Sylvester Chauke is a creative powerhouse and a strategic juggernaut. His story joins the dots between Soweto and Fourways with a trajectory marked by unrelenting perseverance and unwavering self-belief. You might know him as the former National Marketing Manager of Nando’s South Africa or the Director of Communications at MTV. Today, he is the CEO of award-winning, 100% black-owned Marketing Consultancy, DNA Brand Architects. In this interview he shares his thoughts on business, transformation and all things ghetto glam.
You’ve been called a “change leader”, a “marketing guru”, and “a creative ground-breaker”. What are some of the terms you would use to describe yourself?
I find some of these names quite interesting, but if I’m honest, I don’t really enjoy being called a “guru”. It makes it sound like I’ve arrived at some kind of final destination when I’m acutely aware that the road ahead of me is long. I would describe myself as “pow energy”, a “fire starter”, a “great leader”, and a generally awesome chap [laughs].
Do you believe your upbringing provided a firm foundation for future success in your career?
As a kid I was awkward, and in many ways I felt like I did not belong, especially on the streets of Soweto, where I grew up. However, I did feel a sense of belonging and acceptance when I was in the presence of my family and in dance class. In those contexts, when I looked in the mirror, I liked the person I saw. Being part of a loud, passionate family taught me to express myself, to be open-minded and to make my voice heard in a room full of big personalities. My parents did everything they could to push me forward. Kudos to my folks who had to bring up this fireball of energy and oddness!
Looking back, what has the highest and the lowest moment of your career been?
Highest moment: There have been so many, but I get goosebumps every time I realise what DNA Brand Architects means to so many of us – what it allows people to do and where it has taken people. My team, our clients and our community – it’s pretty neat.
When the going gets tough, I listen to Madonna and push on.
To me, ghetto glam is an aesthetic and energy that comes together in the expression of self.
Lowest moment: The journey of entrepreneurship comes with a lot of disappointments, betrayal, bad decisions and those surreal moments when you move from an incredible high to an incredible low in one day! But I am a “glass half full” kind of guy, so when the going gets tough, I listen to Madonna and push on.
Tell us a bit about your decision to play an active role in transforming the ad industry.
In the brand communications industry, which is largely untransformed, it's challenging to get a fair chance so when you get it, you make the most of it. There's no choice for us, we have to play an active role so we can move the needle in the industry in terms of inclusion and fair play. We want to be referred to as a “brilliant agency”, but for now, we need to go to greater lengths to demonstrate what black agencies in our space can do for brands globally.
This issue, we’re talking all things “ghetto glam”. What does “ghetto glam” mean to you?
To me, ghetto glam is an aesthetic and energy that comes together in the expression of self. In this expression you get a sense of the narrative of where someone comes from and what they are about. It’s a look, it’s a vibe and it’s also a way of being that is authentic and multi-layered.
Let’s talk style. Are you all “suit and tie” or do you occasionally step out in track pants and a tee?
Wherever I’m going and whatever I’m doing, I always look like Sylvester. To me, style is not embodied in clothing. It’s the attitude and the mentality you exude when you step out every day. I have suit (and sometimes tie) days and I have T-shirts and blazer days, and yes an occasional track pants and tee day. As long as it all matches, I’m good (that’s the Tsonga in me making sure that I stay rooted).
Tell us something inspiring.
I used to walk around the township talking to myself about my dreams like a crazy person. I thought about them every day, I wrote them down and prayed. I cried – and cried some more, but after all these years and after all the deep, inner longing, I realised I was never alone and that someone heard my prayers and felt my heart’s desires. No matter where you are in life today, keep those dreams alive in your mind, in your heart and in your words – someone is always listening.