If you want to move people, you have to show that you actually care about what matters to them.

Comfortable in his low-key, serene and modestly sized office in the Ogilvy building, cow skin rug at foot and a couple of Drum-printed cushions on the couch, Alastair Mokoena hops up from his neatly kept desk to join us on the couch for a laid back chat about where he came from, what he’s been up to, and his perspective on the state of our country. 

Tell us about your journey in marketing, and how you came to be the MD of Ogilvy

It’s a long journey, I grew up in a family business where my dad used to play professional football for Kaizer Chiefs, and when he retired he went into business. So I was exposed to business from a young age.

I studied law, but when I finished I realised that I had more of a passion for marketing, brands and business, so I joined Unilever in 1998 as a marketing trainee and moved through various positions until I found myself as the marketing director for Cadbury. Kraft then bought Cadbury and things started changing, so I decided to take a break – a sabbatical, from corporate.

It was meant to be a break but it ended up being the busiest time of my life. I set up both a strategy consulting business called Birds Eyeview, as well as a business based on photography and print, and became an art developer and collector. I did an MBA, had a child, and rebuilt my house. All of those things nearly killed me. After 18 months I thought no, it wasn’t meant to be this hectic.

Walking into the office of the newly appointed managing director of one of the country’s greatest creative agencies gives a great insight into the man himself.

I’ve spent pretty much my entire career building and positioning brands and evaluating creative work, but I had never worked inside of an advertising agency. I had never been a part of creating magic. I wanted to experience that for myself.

When I started my career at Unilever 18 years ago, Ogilvy was my first agency. I was a client of theirs for almost eight years, so I’m friends with the management team, and many of clients are former colleagues. For me, working in a space where friendship and getting the work done are equally important is crucial. I’m a relationship guy, I’m not just about getting the work done, I like to combine the two.

Coming to Ogilvy made a lot of sense, and I’m here a year now. We’ve had an amazing run, we’ve grown our business phenomenally and achieved amazing things creatively.

What are the adjustments that you had to make, moving from being the client to the managing director of an agency?

I often say to people that being a client is like being a customer in a restaurant, and being an agency MD is like being a restaurant manager. When customers are unhappy with their service in a restaurant, they escalate things to the manager. When my clients are unhappy with the work that we do as an agency, I hear about it.

It’s been quite an adjustment, but I’ve always worked with ad agencies, it’s just that I’m sitting on a different side and now I get to see what it takes to create amazing work. Because I’ve seen what it takes to put together a brief, and how much inspiration goes into exciting a creative team into delivering amazing work, I’ve been able to bring all of those learnings across with me.

It’s not as difficult a transition as one would imagine, it feels like a continuation of the marketing journey I’ve already been on.

What drives you in business and  in your private life?

I think there has to be alignment between the business man in me, and the private, family man in me. I have to be completely aligned, I don’t believe I should be a different person at work. My life purpose is to make a difference in the world, and to touch lives.

What I try to do in everything I do is to ensure that I’m purposeful. That determines my approach to things. I like to take a long term view to stuff, to think about the implications of what I do, of how I come across to other people, and of what it takes to inspire people.

You don’t inspire people unless you consider what is important to them, and people don’t do business with you unless they feel comfortable with you. That comes from an alignment of values. Of life perspectives.

I like to ensure that there’s a meeting of the minds with my stakeholders before I look at the work, that drives me.

If you want to move people, you have to show that you actually care about what matters to them.

What are your views on the state of the country?

Our country is in a state of flux. Our democracy is very young, it’s only @21 years old. Like every brand, we need to constantly re-invent ourselves.

The ANC government has had to transform all the time, they’ve come from being a liberation movement to being the government of the day, and those are two different roles. Inheriting a country that was not united, that is as diverse as ours is not an easy thing. If you want to condemn a country, give them inferior education. That takes a long time to undo.

We’ve made good strides, but our single biggest challenge has been corruption, and how it undermines all of our gains. It undermines our ability to make improvements and speedy progress.

I have some sympathy for those in power, but I have no sympathy for the levels of corruption that we see. Even with all of those difficulties we do still see modest economic growth, 1.5% is dismal, to be frank, but I know our potential is much greater than that. I believe in our ability to bounce back.

The education system is trying to improve itself; the political system is maturing; and integration, I don’t believe is something one can force. With social integration and cohesion, we will see a unified society with time.

As a country we’re going through lots of painful change, but you have to have hope, right? I’m hopeful.

How do you think those woes could be fixed?

Being a marketer and a brand specialist, I think it comes down to defining our brand. What do we stand for, what are we known for? What space do we want to occupy in peoples’ minds?

We need to go back and define what our common shared values are, what our vision is for this nation, and what our aspirations are. Once that work is done, you’ve given the populous something to hold onto.

We have a great lighthouse in Ubuntu as a shared philosophy. More work needs to be done to build regard for Ubuntu over and above material success. Yes, everyone wants to have money, but above that, being neighbourly, being active citizens pursuing social cohesion matters.

Finally, any other words of wisdom you would like to share?

A value that is completely underrated is humility. Often it’s said that success breeds contempt. If we remind ourselves to be humble, with humility comes empathy, understanding and tolerance.

We’ve been criticised as an industry for undermining people, stereotyping and using offensive archetypes, and I think that it boils down to a lack of humility. If you think you know better than the people you’re communicating to, you’re not going to have cut through work.

It’s very easy as a creative person to want fame and glory first, and then think about the impact of your work second, but in actuality it should be the other way around. What problem am I solving in society, is it going to resonate with people, cut through the clutter and have impact? If you tick all of those boxes, fame and financial success follow.