by tshego senne
In MOXIE’s longest interview ever, I speak to Nobantu Sibeko and Khanyi Mpumlwana who are the team behind one of the most beautiful ads I’ve seen. Have a look at thread, marinate in their words and enjoy reading the conversation I had with these two incredible womxn. Get to the end. It’s worth it.
Nobantu Sibeko: I’m an art director, and one part of team Pen and Pencil. I’m the pencil of the team.
Khanyi Mpumlwana: I’m the copywriter. I’m the pen.
I sent Team Pen and Pencil questions before our interview, as one does when having the honour to interview such a brilliant pair in advertising. You send the brief before. After pee breaks, easing of uncertainties and some teasing, we got the interview going.
Tshegofatso Senne: So tell me, how did Bheki come about? What was the big idea, how did it happen?
NS: It was an open brief – “Guys, we need to sell our country to the international market. give us anything. The sky is the limit”. We tried everything then decided to just tell the story of a simple South African who just wants to be inspired and travel the country. Full stop. That’s how Bheki came about.
KM: We wanted to tell the story of a South African travelling the country. Because a lot of tourism ads, especially for a global market, show the typical white traveler. Dammit, when do we get to travel? Sometimes when we see ourselves we are more determined to travel. We become more inspired and want to then go do those things. It suddenly seems a lot more real and possible
NS: Exactly. We didn’t want the same perspective for what the world thinks of and sees of us. You watch some of those ads and you don’t even recognize SA or yourself.
TS: It’s like those memes on Twitter, where people will post a picture of LA and say, “this is the Rustenburg no one tells you about”.
NS & KM: Exactly!
KM: At least that’s aspirational, you know. But the SA that they show international markets, yho. It doesn’t feel like us, it feels too clinical and it feels like somebody else’s version of us. So we made a story. And it had to be a story because there’s nothing more South African than a story.
KM, TS & NS: Yho, we love a story. Facts! Guys!
TS: Yo. As soon as I heard that voice in the beginning I was like, “Yebo, nangu Mama Thoko.”
NS: Exactly! That’s how Bheki started. It wasn’t even uBheki the Mbhaco maker. We had so many stories to pick from. It didn’t matter where Bheki came from or what he did, but we wanted to show that we’re all capable of telling the story that is SA.
KM: Bronwyn The Braid-Maker, didn’t quite have the same ring to it.
TS: Gal, I mean at least Brenda. Already I don’t want to watch that ad. So, in terms of conceptualization, how did you get to the point of creating this story? With the writing and the art direction. These aren’t even questions I wrote down. Well. Here we are. Ya, drink some water. It’s your morals making you sweat.
KM: I think what was really important is making sure that anyone who watches it identifies with at least one thing and feel like they’re represented in some way. We never intended to have a ten-minute film. But here we are.
NS: And it evolved so organically. The more we kept travelling the more we realised that we have to go elsewhere, that there was another hole. The more we were exposed to different people, the more stories they came back with. It wasn’t our usual way of working in terms of conceptualising an idea.
TS: Khanyi, I remember you saying each scene has a very distinct significance. Can you give me some examples of that? Perhaps your favourites.
KM: My favourites are the cows. Every scene in the ad was considered, nothing was a mistake. Down to why we chose specific locations for a thing. Each location told a story. So, I love the cows because there’s something very magical about being the only country in the world that has a very poetic way of naming its animals.
TS: What a beautifully constructed sentence.
KM: [Laughs] Sometimes I’m a writer.
NS: Can I draw my answer?
KM: Even the way we call cows, those are real names. Nje ngabantu bagugile cows, Fly in the buttermilk… It’s just so beautiful. And when you look at those cows you see why they’re named that thing. That’s my favourite thing.
NS: My favourite thing was the art department. uSis’ Shelly Nyathi’s styling. Oh, my, word. You look at every single piece in this and you can recognize the different cultures. You recognise Xhosa pieces, Pedi pieces, all the things we know as South Africans kodwa uSis Shelly put such modern twists to each element. uMbhaco, from the opening scene, was reinvisioned. Just to be able to say, “wow, we are a stylish country”. We are continuously evolving.
KM: Ohhh, also the opening scene was my favourite. The band. Those kids. That moment. When we shot that we all wanted to cry. We were like, shit, we’ve done this thing. The story of African Rythmn, the kids playing the instruments, they’re from Pretoria and they don’t have much. They got together under the leadership of this guy called Kojo and he got them playing drums. He’s an accountant. He does this because he’s passionate about it, about making music a thing for young people to hang onto. It’s such a beautiful thing that we live in a country where these things happen. We were able to put a bunch of kids on an international platform and let them play their hearts out. And yho, they played.
NS: Listen. When we were shooting, just to see them on those mountains in the Eastern Cape. They just went for it, they were having the time of their lives. We just kept shooting because we just could not stop. Everyone just took out their phones, even the caterers were like, “uh no, your tea can wait. Can we just take this in?” Everyone on the shoot was just in that moment. Also, that scene with the praise singer. Listen. You know, you can’t write that.
KM: Yeah all we wrote was, “We open up on a young band playing on a hill and the princess and her entourage arrive”. Everything else we didn’t write, it just happened. We just briefed him and he came up with his own thing. There are just some things you can’t write.
NS: South Africa came out and showed out. It was everything. Showcasing people who are hungry, who are talented, showing them off on a global stage? People really went all out for us, wow. Like when Bheki needed a travel bag that was a certain size and it didn’t exist, uDennis made one just for the shoot.
KM: I mean. Even the music. Black Motion did the score. That, for me, was another fave. Here we are, little old us saying we need umculo. Just a smallanyana mculo. And they composed everything from scratch for us.
NS: They had never done a score. It was a new experience for them too but they wanted to try. It was collaboration on another level.
KM: They watched the story and they made the music sound exactly like the journey. We even want to release the Bheki soundtrack.
KM: We really had the most amazing team. And it really helps that we had a director that was so deeply invested in our storytelling. Sometimes you get directors that are just about meeting the deadline but uTebogo was so within doing the best job we possibly could.
TS: What other pieces of content have you been this proud of?
KM: Yho girl, this is it. Why are you stressing us?
NS: This shit right here. It cancelled everything we had done before. You know when they talk about the ultimate brief? This was it.
TS: And I was about to ask that!
NS: Yup, this was it. Now everything we’ll do afterward will be benchmarked on this.
TS: The next thing must be Lemonade levels, clearly.
KM: That’s exactly it.
TS: Now, let me ask you something more serious. Are you ready? What’s something that needs to happen in the ad industry for it to develop and evolve at a more rapid pace? Because people are all about the buzzword of transformation right now but it still feels stagnant.
NS: Yup. Why transformation hasn’t moved in SA is because no one is held accountable.
KM: There are no consequences for not transforming. We have to keep asking, “Hi guys, don’t you just wanna hire some Blacks? Just a couple? And then maybe just make one of them a manager. Just one?” Like, what? There’s no fire under people’s bums. I’m also quite wary about legislating transformation. Because in doing that you’re allowing them to be like, “Okay fine, we’ll put a Black in Exco. Does that Back have a say? No. But they are there.” And then they’re going to be proud of their numbers but actually, nothing will have changed. They’ll be just a face.
NS: Even in cases where we are in the room, why is no one asking why there aren’t more of us? Why aren’t we even being groomed to get to higher levels?
TS: I think it was Ava DuVernay who said that diversity isn’t having one person in the room; it’s having at least half. We need to stop forgetting that there really is power in numbers.
KM: Yeah, exactly. I think what irritates me is that what happens, especially in this industry, is that you get the Black men who are like, “Ah guys, we’ve done the job. Look at us.” But it’s just them. They completely erase women and LGBT people. It’s completely erased, because, “We’re all Black, mos.” When we ask where the women are we’ll be told that we’re diluting the issues. Bitch. The same with white women. A huge reason why Black women leave this industry so often is because it feels like there’s no future for you. You don’t see it.
TS: It’s like, so clearly once I get to a certain level I’m done.
KM: Particularly the creatives. You’ll see Black women in senior positions as account manager and on the client side, but where are the creative Black women? It kind of feels like there’s no place for us. We are unicorns. And we’re tired of being unicorns. You know how much pressure there is in being a unicorn. Can we just be mediocre Black girls?
NS: They need to give us answers. Answers to why it’s moving so slow.
KM: Yeah. There are no transparent growth plans in place. Ad agencies like hiding behind the thing of, you can’t measure creativity so they say if you win awards you get promoted. That is not a real strategy. You can’t plan someone’s growth based on how many pieces of metal white people decided on in a room. That’s not how it works.
TS: Because then you need to dismantle that whole structure. If my development is supposedly dependent on the awards then let’s take a look at the people who decide on that.
NS: There’s no representation. You can’t have diverse work rooms and everywhere else you don’t. It needs to go through the whole structure. It needs to get through to all levels within advertising. We’re all interlinked.
TS: So. Knowing what you know now about this industry, would you still have chosen to go ahead with your career choice?
KM: I don’t really think anyone chooses advertising. I think we all kind of stumble on it. We’re all like, what can I do with this creativity I have and there are no options, especially in this country, so we’re kind of like, “okay, I‘ll go make ads”.
NS: Same here. It was meant to be a side job. It was supposed to be my money maker while I go ahead and be an actress, storytelling, and do the fun stuff as my real career. Yeah, I mean I still use this passion. I just tell the stories behind the scenes now.
KM: I’d be writing. Comic books, films, article, other books. I would not be telling 30 second stories. I wouldn’t be doing the stuff in between the stuff that people want to watch. I’d be doing the things that people actually want to consume.
TS: Ya’ll still have time. Is there anything you’d say to young Black girls who want to create the next Bheki sensation?
KM: Please do it. Wow, we’re so tired. We need more Black girls telling stories. We need Black girls in all the rooms, not just in advertising. If you see another Black girl in the room, it doesn’t matter if she’s talking shit – support her then outside tell her she was talking shit. Don’t call her out during, people.
TS: Because then they’ll be like, “See! This is why we can’t have more than one woman in the room. Periods!”
KM: Yes! We just need power in numbers. I just wish we all knew each other so that we can just have an AGM.
NS: They must do it. We know and I wish that I had done more. Don’t wait. Now is the time. Draw if you want to drawisha. I wish I was younger and I’d just do it. Figure it out and apologise later.