of slaves who, on their arrival in Cape Town in the 17th century, were stripped of their original surnames and renamed according to the months in which they arrived. In the award-winning calendar, January to December were elucidated with the faces of the coloured people who still carry those surnames. The idea itself wasn’t distasteful. The problem with subtle capturing of narratives by one group, critics urged, is that they end up telling everybody’s story from their point of view, making for a limited and often inaccurate point of view and, consequently, portrayal.

“You might find that there are more women employed in the industry, but there aren’t enough of them in decision-making positions at these agencies. And the same can be said for black people,” said Khaya Dlanga, whose younger, untrained brother won a gold Loerie and a Grand Prix award for the first ad he ever made when he was an intern at Black River Football Club.

“If the industry was transformed, we wouldn’t still be talking about the portrayal of women [as sex objects, happy mamas or ditsy poppies] and black people [as perpetual dancers for airtime, chicken or bread or speaking in exaggerated and caricatured voices]’’ said Dlanga. The younger Dlanga’s Grand Prix (one of only four that year) served as an example of how many winning ideas are locked out by limited access to the industry. At the time of winning the Grand Prix award, he did not have a full-time job.

Back to the future
So how did the industry eventually transform itself? In addition to having strong female voices such as chairperson Suhana Gordhan, they started asking for advice from industry stakeholders.

Insiders such as Between 10and5 founder Uno de Waal had ideas as simple as ‘’introducing policies mandated by ad agency management to ensure that diverse teams come up with ideas for adverts, not homogenous groups of white men. Relevant ideas don’t come from homogenous groups,” he said.

He called for the re-evaluation of the industry echo chambers where, during industry events, the same people were talking to each other.

So tonight, in the future as they imagined it back then, the industry is practically unrecognisable. There are even wheelchair ramps to get on to the stage. The profit margins have exploded because of all the clients the agencies have across the continent and the world. There are prime-time isiZulu and Mandarin ads.

Boardrooms, which have become playrooms, have become democratised by the various pairings of people who might never have interfaced in the past because of access. The measure of what makes a good idea in this transformed industry is different. Good ideas aren’t tethered to race or gender but by access to spaces that allow creativity to flourish.

Milisuthando Bongela’s trip to the 2016 Loeries was sponsored by the Loeries.