Inside advertising: A Q&A with Ahmed Tilly

As the chief creative officer of advertising agency FCB Africa, Ahmed Tilly is of the belief that black professionals in the industry have to show up and fight harder for the industry to transform. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

As the chief creative officer of advertising agency FCB Africa, Ahmed Tilly is of the belief that black professionals in the industry have to show up and fight harder for the industry to transform. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

How did you get into advertising?

What I loved about it was the career allowed me to exercise my creative muscle and use the power of words which was amazing. I love the idea of being able to start something on a blank page. That’s what draws me back to work everyday.
I’m surrounded by amazing creatives. It’s the ability to use words to persuade and entertain. I’ve been employed for 22 years and I studied it for three years.

What role should advertising play?

Look I mean first and foremost advertising by definition is salesmanship. We come in knowing we’re salespeople with the power of persuasion to create branding that ultimately sells products. It’s definitely commercial, I’ve never been embarrassed about that. I understand that the role goes beyond selling but that’s what we do.

This must come with a lot of responsibility. How do you balance making sure what you put out there is considerate?

I think it’s crucial. The problem comes in when you’re talking about masses. We’re talking to millions of people and within there lies the difficulty in finding a balance between a fair reflection of people and their thoughts. That’s where a lot of us get it wrong. That’s why you have to constantly do the work to ensure that it’s not offensive or inaccurate. A number of different things come into play. That’s what we deal with on a daily basis, especially now with the internet. So it’s a very difficult ocean to navigate because you’re talking to so many people.

How do we do that, limit the offence?

I’ve always employed this theory of having the audience in the room. We have to employ a diverse group of people. And when I say diverse I don’t just mean racially, I mean culturally, sub culturally and class because I’m finding more often than not one person cannot be the representative of millions of people, but fifty will have a better understanding of a large group of people. I find that the conversation that happens behind closed doors in the ad agencies, if those conversations are open and honest enough, you can get to a point where the whole team is able to express themselves in order to divert these issues that are happening in the media. You will hear me say this a lot, if you don’t have the lived experience of the target market, of the audience you are speaking to, you’re gonna get something wrong. It’s just the way it is. Unless you have a lived experience within that audience and are intimately involved with people within that audience. The lived experience is crucial in understanding the empathy which is what I think is lacking for people who are relying on data and research to make creative work. They’re looking at it superficially. Those are words on a paper and you can’t have a deep understanding of what is meant and what they go through. I don’t believe you can empathise unless you have a shared lived experience. I believe that a lot of that definitely averts a lot of the issues. That is how people get it wrong.

But then there are different elements that go into ad campaigns: the client, the agency, the consumer and the regulatory boards.

The regulatory boards are a point too late. They can get the rulings right or wrong but that is right at the end of the journey. What I concern myself with more is the journey, which has to do with the agency, the client behind the brand and the research companies. As I made the point earlier about representation and diversity on the ground. Think about it this way, if the person who leads a sportswear brand in terms of communication has never played sports. They can read everything about sport but they can never empathise with what it is like participating. If you hire people who have the lived experience of your brand’s target market you starting off at the right place. Majority of the brands in this country speak to a black audience. If the person managing communication of a brand is not black, I don’t believe that they can be that sophisticated in their choices about their target market. No research can get you to understand what that consumer is seeing, feeling, or experiencing. When the brief goes to the ad agency from the client, that is already at a place that is not accurate. Then it comes to the agency. Now the agency, also not coming from a lived experience means there is a whole lot of guesswork. So now you have two parties that are doing guesswork. Then there’s the role of the people who execute the idea is. It’s amazing how you can look at a text and think I understand what they were saying but why am I offended by what I am looking at. And that is in the manner in which the idea has been executed. If you get the little things wrong, it takes the consumer to a place where they’re offended. Even if on a script level it makes sense. I think the regulatory bodies are the least important in the chain, starting with the client, the agency, the producers of the agency, the research company. Those are the important points that ensure that the essence of what you are trying to communicate is reflected accurately, fairly and interestingly.

With brands like the ones behind the likes of Johann Rupert, do you think it’s possible for transformation to happen and to reach the top level. Is it happening?

You are asking one hell of a question and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. The question is not about transformation with the advertising industry, it’s about the transformation of the country. That’s the crucial point, ownership of products and brands is not held by the majority of this country, everything else falls flat. This is about entrepreneurship, ownership, monopolies and capitalism. It’s about the lack of black owned businesses at that level. That is a monumental task. It’s not gonna happen overnight so let’s look at the situation now, and the top level is still white.

The least we can do, from how I look at it retrospectively from the way consumers were reflected back in the 80s and 90s, black audiences were completely ignored or patronised. The least we can do as a communication industry, without changing the status quo at the top, is reflect the audience in a respectful manner. We have an obligation to represent and portray our audience correctly.

Is the industry getting better?

I think I’ve run out of patience. Getting better is just not good enough. The radical change needs to happen because we need to catch up. If we look at executive level in marketing in the industry, the audience isn’t represented. The power sits with the cheque. The approval of every idea happens there. I don’t think that the senior level of the marketing department in major corporations in the country is fully representative. It is still white. Black brand managers are coming in but do they have the power? They don’t. If that’s the case, how do expect things to change? Nothing will change.

Is there anything else that you would like to shed light on?

I think the representation thing is an old one and people are tire of hearing it. The irony is that when I started in the industry 22 years ago, this conversation was being had. I’m having the same interview about transforming the industry. But the industry still isn’t representative in terms of black professionals, CEOs, CCOs, marketing directors. There’s a handful of black creative up there. And I haven’t even gone into the representation of women. When we talk about empathy it also needs to extend past the audience to a point where your own workforce, you need to know how they think, where they live, their experiences, how they get to work, if you don’t have the empathy there how will you have it for the masses?

But responsibility lies not only with white ownership changing but with black ownership. Black professionals in the industry have to show up, we have to fight harder. We can’t sit back because we’ve made it to the top. We’ve got to take that criticism. I look at my peers who are sitting in equally influential positions, and I don’t think we have done enough within our industry. The time of talking the talk is done. We have been given that responsibility and I challenge my peers. Make that change and demand more. 

This interview is part of an on going series on the advertising industry in South Africa. 

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