Industries benefit when they have inclusive and diverse leadership, says Sizakele Marutlulle. (Graphic: John McCann)
Little has changed in the advertising industry and its messaging since Sizakele Marutlulle entered it more than 20 years ago.
“The lack of diversity then is still prevalent today in advertising messages. We are still lagging far behind in terms of representation of female creatives at the helm [of advertising agencies],” says the founder and chief executive of Marutlulle and Co.
By way of illustration, she adds: “When I was deputy managing director of Herdbuoys, from 1999 to 2004, I was one of four women at the helm of an ad agency in South Africa. And I’m certain that if you were to take the count today, you would not be able to count more than five.”
Marutlulle adds that this lack of representation is a problem. “The industry and our clients aren’t getting the benefits of what happens when you have an inclusive and diverse leadership and creative team taking care of their brands and businesses.”
She’s doing a PhD through the University of Witwatersrand, where she completed her MA in communications sociology. Marutlulle says that a major challenge for the industry is “really about showing a different way of presenting consumers who are black in ways that are affirming and don’t necessarily rely on stereotypes”.
On the lack of representation of women in the sector, she says some female creative practitioners “are fortunate enough to work with men who are proud to identify as feminist”.
“These men will be deliberate in creating equal opportunity and access for female partners to grow.
“A level of bravery and courage is also required on the part of clients to say, ‘If I am marketing a product to a female consumer who is black, why do I only have a white male team working on this?’” she adds.
Marutlulle, counts mentoring young women and men entering the industry as “one of the proudest moments in her career”.
“I have had the absolute pleasure of taking care of 10 women ﾑ I call them ‘divas’ ﾑ who have been in my life for more than 10 years now. And I’ve had the benefit of just being able to guide them in professional and personal matters. But they’ve also been able to guide me. Because mentorship is a relationship, it’s not a one-way street.”
She’s unable to meet many requests to mentor other young people. “I only have a limited bandwidth,” she says, so she decided to establish The Exchange. Through this platform, 15 of her “equally successful brothers and sisters” in the sector get to meet 15 young people.
“One of the highlights for me is just being able to create a business that is uniquely positioned to support pro-African companies.
“And I deliberately say ‘pro-African’, because we want to work with brands that believe in Africa’s future. Because we sit at the intersection of commerce, creativity and culture, what we do is say to a client, ‘We can solve your commercial problems using our creative know-how, but it is important that we have a positive social impact’.
“We’re not just trying to get people to buy more chicken or open more bank accounts. We are always asking what positive imprints we are leaving on society as an outcome of our own communication journey.”