Returning to the ad industry after a gap of seven years, Sizakele Marutlulle takes the helm at Grey South Africa, surprised but undaunted by the massive change that’s taken place in marketing. But the core issues are the same. Marutlulle’s ordered mind ticks them off by number, an ingrained habit. Talent has been lost; agency budgets have shrunk; they’ve lost control of the world of big budgets, now dominated by media buyers; ignorance and inexperience bedevil both agencies and clients; and the blind are often leading the blind.
Says Marutlulle: “Increasingly we have to deal with people who aren’t well versed in marketing. People with two years’ experience are promoted to brand manager. They don’t know enough to question the agency. Clients bark to disguise their ignorance. Ads are press releases or umbrellas to cover their inadequacies. So I’m deliberately bringing in older people who understand strategic discipline and match that with the young ones who know how to tweet.”
Marutlulle was head-hunted by an agent who piqued her interest by presenting the job as the one big opportunity she had to make a difference. That was reinforced by the briefing she received from international executives, who said: “We’ve lost our way. Help us get our mojo back.” She notes: “The inducement wasn’t come and run an agency but come and write a new chapter.”
It came as a relief to her to realise she didn’t need to have all the answers. But she certainly has some. Silos are banned in Marutlulle’s world. “My vision is to develop unexpected dual strengths in talented people. A strategist with a financial brain; creatives with a sense of money; client service executives with a love for ideas. Everyone must be creative. Being original is the hardest thing for an agency.”
With shaven head and severe suit, Marutlulle is a formidable presence. But she believes in a nurturing environment. “We want to work with people who are a culture fit: talented, rationally mature but also nice. Our success won’t be built on talented jerks. It will be built on kind people.
“Transformation is a non-negotiable in this agency. If we’re not integrated and diverse we’ll continue in the same old way.
She’s aware Grey “hasn’t had the most positive profile as an agency. We may have been forgotten. The objective is to earn our way back. And that can only be done through work that has traction. It’s early days but I’m not in any way despondent. You need awards to get the attention of clients and the best potential staff.”
She describes herself as a social scientist by training (with an MA from Wits), a marketer by design and strategist at core. She’s worked in agencies (was in the HerdBuoys team that took over McCann Erickson in the Nineties), was COO for SATourism and ran her own brand consultancy, Moonchild.
Marutlulle knows she’ll have succeeded when she starts receiving calls from clients who didn’t consider Grey before. “Confirmation from clients who feel unloved. A barrage of résumés from the best people in the industry. Healthy client relationships. Financial stability follows healthy relationships. If you focus on the money, the money won’t come.”