Thursday, October 14, 2010

Social Media and the Context for Corporates

By David Ansara and Sarann Buckby

A tweet there, a status update here, a blog post over there. This seemingly inconsequential stream of online commentary has suddenly begun to challenge the orthodoxies of traditional marketing approaches. Granted, corporates may have come to the social media party late, but they are showing every intention of playing catch-up. And those companies that don’t embrace these new methods of communication risk being left behind in the turgid realm of old media.

Justin Spratt, managing partner at Quirk eMarketing, brought some of SA’s top social media thinkers and doers together at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) on Tuesday 12th October. They discussed the effect that new technology platforms are having on brand awareness and consumer behaviour, as well as on society itself.

From left to right, Andre Hugo, Mary Mzumara, Justin Spratt, Mike Stopforth, and Jarred Cinman, who sees the fervour surrounding pop star Justin Bieber as a symbol of the tyranny of the crowd.

The power individuals now have to broadcast their opinions to friends and followers on their networks can be to the benefit or detriment of any brand, no matter how powerful. As news of a company’s triumphs or missteps can spread like a virus, how do marketers and PR agents respond?

Mike Stopforth, founder and CEO of Cerebra, illustrated the power of new media by arguing that brand identity was formed through the collective thoughts, associations, emotions and experiences of the user. Such modes of behaviour have been with human beings forever, he argued, but were now being amplified by technology. “It’s word-of-mouth on steroids,” he explained.

Social media was about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, Stopforth chimed. He urged businesses to empathise with, and listen to, their customers, and to see the product as their buyers do. “It can be very difficult to read the label when we are inside of the bottle,” he said.

The consumer is getting smarter faster than we can keep up, he added, and thus companies looking to understand social media need to get to grips with the idea of community, rather than a de-humanized set of data to be manipulated and codified. “Community-building happens over the long term. It’s not a T20 match; it’s a five day test,” he said.

Jarred Cinman, strategy director at Native, articulated a more contrarian perspective. Firstly, he said, social media has had an insidious effect on people’s conduct, as it cultivates egoism and was highly distractive. “Human beings love distracting things,” he observed, at which point, Stopforth quipped that idling on Facebook in the workplace was “social not-working.”

Justin Spratt, Jarred Cinman, and Mike Stopforth. An audience member playfully reprimanded Stopforth on Twitter for being distracted by his phone during the discussion, to which he tweeted back: "@candiceburin pff. I have the attention span of a goldfish"

The ongoing infatuation with networking is the ultimate opiate of the masses, Cinman scoffed, drawing on Marxist theory. “[Users] might hate a brand, but they’re still talking about brands.”

“It’s a playground for the worst aspects of human nature – greed, power, lust, revenge and the sheep mentality,” Cinman said. He added that the anonymity enjoyed by people commenting on online news articles or YouTube videos allowed racism, sexism and fundamentalism to flourish.

There was also the alienation of having scores of fake friends, which Cinman observed was odd when compared with the increase in depression in young people. “A thousand friends, how could I be depressed?” he joked.

The networks also bred a culture of sameness and unoriginality that he claimed was built into the system. “For me the notion of the long tail is a complete misnomer.” People are clustering around a few ideas and repeating them, he explained.

Mary Mzumara

Mary Mzumara, another managing partner at Quirk, countered this with some revealing examples of the consequences of disobeying the crowd. She used the recent experience of clothing retailer GAP, and its hasty withdrawal of an ill-conceived rebranding exercise. Online users voted down its new logo, forcing the company to revert back to its iconic tag. Judgement was still out on whether this was a marketing coup or catastrophe.

There are three broad categories of social media objectives - sales or marketing gains; increased engagement and; improved relationships or reputation. Mzumara alluded to this by differentiating between sales media and social media.

Employers too, Mzumara suggested, could tap into the power of online crowds and suck the marrow of talent out of their employees by better engaging them on social networks. The only thing stopping corporates from taking the leap is fear and trepidation, she warned.

According to Andre Hugo, a director at Deloitte, the auditing firm had already made that leap, and with amazing consequences. As a pioneer of Deloitte Digital, Hugo spoke of the improved intellectual capital and originality that had come out of obliging employees to generate more ideas and share them on internal networks.

In a recent drive, Deloitte employees created a pool of thousands of original business proposals, half a dozen of which resulted in concrete ventures. The effective internal use of social media whittled a six-month process down to six weeks, and increased the dynamism and elasticity of the business.

Andre Hugo demonstrating the power of social media

Contra Stopforth, Hugo argued that social media was just another set of data that companies could analyse and use. He illustrated this with a series of inkblot graphs that demonstrated the spread of key messages through targeted networks. Hugo’s approach highlighted how online data can inform and improve communication tactics, resulting in a better return on investment for companies.

The panel expressed the view that if corporates did not integrate social media into their marketing strategies they could be sure their competitors were doing so. This motivation, while true on some levels, seemed to fall prey to the “sheep mentality” derided by Cinman. A more effective approach, as shown in Hugo’s case study, is for marketers to understand what they want to achieve through social media before they set out, and to convince management to buy into the expectations and definitions of success in social media.

The overarching message of the evening was that social networking is fast reaching its zenith and those who do not engage with it will simply be ignored. And whatever you do, don’t ban your employees from surfing their networks at the office.


Sarann Buckby is a director at Phatic Communications, a digital PR and social media agency. David Ansara is a freelance writer.


This article was originally written for MBAnetwork, an information portal and networking site for prospective and current MBA students in South Africa.


Photos: David Ansara

Monday, October 11, 2010

Obama and the Middle East

In April 2009, my friend Robert Krause and I took part in a series of televised current affairs programmes in London featured on the news channel Press TV. The show was called Forum, and was structured around audience participation and debate. Above is an excerpt from the episode focusing on 'Obama and the Middle East' and contains both mine and Mr. Krause's questions to the panel.

Robert Krause: "It's very possible that even according to some Israeli NGOs that actually the two-state solution has already been, or is about to be, buried just by the sheer scale of settlement construction, [and] bypassed roads in the West Bank, which have sliced up the territory and made a Palestinian State economically impossible; so how is Obama going to react to the death of the two-state solution and find other solutions (a single state solution or a bi-national solution)?"

David Ansara: "Do you think Mr. Obama will be able to adopt a more principled position towards Israel, rather than one that just solely protects Israel's interests?"

I do not believe that America solely protects Israel's interests, as I implied unsubtly in my question to the panel, but the country still remains the most important strategic ally for the US in the Middle East. This has not changed under President Obama, who has nevertheless bravely attempted to bring both parties to the negotiation table, albeit with limited success.

It will be interesting to observe how he reacts to the current thaw in the Israeli settlement construction freeze on the West Bank. Even if there is an extension of the freeze period, the issue could be sufficiently sticky to prompt the withdrawal of the Palestinian Authority from the present negotiations. Obama will have to use all his persuasive powers to keep them at the table.

Perhaps Mr. Krause is correct when he suggests that a unitary state within a single set of borders might be a better option than the two-state solution. I don't know for sure, but I still think that two sovereign territories along the 1967 borders would be preferable. However, if the Palestinians are left with a cantonized, segmented territory, then that might not be acceptable to them and a negotiated settlement could remain forever elusive. Alternatives such as the one expressed here by Mr. Krause should be seriously considered if both sides wish to see peace sooner rather than later.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Small Movie with a Big Message

The South African film A Small Town Called Descent is currently being screened at the Tri Continents Film Festival in Johannesburg. Directed by first-time filmmaker Jahmil X. T. Quebeka, the film is a hard examination of some the ugly realities of contemporary SA.

Descent is not the easiest film to watch: production and sound quality are variable, the plot takes too many twists and turns, and there is an over-reliance on stock footage, which sometimes detracts from the narrative and the characters before you.

That said, there is something quite brutal and honest about Quebeka’s confrontation of the xenophobic violence of May 2008, and the effect that these events had on the collective psyche of the nation.

Moreover, his work documents how the gush of violence exposed a deeper uncertainty about the institutions of our democracy and the perception of our own moral certainty after the end of apartheid. The fallibility of our policing services and the difficulty of their task in an environment of official lawlessness and corruption was another striking aspect of the film.

I caught up with one of its stars, Paul Buckby, who will be familiar to fans of television series Generations, and Egoli. He is also currently on our TV screens as detective Eddie Holmes on Isidingo on SABC3.

David Ansara: In the film you play a member of the Scorpions tasked with investigating a xenophobic attack in the titular (and fictional) Karoo town of ‘Descent’. Describe your character and what motivates him.

Paul Buckby: The character I play is a Scorpion called 'Nathan Liebowitz'. The idea of giving him an Israeli identity was to avoid the too-often-seen, stereotypical relationship between the black cop and the Afrikaner cop. This also helps to mystify him somewhat. Nathan alludes to having served in the Israeli Special Forces and in the SA Parabats, so he's not an open book as far as his experience is concerned. He is motivated by seeing justice done and takes his career seriously.

DA: What were the challenges of playing Liebowitz?

PB: Liebowitz is a walking paradox. He appears to be in complete control of his world around him, but inside he wages war with his demons. To show this contrast gently, was a challenge.

DA: Descent is wide-ranging in terms of its subject matter. In fact, it probably tries to tackle too much (xenophonbia, corruption, gender violence, the legacy of Apartheid, crime, racism, etc). But it nevertheless paints an interesting portrait of the eventful period between the end of 2007 and late 2008. What themes in the film resonated most strongly with you, and how have audiences reacted to the issues portrayed in the movie?

PB: South Africa certainly offers the film maker a kaleidoscope of subjects to focus on and I agree with you that maybe director Jahmil X. T. Quebeka tackled too many of them at once, but so much was going on around that time, not least of which, was the sudden recall of Thabo Mbeki. It’s hard to avoid references to Apartheid in this film or corruption for that matter, which has become cannon-fodder for the media. Xenophobia, a term I hadn't really heard of until 2007-8, has now become a part of my daily dialogue.

The variety of subjects shown in Descent has certainly gotten audiences talking. However, the Issue of xenophobia is to me what the film is all about. Even though the Scorpion characters have different backgrounds and political convictions, they discover that their humanity is a constant and it brings them together.

DA: The role was very physical and there are several action sequences. Were you up to the task?

PB: It’s amazing how willing actors are to throw themselves into risky situations, just to get the perfect shot. The fight sequence with 'Demon' (John Dlamini) was very physical and he was great to work with. He has no experience as an actor, but rose to the occasion admirably.
There is a scene where we are grappling with each other near some shacks, when he is choreographed to pick me up and bulldoze me into a shack wall. After a slightly measured first take, I asked him not to hold back his aggression. Well, the second take was somewhat different…

Paul Buckby in action as Nathan Liebowitz

He picked me up with the same ease as I would a sheaf of wheat and rammed me into the shack. I felt something give in my rib cage, which left me winded! I was in agony, but we had to soldier on. The sequence shows me wincing, which I used, without any choice, to full effect. It took me a month to recover from what I thought was a broken rib, but turned out to be less than so. It was worth it!

DA: Ouch. What were some of the other highlights from the shoot for you personally?

PB: The black Golf GTi played a vital role, not only as the 'Scorpionmobile', but as a car I really enjoyed driving around our shooting location, Somerset East. It’s an awesome car to drive. It created a stir with the locals, who must've thought we were the real deal.

I remember an amusing incident one morning: We were standing next to our Gti, adorned in imposing Scorpion insignia and a blue light. We were waiting to get the call to set, fully kitted out in Kevlar vests and wearing our 9mm Brownings, when a coloured gentleman, looking quite distressed, asked if we could assist him to break up a fight between two farmers! I must say, I was tempted to do so! I'm sure we would've diffused the situation, even though our sidearms were empty!

DA: A convincing portrayal indeed! There are many graphic depictions of violence and sexual assault in the film. Did you feel it was necessary to show, for instance, the photograph of the Burning Man, the Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave?

PB: This tragic event is what spawned the idea for the film. When Jahmil saw the photo on the front pages, he was moved to try and investigate this further - if only on a fictional level. The showing of this photo will hopefully serve to remind us of what we don't want to experience ever again.

DA: Has filmmaking become more or less difficult in South Africa, particularly for young or first-time directors? I am referring particularly to funding, logistics, distribution, etc.

PB: I’m planning to produce my first film next year, so maybe I will have to put my answer to that one on hold until I've experienced the challenges for myself. I can say that Anand Singh from VideoVision, the distributor for Descent, said at the recent Durban Film Festival that it’s an exciting time for filmmaking in SA, however, the challenge of securing a distribution deal remains enormous. His advice is to continue making the films you want to make and don't give up.


A Small Town Called Descent is produced by A Moment's Entertainment and is showing at Cinema Nouveau Brooklyn Mall (18h00) and Rosebank (20h00) tomorrow, Saturday 9th October, 2010. It is scheduled for nationwide release in February 2011.


Images courtesy of Paul Buckby

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pledge to take back the racial middle ground in South Africa


My friend Patrick Madden wrote a call to action in April of this year, which was a period of intense racial animosity and uncertainty in the country. He crafted this pledge as a way of restoring some sanity to the discourse surrounding the national question in South Africa, and it bears repeating. See Patrick's explanation as well as the original pledge here.
  • I recognise the feelings of tension and anger felt between people of different races in South Africa today.
  • I recognise that nurturing these feelings undermines our mutual best interests and our highest ambitions for ourselves, our communities and our nation.
  • I recognise my interdependence with all South Africans. I affirm that South Africans of all races and cultures can work together to improve the conditions of our lives and our environment.
  • Recognising our common humanity, I pledge to relate to all South Africans with compassion and respect and to work with them in an atmosphere of openness and mutual recognition.
  • I aspire to create a South Africa that is safe and caring for all. Therefore, I personally vow to refrain from violence and from violent speech towards anyone, regardless of their race or culture.
I was particularly moved by the statement concerning the inherent interdependence of different racial groups. The goodwill of the World Cup went some way towards pushing these concerns aside, but the issues Patrick raises are no less cogent today than they were six months ago. It is the responsibility of all of us to treat others with dignity and respect and to view our interests not simply as a zero-sum racial game.


Original image:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Business as usual is not good enough anymore


The global financial crisis has changed the way we do business. It has forced society to re-evaluate its attitude to risk and wealth generation, and prompted a critical appraisal of corporate responsibility and ethics.

The crisis has also affected thinking on management. The manner in which business leaders interpret these phenomena and accordingly alter their conduct in the marketplace has profound implications for the future of the international economy. The need to adapt, argues Prof. Walter Baets, the head of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), is urgent and unavoidable.

Speaking at a UCT alumni event in Sandton on September 28th, Prof. Baets argued that being ethical or socially responsible are not nice-to-haves. Rather, not to be more socially engaged would run the risk of fundamentally misunderstanding how the world really works, and business’s role in that world.

What characterises emerging markets such as our own, Baets explained, are high degrees of uncertainty, high degrees of complexity, and extreme levels of inequality. Reflecting on his years in the financial services sector, he criticised the process of financial modelling. Many of these analyses, he said, have no bearing on the reality of emerging economies and the complexities of their social landscapes.

Baets described the traditional managerial technique of solving problems through assessing cause and effect as a classic Newtonian Paradigm. However, the challenges facing businesses today are different: they are non-linear, deeply complex and full of unforeseen variables. The problem with most financial models, he noted, is that they presume we can solve a complex world solely by examining causal relationships. You can’t.

Ninety five percent of what business schools teach is Newtonian, he said, but what is really needed is something akin to Quantum Mechanics, a practice which takes into account multiple, and seemingly invisible paradigms when approaching a problem.

“You can never understand a phenomenon in three dimensions if you live in a two dimensional world,” he said, “If you want to understand an organisation you have to understand it systemically.”

As head of the UCT GSB, Baets also attacked the pedagogy of business schools, insisting that MBA students need to grasp that their learning is not about a fixed set of outcomes. “Traditionally in an exam we don’t test intelligence; we test your capacity to say what [the examiner] wants you to say,” he criticised, gesticulating wildly.

“I can’t teach you anything! I can only teach you how to learn […] For example, I can explain the rules of soccer but I can’t make you a soccer player. The same is true for a musician or a pilot.” The latter, he explained, aren’t given the joystick and told to fly; they are introduced to piloting gradually through flight simulators. The same approach should be taken with managers, he mused.

The professor used yet another metaphor, that of the motorcycle racer who has to balance on the threshold of collapse while taking a corner at high-speed. He insisted that if you want your business to win the race you need to go beyond the equilibrium and push yourself to "the edge of chaos". Like the motrorcyclist, you need to do this at every turn, not just once or twice.

In terms of business' social strategy, Baets submitted that companies should ask themselves what they add to society - a broader question than simply evaluating their philanthropic contribution. “It all starts with values. What are you doing it for? If you company is bankrupt, what are you missing? And if the answer is 'nothing', then why do you exist?”

Baets insisted that you cannot decree to become a sustainable or ethical company overnight. “If you really want to have a transformational impact on society you have to understand society and people in a holistic way.”

Photo: David Ansara


This article was originally written for MBAnetwork an information portal and networking site for prospective and current MBA students in South Africa.