It has been more than 16 years since Festus Masekwameng (40) officially touched down in the advertising district.
In a conversation leading up to this advertising series, FCB Africa’s chief creative office Ahmed Tilly drew a picture of the advertising industry during the teething years of South Africa’s democracy and how it had to do some catching up. “Back in the Eighties and Nineties, black audiences were completely ignored or patronised.”
He explained how under the high of a rainbow nation ideal, black creatives were brought on board at entry level and advertising agencies gradually began to “recognise black consumers”. After years of sidelining them, the industry had no references for reaching the black demographic and, with training wheels secured onto the black creative’s reach, their input was narrow.
During this time, Masekwameng became one of the first black creatives to play the role of wayfarer. Led by a number of creative curiosities and hypotheses, rather than the push towards transformation in advertising, Masekwameng did groundbreaking work. The result was that it carried political weight, packed a humorous punch and facilitated changes that have afforded him authority in the industry.
Masekwameng has been the jury chairperson and board chairperson of the Loerie Awards, a panel member for New York Advertising Festival,and an executive council member of the Creative Circle, to name a few achievements.
The first spark into advertising was unknowingly lit in Masekwameng’s childhood. Growing up in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo, a young Festus would sit through a number of radio and TV drama series, waiting to hear the jingles.
“Wabona nna, I come from an era of jingles. You know the old Bull Brand jingle? I used to wait for it on radio just to sing along,” he says, before breaking into the song that was sung in sePedi. “Then years later I learned gore [learned that] no man, there are people who go to school to make this happen and I was captured from there,” Masekwameng says in his nonchalant, clever ya kasi tone.
The discovery that he speaks of happened while he was weeks away from completing his third year of civil engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. As a campus radio deejay, he was booked to play at a AAA School of Advertising end-of-year party. On arrival, he mingled with some of the students and learned that there was more to advertising agencies than casting models. At that moment, a veil was removed and he approached the calling that stood before him.
“I mean, I discovered advertising at an end-of-year function so, vele, they had closed their applications for the next year. I still applied,” he chuckles. “I didn’t quite make the cut but, come January, when they said they were interviewing students for final admission, I sat in the reception just loitering.”
Somehow Masekwameng managed to get an interview with one of the lecturers, who mistook him for a shortlisted student who was running late. “When she discovered who I really was we had already established some sort of chemistry. She told me I had to wait to hear if a space had opened up. I didn’t wait; first day of school I was there. The rest is history.”
Because he was studying at Wits on an Eskom bursary, dropping out meant he would have to hustle his way through advertising school. “Ke dintho tsa go rata dilo [That’s what comes with liking things],” he sighs when remembering the consequences that came with his radical career change.
For the first two years, Masekwameng paid his way using the money he made from deejaying. In his last year, he approached Hunt Lascaris, the advertising agency currently known as TBWA, saying that he would work for them in exchange for funding. “It wasn’t a set bursary at the time. Fortunately I wasn’t coming fresh from high school so I was able to bargain.”
In 2002, Masekwameng began his internship at Hunt Lascaris. One of the first people he met was Zac “Disco” Modirapula, the creative director who currently runs Amacreatives, a digital platform that showcases the ins and outs of black creative entrepreneurship.
“The first day he walked in, I thought, ‘what an unorthodox creative’. He came through with a comrade spirit. Ke cadre and ne ele le pantsula because he was a guy from ko kasi who came through very educated. He had an intellectual background,” Modirapula says.
During this time, black creatives were brought on board based on their organic talent without the credential backing. Even though this opportunity gave them a foot in the door, it also kept them there because they did not have the authority that came with a qualification.
Looking back at this, Masekwameng says his early career confidence came from a place of not knowing how things worked in the industry.
“Nna, I was one of those naive creatives. I was curious about what I could do; that’s what drove my work,” says Masekwameng, whose journey began with radio commercials.
“When you come in as an outsider, some things are easier to spot because it’s obvious to your fresh eye.”
When he was commissioned to created ads for an SABC 2 show, he noticed how radio ads were conceptualised and scripted in English and then translated for other radio stations. In response to this, he pitched different concepts for each station, based on the language. “On Lesedi FM, it was an ad in Sesotho, on Thobela it was ka Sepedi. But it was different ads for different stations. It wasn’t a copy, paste and translate.”
By so doing, he created an appetite for content that spoke to the black demographic with an authentic tone. Unfortunately this was a skill set that many agencies did not have at the level of creative directors. Masekwameng remembers how compelled they were to “promote black creatives to positions of creative directors, or it would expose their incapabilities”.
Among the notable limbs from his body of work is the SABC 1 Yamampela campaign, titled A Day in the Life of PF Jones, in which white affluence was afforded to black characters and the black township experience was portrayed by white characters. This ad was aired in the evenings during the Generations or Yizo Yizo time slots, long before the channel’s Yamampela tag line was changed to “Mzansi for Sho”.
In the background is Kleva by Mapaputsi. He recites: “Bazosala/ Bazokhala/Leyi Kleva ziyagodola mak’gena mina la/Is’ghub se Kleva les/ Be ukuphi s’yenza lez?/Uzosala”.[Please don’t translate the lyrics]. Then we meet Bra PF Jones, a white man in a tattered golf shirt, gold chain and bucket hat. We wake up in his zozo house and make our way through his hood before he catches a taxi to town where he will try to phanda before being wrongfully identified as a criminal. The concluding title of the ad urges us to “Take another look at”.
When asked about the response to the ad, Modirapula remembers how Masekwameng shook the industry: “He changed the motherfucking industry. And it wasn’t just a creative piece. It was the first time a political statement was broadcast in a commercial and it was made by a black creative and it was allowed. For me, that made Festus an advertising cadre.”
Brazilian-born and South African-based multidisciplinary artist Guto Bussab, known for his work as a producer on Jerusalema and Gangster’s Paradise, echoes this sentiment.
“Festus brought authenticity,” says Bussab, who has worked in the ad industry as a director of photography. “Every job that we have made, he’s brought life to it. I think advertising can be a bit plastic and I think, because he knows the black market, he brought that in during a time when it was a fully white-led industry.”
When asked about his next move, Masekwameng says he is in his second year of study for an additional qualification. Although he laughingly withholds information about what it is, he says it will add to his work in the advertising and media industry. “A lot of career paths reach the ceiling. It’s important to evolve, reinvent myself and add to my skill set.”
In between assignments, deadlines and testing, he runs Makgonatsotlhe (MTK) Media, which specialises in public relations, digital services and alternative media solutions. Other than that, Masekwameng’s attention is focused on being “a dad and overwhelmed playmate to my boy Moreetse, which is everything”.