Becoming Sandile Mkhasibe
My story could have been short. A guy born in the township, studied Marketing and Advertising, kept a low profile, got promotions at work and is now an Executive Creative Director. All true, but boring.
My story could have been heart wrenching. Born in the dusty streets of Umlazi, during the ‘dark days of apartheid’, to a single mom who worked three jobs to feed, clothe and keep 2 kids in school… both kids growing up in their grandparents house with 9 cousins. Bread and tea are the order of the day blah blah blah… This version of my story is also true, but it is just that; a version of the many stories that are told everyday by Black people who grew up in townships in South Africa. So, nothing special there.
Becoming Sandile Mkhasibe the Advertising Man has nothing and everything to do with the environment he grew up in. It has nothing to do with it because it is about overcoming the environment and looking into what’s inside the man, the passion, perseverance and the insatiable need to do better… to do more.
It has everything to do with it, because this passion, this perseverance and the need to do more, comes from growing up with nothing – the environment. It comes from knowing that if you want anything in the world, you have to go out there and get it. It comes from knowing that once you’ve gotten it, you can’t just sit under the shade, sipping on lemonade and enjoy it all by yourself. You have to share it.
This opening bit is called ‘Growing Up Poor in the Township 101’. And it is something that almost all of us carry with us every day – and will do until the day we die. It is what motivated us to become who we are today.
Let’s keep it going. So, there’s Sandile the township boy with no-chance-in-hell of ever making it in any profession, thanks to the colour of his skin and the zero opportunities that come with it. There’s Sandile the township boy who realises he has to work harder than the next person, to make it. Then there’s Later Life Sandile who is an Advertising Man who throughout his career makes sure that he spends as much time as he can with young, Black hopefuls who want to make it in this or any other industry – because when he started in Advertising in 1997, there were only a handful Black creatives in the industry. And to be honest, they had no time to be mentoring anyone. No matter the colour of their skin.
But before then, there’s Sandile The Weird kid who was in the township, but his mind was traipsing all over the world. The kid who loved both Danny Kamazu Malewa and Spandau Ballet. The kid who read both Bona Magazine and Farmers Weekly. The kid who when his friends wanted to become doctors and lawyers when they grew up, he wanted to work in the weird and wonderful world of movies slash magazines slash music slash travel slash animation slash writing. Yeah, the job that doesn’t or didn’t exist for Black kids in Umlazi, Lamontville, KwaMashu, Chesterville or any of the townships in Durban.
But it is this weirdness that led him to the only opportunity to study Advertising at a newly established Advertising school in Capetown – The Red & Yellow School of Advertising (Now called The Red & Yellow School of Logic and Magic). It is this weirdness and the chase for this ‘non-existent’ job that found him studying Commercial subjects at Umlazi Commercial High School and Marketing Management at Mangosuthu Technikon (Now called Mantech) a few years earlier.
Now, back to the opportunity to study at Red & Yellow School. For starters, I didn’t know you could study Advertising. I liked the ads in international magazines. I liked the wit and the wordplay. I didn’t know there were schools that taught you this.
I was at home on a Saturday morning, reading my aunt’s women’s magazines (weird, right?) when I spotted the ad – as big as my thumb – calling for students who were keen to study Advertising at the school in 1995. My heart skipped a beat. That day I wrote to a man by the name of Brian Searle-Tripp. A man I’d later realise was an Advertising man bar none! About a week later, a bright yellow envelope was delivered by the postman. Inside was a test. Something called a Copy Test. Designed to determine whether I was worthy of the opportunity. You see, back then, it didn’t matter who you were. Brian and Allan, who both ran the school on behalf of the advertising agency; Ogilvy & Mather Rightford Searle-Tripp and Makin (Now Ogilvy) would only take you in if they believed you had the right amount of ‘weirdness’, a special brand of commitment and a pinch of stubbornness. Now, here’s the thing. After receiving the envelope, I ignored it, focusing on sending CVs to big corporations so I could help my mom pay for my sister’s studies. The thing of studying Advertising was dying in my heart – because I was realising how hard my mom and my grandparents had worked for me to study Marketing. Now that I’d graduated, I wasn’t going to throw that away and schlep down to Cape Town for something that was not even guaranteed.
It took just one call from Brian Searle-Tripp, asking in his well-loved brash manner if I still wanted to ‘fuckin’ come down to Cape Town’. And here I’m being kind. His words made me realise that the universe was giving me an opportunity of a lifetime and I was about to say ‘no, thank you’. Something that I know for sure I would have regretted. Suffice it to say, a week later, I packed my bags and took the Greyhound to the Mother city, chasing my dream.
I’d need more space to write about how unwelcoming Capetown was to me. From realising that almost all the students there came from wealthy families, realising that the Bantu Education English I spoke didn’t have the flair and the excitement that makes an ad, let alone a great ad. And that all my references were ‘township’. I didn’t go to Ibiza, London or Paris over holidays like the other students. I went to Durban. Home. But Brian had the love for Advertising and the patience for me that he showed me the ropes. But I still had to fend for myself and make sure that I didn’t let all the other distractions get to me.
So, there’s the advert for the first year bursary to study Advertising, then there’s Brian sorta kinda liking me enough to give me a shot.Thenthere was opportunity number three; Robyn Putter (May he rest in peace). In my second year at the school, after a really trying first, Robyn pretty much saved my career and I’ll forever be indebted to him. He paid for my whole year at the school, my accommodation, transport and food. Now, I had no reason to let go of this dream. I had no ‘dusty streets of Umlazi’ to cry about. No ‘single mom working three jobs’ to moan about. I had to make it work. And I did. Because I couldn’t disappoint this stranger who paid from his pocket, to help me realise my dream. And I couldn’t disappoint my mother who now reminds me that when I asked her to let me go to Cape Town, I said I was not going to fail. That I was going to make it work. I don’t remember saying this, but it sounds like something a determined Sandile would say.
You see, sitting with Robyn for 5 minutes and the money he made available was like the universe was realigning itself to help me become the great Advertising Man I still hope to be one day. I believe in God. So, I give Him all the credit for this happenstance.
Long story, short. I graduated at Red & Yellow School, got a job as a junior Copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in Johannesburg in January 1997. I have since worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, learning a lot from the likes of Mpho Makwana, the great, game-changing Herdbuoys (and had the pleasure of seeing big brothers; Dimape, Happy, Peter, Veejay and sister Za kicking serious butt), MTV Networks Africa, McCann Worldgroup and of course Blueprint SA. Somewhere in there is the pleasure and pain of establishing my own agency; The Garage Communications.
Through these agencies, I have grown from being just a junior Copywriter to being an Executive Creative Director working on blue chip brands everyday. I have grown as an Advertising Man. And now, 20 years later, I look back and realise that Becoming Sandile Mkhasibe has been a journey that has asked a lot of me. A journey that has been about working harder and smarter than the next guy, and taking chances when they present themselves. And more importantly, a journey where I was lucky enough to have had some people walk with me.