The age of Empire
Originally published in Balanced Life magazine
It would be easy to lean on the old ‘dynamite in small packages’ cliché when describing Lusanda ‘Lucy’ Worsley: she’s tiny, charismatic – and never takes her eye off the ball. In the same vein, it would be easy to pigeonhole her company, Empire, as the first black-female-owned ad agency in South Africa, and simply leave it at that.
But the truth is Lusanda and Empire both represent something new in the SA advertising space. Part agency, part consultancy, part business developers, Empire runs on a highly innovative share-economy approach, making use of young African talent and creativity to speak to our unique audiences.
Consumer to creator
Twenty-seven-year-old Lusanda founded Empire two years ago. ‘I always knew I wanted to be in advertising. My first three English words were “All Gold jam”. My first true love was television sets – everything colourful, from commercials to other people’s lives all around the world, was represented in this one box.’
But from her first internship to later agency jobs, there was a disappointing constant she noticed about the industry: the misrepresentation of black audiences and discrimination against black creatives. Hungry for growth and struggling to change these shortcomings from the inside, Lusanda chose to strike out on her own.
For the people, by the people
‘My two main reasons for starting Empire were to give black creatives a chance to showcase their talents without adding to representations that they don’t believe in, as well as to provide a platform for them to build an empire for themselves.’
Lofty goals, especially in a field that has always been dominated by white males. Lusanda’s solution? A share-economy business model.
‘In traditionally structured ad agencies, there are 50-plus employees who work in silos, and they normally create work to win awards. Empire is on the other side, forging a new era of advertising that’s a more collective form of working. We customise all our work with creatives who actually suit their brand.
‘Empire’s innovators are a pool of different agencies and freelancers, ranging from copywriters and designers to film producers, winemakers, publicists, jazz singers, TV and radio personalities, strategists and much more. What I do is, I’ll look at the brand, and then pinpoint the people I want to work on that campaign. Those creators are also the target market – people who speak the lingo and live that brand. So the people who are doing the marketing are the people you actually want to talk to. It’s a new “for the people, by the people” type of marketing.’
Empire’s model has all the hallmarks of brilliant business: it’s simple, it invites ownership from stakeholders and it has you asking, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’
‘It really wasn’t my idea though,’ she says, citing brands that’ve used the model before. Airbnb and Uber, for example, are household names that have no actual real estate or cars of their own, but they collaborate with others who do. ‘I just took the model and applied it to an agency format.’
The power of advertising
Empire’s approach benefits its clients and creatives, but more important is how its content affects consumers.
Lusanda recently spoke at a TedX Youth event in Cape Town where the topic was ‘Diversity in Advertising’. ‘My message was about the power of advertising and how it can affect people in ways we don’t even know yet. It’s everywhere and it has expanded from its traditional channels. Where you used to have an ad on TV about a brand, today you have a celeb promoting that brand on Twitter. Imagine a hungry young brain absorbing all that information! We need to put out real content for that person.
‘For example, when I was young, my favourite TV show was Friends. It’s a great show, but you had six white people going about their lives, with maybe one person of colour every now and then. Imagine I had started out watching The Fixer or How to Get Away With Murder – the powerful and beautiful black females in those shows are everything I want to represent. This is why diversity in advertising is so important.
‘As advertisers, we should leverage off our unique African identity. After all, we’re talking to quite a unique audience. I would like to see the industry go deeper. We need different views to challenge our own perspectives.’ And that’s just what Empire does.
Started from the bottom
Another sticking point Lusanda raised in her TedX Youth talk is how advertising isn’t readily presented to young people as a possibility for their future. ‘When I announced I wanted to be an art director at school, my visual-arts teacher told me I wouldn’t be good at it and should go for another career.’
Undeterred, she looked up advertising schools, but found the costs prohibitive. Instead, Lusanda studied for a BBA with majors in marketing and communications. ‘I learnt a lot. But I’m competitive and want to be ahead of the curve. I was working two jobs to pay for university and thought, “I know where I need to be. By the time I finish studying and get there, I’m just going to be behind again.”’ So she took the plunge, abandoned her studies and dived into the industry as an intern.
‘I began at a start-up, so we all had to do everything, from client servicing to production. We had to juggle and couldn’t slack. That’s where I learnt the most – being thrown in the deep end.’
Doing it for ourselves
‘Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo.’ So goes the Empire manifesto. While it challenges traditional models with its collaborative approach, Lusanda is breaking ground as the first black female MD of an ad agency in SA too.
‘Most advertising agencies I know of, in SA and abroad, are owned by a white male. So it is a selling point, I’d say, my being a young, black female.’
It’s something of a double- edged sword too, though, she says. ‘As soon as people hear “black-female-owned” – or anything with “female”, they are all, “You go, girl!” But then never invest their money in it.
‘It’s a constant battle women have to keep fighting. We can’t give up – especially when you think of the generations before who fought for the very same thing. I don’t know when the change will come. But whether it’s in our time, our daughters’ or granddaughters’ generations, something’s got to give. ‘In the meantime, we can’t keep bashing our head against the same brick wall, expecting a different outcome. Let’s try to find innovative solutions to create the change we want – whether that’s starting your own business or creating a legacy somewhere, somehow. We need to do things for ourselves because nobody is going to do it for us.’
Photo by Gareth van Nelson