Meet the future of advertising where diversity and nuance are the norm. Her name is Lusanda Kula Worsley. She also goes by Lucy, and is the founder and managing director of EMPIRE, South Africa’s first black, female-driven experiential marketing agency. After witnessing perpetual misrepresentation and shallow stereotypes that pollute local advertising, Lucy realised that the only way to diversify the industry was to take matters into her own hands by starting her own agency. We chatted to this go-getter and self-starting powerhouse who’s determined to rock the status quo.
Tell us a bit about your creative journey. Have you always wanted to be involved in advertising?
I’d like to share my creative journey with you, but let’s start at the beginning…
I was adopted when I was two years old, to a white British family called the Worsleys. Throughout my life I have had the mentality to never give up, almost like a whisper in my ear saying “One step at a time, don’t look back”.
I’ve never been the star child, and I’ve always been the black sheep of the family. There was always someone more charismatic than me, MUCH more intelligent, and I’ve always been the seen as the ‘creative one’. I’ve always known that I wanted to be in the advertising industry (after finishing my matric with a distinction in visual art and business studies). But luckily, I didn’t have it that easy.
After two years in, paying for my own studies and working three jobs, I decided to take a very bold step and quit it all to do an internship – because experience is everything. I did my internship for three months and soon after found I was working at an actual agency. I found a career that involved everything I love – from consumer research to new business development, production and strategy. Instead of thinking outside the box, it was like thinking with no box at all, which is basically what the word ‘experiential’ is all about.
I was soon hungry and eager to learn more. I moved to a strict above the line agency where I learnt how to produce proper TV and radio commercials and everything about print. Soon after that, Elizabeth Arden asked me to head up their experiential departments for South Africa and Africa. All this time I am thinking “One step at a time, don’t look back”.
At the age of 25 I had the idea to start my own agency, but I wanted to create more than that – I wanted to build an empire. And now, a year into it, it’s being labelled as a female-driven events and PR agency. I started noticing a trend that I’d been experiencing at every agency and brand I’ve worked on – not just from me, but from my peers. Sadly and bluntly put: the discrimination and misrepresentation of young African creatives. This goes from being the face of something you don’t really believe in, to having your creative ideas taken advantage of, and not being credited for your own brilliant ideas that keep the company sustained.
I had to reflect on the real reason why I started my agency. 1) For EMPIRE to be a platform for young African creatives to shine their talents. 2) For creatives and entrepreneurs to build an empire of their own. It was then that I decided to transform EMPIRE from just an experiential agency to an innovations agency.
What’s the real state of South African advertising and what might its future look like?
Collaboration leads to diversity and creative innovation, because it allows different people – each with their own expertise – to come together behind a single idea. This is where agencies are lacking, as they are based on traditional structures where everyone works in silos, instead of leveraging on our unique South African identity as a base for inspiration.
Instead of replicating international advertising trends or simply jumping on what’s topical on social media, although there is a time a place for this, I’d like see the industry go deeper, rather than wider. Innovation starts here.
Sometimes innovation feels like a buzzword. You’re the first African-owned innovations agency. What does the word mean to you?
Whenever people say innovation they often think of technology, but the core definition is actually “revolution and transformation”. It’s about creating something new and finding a new way of working in our constantly evolving world. This is why diversity is essential, because in order to keep this revolution going, we need different views to challenge our own perspectives.
Advertising in general does perpetuate stereotypes. Which ones are you tired of seeing and wish the industry would stop regurgitating?
The one stereotype I hate seeing is that black people dance for everything – food, insurance, washing powder, petrol etc. These stereotypes are a result of one of two things. 1) Agencies not spending the time to get to know their consumers. 2) Campaigns being created by people who look nothing like the consumers they’re trying to reach.
What’s preventing inclusivity and the creation of content that depicts more accurate representations of South Africans?
In my opinion there are a lot of barriers to entry within the industry. One is exposure – exposing the youth (from a high school level) to the industry and showing them that a career in advertising is viable and internationally recognised, and goes far beyond being just a face in a advert. Another is hiring – the problem here lies in lack of diversity at a management level. How can we expect to create a more diverse industry if the people who are hiring are themselves not diverse? And another barrier is the lack of support in the entrepreneurial space, in terms of the creation and development of black owned agencies and brands.
The industry is sometimes seen as a “white boys club”. How is EMPIRE changing this perception?
EMPIRE is more than just an advertising agency, it’s an innovation platform that’s for the people, by the people. Part agency, part consultancy and part business developers, we are the modern age of advertising that will be on hand to innovate brands in an ever-changing world. With everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We think differently, we act differently, and we create innovative and unique solutions that change mind-sets.
The “new” EMPIRE will have three key functionalities that will add further value to existing clients, potential new clients, and the advertising industry. 1) Innovations agency – brands that are looking to innovate through insight in an ever-changing world. 2) Creative consultants – strategic consultants for creatives and entrepreneurs looking to innovate their brands. 3) Business developers – a comprehensive and experiential curated networking platform for creatives and entrepreneurs to take their empires to the next level.
The digital realm has changed advertising dramatically. How do you think this has affected advertising in South Africa? Are there any platforms that the local industry is underutilising because there seems to be a focus on digital mediums?
Even though the shift has broadened in terms of different mediums to use, that doesn’t mean that all the focus is solely on the digital platform. Traditional mediums like TV, radio and print are still relevant, perhaps to an older market, but relevant nonetheless.
In terms of platforms being underutilised, it depends on what audience you are talking to, as not all mediums are relevant to the same markets. For a lower LSM market, I feel that Whatsapp and Mxit are being strongly underutilised, and for a higher LSM there are apps such as Periscope, Snapchat and even Instagram that could have a more engaging reach and lead to brand growth.
The agency uses a shared economic model. What prompted this and what are the results thereof?
Throughout my career, I’ve seen one core team work solely on one brand, whether that’s the agency side or brands side. While Airbnb is the world’s largest accommodation provider, it does not own any real estate. Facebook doesn’t create any content, but it is the world’s most popular media owner. And Uber is the world’s largest taxi company, even though it doesn’t own any vehicles.
I have put that exact model into an agency format to create more of a collective and collaborative working style to customise the brand’s experience and the innovation process, thereby creating a ‘we culture’.
How would you describe your agency’s working philosophy and approach to advertising?
Instead of pretending we can be everything to everyone, EMPIRE understands that everyone’s market is different and that you can’t understand them all. So we reach out to our innovators, who each represent a specific segment of the black market and can speak to them…not at them. A lot of agencies have one or two black faces in their creative departments, and think they are experts on what black people need. Like white people, black people have segments…you need to understand each segment.
EMPIRE aims to “bring to light a more accurate representation of the uncatered for black market”. How would you describe this market?
Well firstly, the black market isn’t a homogenous group of people. Too often, it is boxed into one segment. Understanding how cultural, social, value-based and lifestyle differences affect consumption habits is key. Different textures and tastes make each of them unique. If brands want to be seen as authentic by the black market, that’s what EMPIRE brings to any client we work with.
Photographs of Lusanda by Neo Baepi.