So you want to be…a creative director?

Ndimphiwe Gilili

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Choosing a career path is one of the most important decisions in one’s life. It can, however, be very challenging and confusing if not planned properly. Some young people get into a particular career path without knowing what it actually entails. Our “So you want to be…” weekly series aims at assisting young people in […]

Choosing a career path is one of the most important decisions in one’s life. It can, however, be very challenging and confusing if not planned properly. Some young people get into a particular career path without knowing what it actually entails.

Our “So you want to be…” weekly series aims at assisting young people in the process of choosing a career. We will be speaking to a practising professional who will let us know what the field is actually like. We will also speak to a first/second year university or college student who will tell us how they are finding the course. Was it what they expected or not?

This week, we look into a career in the advertising industry.

We caught up with the Managing and Creative Director of Machete Communications a brand innovation company in Observatory, Cape Town, Mr Nicholas Shepherd. We also spoke to Mihlali Bambeni, a first year student at the AAA School of Advertising to get to know about the advertising industry in detail.

Q & A with Nicholas Shepherd


Nicholas D.R Sherperd (Managing and Creative director at Machete Communications). Photo: Nic Sherperd

Ndimphiwe for Live SA: At Machete you work as both Managing and Creative Director. What is the difference between the two roles?

Nicholas Shepherd: It’s an entirely different focus. A managing director needs to take care of the business of running his or her own company successfully. This involves client relationships, staff management, continuity of business, premises, equipment, taxes, etc. Contracts, air-con, cash flow. The role of a creative director is very much more specific to the advertising industry, and involves a whole range of communication, creative and branding disciplines that go into helping your clients develop and implement a successful brand and marketing strategy. So a creative director, in a sense, is much more concerned with his or her clients’ businesses, rather than his own.

Live SA: You graduated with an MA degree from UCT. What did you learn from that?

Nicholas: That I was not looking for a career in academia! No, seriously, I immersed myself in a field of literature that has immeasurably enhanced my experience of life, but had no direct application to my career in advertising. Apart from technical issues, like when to put an apostrophe after an ‘s’ and when before.

Live SA: Before starting Machete you’ve worked in a number of fields ranging from education and film. What did that whole experience teach you?

Nicholas: Working in education develops your empathy for people, which is crucial for a successful career as a creative director. On the film side of things, I did find it useful to have worked in the industry as a member of a film crew before I started working on concepts and storyboards for TV commercials.

Live SA:  What subjects do you think are key for any scholar who wants to get into advertising?

Nicholas: I think that depends very much which side of the advertising industry you are interested in. If you are drawn to the creative side, you should definitely study any course that helps you develop your talent, whether that lies in design, concept development or writing skills. So subjects like art or graphic design would be useful. If you’re more interested in strategy, brand management or media, subjects like marketing, business science of even accounting will be more useful. Try and do both if you can. It’s far easier to succeed in this business if you have specialist skills.

Live SA: What was your first job when you started out in advertising?

Nicholas: I was employed as a copywriter at Young & Rubicam in 1986.

Live SA: What did you learn from your first job that still keeps you going today?

Nicholas: That there is satisfaction in achieving even humble creative tasks well. For the first six months of my career, I did nothing but summarise other people’s reviews for Leisure Books catalogues.

Live SA: What personality traits does one need to be a Creative Director?

Nicholas: Not everyone will agree, but here’s my recipe: Resilience. Resourcefulness. Imagination. Humour. Humility.

LiveSA: What are some of the biggest challenges in this field?

Nicholas: To keep up with the rapidly evolving digital side of marketing is one. Entire fields of study have opened up in search marketing, for instance, which didn’t exist a few years ago. And look at how social media is impacting on marketing strategies and budgets. But another really big challenge is the struggle to find and keep good creative talent in your studio! As soon as they start producing good work, that sticks up above the parapet of public consciousness, bam! They become targets for the corporate head-hunters offering them bigger salaries at other agencies. That’s when corporate culture becomes hugely important, because you can’t always compete on price. So one of the most important roles of a good creative director is to create a workplace ethos in which talented people feel happy. Not always easy!

Live SA: What is the most satisfying part about your job?

Nicholas: Getting a client to take a creative risk that pays off.

Live SA:  How easy is it to find work in advertising, both locally or abroad?

Nicholas: I’ve never worked abroad but several of my colleagues have been very successful in the United States and in Europe. I think that depends on the depth of your talent, and the scope of your ambition. But I also believe we have a very healthy, highly competitive industry right here in South Africa, and that you don’t need to go to New York or London to prove yourself.

Live SA: Is there a possibility for professional growth within the industry?

Nicholas: Absolutely. In fact, there has to be. If you don’t keep growing, keep learning, keep looking for new opportunities, you will find yourself stuck on a meaningless treadmill of tasks, and get stale.

Live SA: What are the most exciting projects that you have worked in?

Nicholas: Being part of the pitch team that won the Nike account when they came back into South Africa in 1996 was pretty exciting. But so is working on local brands, like Century City, that develop our local assets: our city, our country. And of course, working on NGOs and public health causes, like the Cancer Association, has its own reward, of a different kind. I’d love to more of that kind of campaign.

Live SA: Does the job pay well?

Nicholas: It can do. But it is also extremely demanding in terms of time, and responsibility. You need to take that into account.


Q & A with Mihlali Bambeni

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Mihlali Bambeni first year student at AAA School of advertising. Photo: Ndimphiwe Gilili.

First year advertising student Mihlali Bambeni from the AAA School of Advertising in Cape Town shared his own struggles and aspirations for his career in  advertising.

Live SA: What made you want to study advertising?

Mihlali: I studied advertising because I really like the media. Growing up, I enjoyed watching television all day. Seeing  different and new innovative ads made me want to do advertising.

Live SA: Are you enjoying the advertising course so far? Is it what you expected?

Mihlali: Yeah, it is what I expected because it’s not like doing financial stuff whereby you have to give the exact answer. In advertising, you have to be innovative. You always have to come up with new things and strategies on how to satisfy consumers. You have to think on your feet and also meet deadlines. But the course is really exciting, I’m really enjoying it.

Live SA: Which direction do you want to go into the advertising industry?

Mihlali: I’d really like to be an account executive one day and that’s where you pamper clients and try to satisfy them. A good example would be pitching for Coca Cola and make the client happy. I would also like to go into media because that is where new technology lies and I am so interested in that.

Live SA: What would be your advice to a student who wants to study advertising?

Mihlali: You must know what you want. It’s very good if you are a creative person because you always have to be innovative. If you are both creative and dedicated, then advertising is definitely for you.

Live SA: What things would you say you did not expect in the course?

Mihlali: There was a time when we had a financial module and I must admit I’m not a numbers person. Even now I am doing a subject called AFT which entails stats, financial stuff, and budgets. It’s interesting but it’s not something I enjoy. It’s one of the things I have to do to finish the course.

Live SA: Looking into the future, where would you specifically want to work?

Mihlali: I would like to work for Ogilvy and Mather one day here in Cape Town or Jo’burg. I would also love to work for Jupiter. I would like to work for those firms because they are one of the best here in South Africa. So it would be nice to work for them.

Twitter: @GilliChris