Xolisa Dyeshana is the Executive Creative Director at Joe Public, the largest independent advertising agency in the country. Originally from Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape, Xolisa went on to study graphic design in Cape Town. It was while completing his thesis on Print Advertising in South Africa that he fell in love with writing. After three years as a copywriter at FCB, Xolisa was headhunted by Joe Public in Johannesburg, where he remains almost a decade on and continues to guide promising ideas into award-winning campaigns. In 2012 Xolisa was confirmed as Chairperson of the Loeries, South Africa’s biggest advertising awards. He has also served on the judging panel of the John Caples Awards in New York and Cannes Lions.
At Joe Public, Xolisa has found a team that is equally as passionate as he is to produce campaigns that inspire real social change. Their campaigns for Brothers For Life and One School at a Time are beautiful cases in point. While Xolisa is vocally passionate about advertising in the country, he is determined to see an industry more representative of the people that it advertises to, and is dedicated to the development of a unique and impactful South African voice. Here he shares his thoughts on pushing the limits with clients, what it takes to stay at the top of your game, and what he stands for.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in advertising? What about this industry still excites you today?
I chose a career in advertising because I have always been an artistic person. I knew that my parents would not see Art as a viable career because they’d be worried about whether I can generate sufficient income or not. Then I heard about advertising and saw an opportunity to stay creative and get paid for it.
What still excites me about the industry today is the challenge and the opportunity of producing work that has a proudly South African aesthetic and advances our impact on the creative world.
After you joined Joe Public the agency broke all ties with international partners to become what is now the largest independent agency in the country. What did this bold move mean for the company and for your career?
We bought our business (Joe Public) from our international partners when we were at one of our lowest points. We had lost our biggest client and we had to retrench about 50% of the employees. This caused us to reflect on why we exist and why we come to work every day and in that dire moment, we found our purpose, which has been at the centre of our growth.
Joe Public has since been raking in awards, and most recently won three bronze awards at the 2015 Cannes Lions Festival. What does it take to stay at the top of your game in this industry and how do you keep the momentum going?
We at Joe Public have a saying that the biggest misconception people have about success is that what takes you there will keep you there. We have learnt that the more successful you become, the harder you have to work. We are constantly trying to push our creative product. We are not under the illusion that we have made it. Everything we are lucky enough to achieve is a stepping-stone for greater things. I think it is that relentless pursuit to do better, be better and learn more that keeps us hungry. When we won the Cannes Bronzes, we were happy, especially because South Africa has not had a Film Lion in a while. We celebrate those moments and are grateful for them. But what’s more important to us is the question of what we can do to turn the bronzes into silvers and ultimately into golds.
Which projects are you particularly proud of?
It is hard to think of a single project I am proud of because I truly get very involved in the work. I would probably say that every now and then, we get quite lucky and we get the opportunity to do work that not only sells products, but also changes behaviour and does good for the community.
What are some of the unexpected and surprising responsibilities that come with being an Executive Creative Director?
The biggest responsibility is obviously to manage clients, gain their trust and walk the journey with them. The most challenging has to be working with ideas, shaping them and turning them from little seeds into towering trees. Working with people is also an important part of the job. It is imperative that they understand that you turned down their idea because it does not work. It’s not a personal attack but rather you wanting the best for them and their work. You’ve got to keep them motivated and enthusiastic and that’s not easy.
You are very much aware of making a lasting impact through your work and way of working. What are some of the things you’d like to see change and transform?
I would love to see our industry more diverse and reflective of the people that it advertises to. I would also love to see an industry that builds its unique aesthetic. I always use South America as an example; you can always tell when a piece of work comes from that part of the world, because it always has a very particular aesthetic. I’d love to see that for SA. I’d love to see us produce work that exposes the world to our realities, solves our problems and speaks to our people.
With some local clients and brands still being quite conservative, how do you go about pushing the limits?
Many creative people put the blame on their clients. At our agency we believe that the only way to get clients to do better work is to inspire them by showing them amazing ideas. Show them other markets or brands where it’s worked around the world. Inspired people are a lot less risk-averse. Slowly but surely you will begin to win the battle and to gain their trust.
Having been on the judging panel at the Loerie Awards and Cannes Lions Festival, what do you think makes a good ad?
A good advert is something that is original, unexpected, relevant and something that resonates. For me, a combination of these elements will always lead to a unique business solution and a good ad.
What’s the next big thing for advertising, in South Africa and generally?
The next thing for advertising is true integration. Technology has brought an element to advertising that we are still grappling with. We are all trying to infuse the old with the new and I believe that when we get that right we are going to rocket to the moon.
A word of advice for youngsters trying to break into this industry?
My advice to youngsters is for them to find out the industry. There is no excuse not to know which part of the industry you want to get into. Often I meet young people who say they want to be in advertising and that perplexes me, there is no such thing. Which part of advertising do you want to get into? After you know, study the industry and the agencies. It puts you in such a good stead when you come for an interview and you know all these things, it shows me that you genuinely want to be part of this field.
Look out for Xolisa sharing more insights in conversation with Between 10and5’s Uno de Waal in Glenfiddich The Art of Individuality video series.
Photography of Xolisa by Darren Gwynn.