Opportunities for marketing entrepreneurs: digital disruption, experiential resurgence & diversity in leadership

In Agency Think Piece by Rachel Briant

(First published on The Media Online.)

The events of the last few years has led to major disruption for the marketing industry, and not all of it has been bad. Everything went digital, with consumers in emerging economies making the greatest shift to online shopping (according to United Nations data), and South Africa ecommerce growing exponentially (by 66% year-on-year in 2020). Co-founder and CEO of Without A Doubt Agency, Grant McPherson, weighs in:

Yes, events and experiential took an absolute knock, it was down on its knees but, for what felt like the first time, South African brands began to grasp the true power of tapping into virtual communities – for example, through webinars – and began to really invest in digital transformation.

Like many other businesses, our agency took a lean approach during the pandemic. Although we had been playing in the experiential marketing space, we were fortunate enough to be able to shift more into strategic communications and implementation of digital strategies during this period – a home-based content style of marketing, so to speak.

In response to our clients’ needs, we added a live broadcast streaming element to our services with in-studio panelists, multiple camera angles and other more engaging elements to combat Zoom fatigue. This was an area we had to majorly upskill in almost overnight and is testament to the value of remaining agile. Being open to adapt is a necessity not only for the marketing sector, but as an entrepreneur.

We also launched one of the Top 10 Innovation Podcasts for a client of ours during this time, which was a major win considering the circumstances. The way South Africans consume media also changed significantly during lockdown, with monthly online audio consumption increasing by 56% over the last two years (according to local podcast experts and agency collaborators, The Stellar Effect). This is forcing many local brands to now more seriously consider adding this tactic to their marketing arsenal.

Entrepreneur first, marketing expert second

The entrepreneur is always able to find the opportunity in a downturn, much like the metaphor of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Africa is testament to this as a continent of thriving innovation. Growing up, entrepreneurship was always sold to me as the solution. So I jumped – but it has certainly not been an easy journey. There are many challenges within the entrepreneurial space, such as access to capital, opportunities and support.

Recently I sat on a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) committee in a consulting role for a social development client of ours and it was a real eye opener for me. I came to recognise my own habits and learnt about the concept of “privilege of space”, which highlighted for me the stark realities that many would-be incredible entrepreneurs face on this continent. Just by the fact that I received a quality education, come from a middle-class family that’s supportive, and have experience working in the corporate private sector already put me ahead of so many others when I started out on my own.

In an industry that has its own challenges when it comes to diversity (such as ‘fronting’ and a distinct lack of B-BEEE presence sitting at exec level) I would say that we definitely need more examples of relatable business leaders in order to drive true transformation. Additionally, it requires both brands and agencies to make deliberate decisions about their supplier base; consciously choosing to develop certain individuals and businesses, instead of always going for the most convenient option available.

I was recently interviewed for a research paper on being a person-of-colour who is also the owner of an agency around the changing landscape within South African marketing – whether or not there has been true impact? My short answer was no, this is highlighted by the recent formation of the Black Agencies Network Association.

Looking forward….

I am excited by what the new wave of work will look like as we emerge from working in physical isolation, which led to much inward introspection. We’re seeing more and more what an individual with a social media following, an iPhone and the internet is capable of doing in the marketing space. This makes me enthused by how we can up this offering in my own agency – with a focus on clients who understand the value of full service and growth within a digitally dominated market.

Furthermore, as the stringent rules of mask wearing and limitations on gathering numbers are dropped, there is excitement in the air about the comeback of in-person activations. Humans are naturally social and crave stimulus, so brands are presented a fantastic opportunity to jump into a new sphere of immersive experiential marketing, which is perhaps more personalised. We have already seen the bounce back of in-person eventing in countries that have been ahead of the curve with regards to vaccine rollouts.

In addition, ‘purpose marketing’ has shifted into major focus (44% of cosumers choose products and brands based on how well they align to their values, an IBM study showed), and as consumers faced with their own mortality become more empathetic, the trend towards ESG emphasis was accelerated. There is pressure for more transparency among brands, and the purchasing power lies with those that best align with customers’ values.   

Tips for aspiring marketing entrepreneurs:

  • Don’t give up when the going gets tough; if it was easy, everyone would do it
  • Remain approachable and don’t be scared to ask for help
  • At the beginning, don’t be afraid to do work as part of a trade exchange to build up your credentials and networks (for example, events and PR)
  • Remember that entrepreneurship is not a linear journey
  • Be bold. Put yourself in spaces that afford you the opportunity to network, generate work or income
  • Be ready to upskill and tweak your offering in response to a changing landscape – whether it’s a global pandemic or a kid with an iPhone undercutting you

Like every entrepreneurial story, the journey is not yet over for me. I am optimistic about what the future holds and hopeful about the forthcoming growth phase. Watch this space!