Get to know: Uyanda Manana, Managing Director & Kevin Power, Group Managing Director of Conversation Lab

B&BAN: For those who do not know Conversation LAB, can you tell us a bit about it and your roles in the company?

KP: Conversation LAB is a ‘born digital’ full-service agency founded in 2012. We focus on consistently delivering highly effective digital campaigns for blue-chip brands with radical accountability in South Africa and UK. We now have a group of agencies under the Conversation LAB Group banner. It includes Media LAB (a pure-play paid media agency) and Power LAB (strategic communication, customer experience, and crisis and reputation management agency). All three agencies are women-owned and run. We feel Conversation LAB is unique in that we push hard into the performance marketing space with extensive optimization and refinement of campaign activity. But it also focuses on ideas and concepts that can move the needle at a brand level. We like to think of ourselves as an agency that can operate strategically thinking micro, macro and mega. We have a broad set of clients with a density of knowledge in the education and FMCG sectors.

My role has now evolved to Group MD, where I have a touchpoint into the three agencies and then also sit in the UK, focusing on attracting UK business to be executed by the South African teams. I was lucky enough to meet and work with Uyanda in SA over the last two years, and in August last year, I handed over the reins of the SA operation. In addition to changing leadership and shareholding with Uyanda, we also adjusted the ownership to include four young black colleagues to become shareholders with more grassroots impact. We believe that transformation requires a change in ownership and leadership – the sum is greater than the individual parts.

UM: With the enormous changes that have taken place, my priority since my appointment has been to bed in the new structure and ensure I have the backing and support of my new team. My mandate is to bring my team along on the journey of transforming our brand. My role has focused mainly on defining who we are and how we show up as an agency team, making our business purpose a lived experience for our staff, clients, and the communities we touch. Having four other black business partners in addition to the founders (Kevin and Jon Oliff) has helped underline our ambition to create something different to tackle the need for transformation.

Running parallel to all this is establishing platforms that will drive change in the industry; there certainly needs to be far more diversity and women empowerment. Conversation LAB group has two other women MDs, Megan Power of Power LAB and Bridgette Donnelly of Media LAB. We aim to work with other like-minded colleagues to bring much-needed change to the old boys club!

B&BAN: You both, on the surface, come from very different backgrounds, but your lives have intersected globally over the years. Can you share some of the common threads you have with each other with us?

KP: We were certainly born into very different worlds in apartheid South Africa. As a white male, I was first in line with a right of passage to the best schools, universities, and networks in SA and later in the UK. It all set me up for the best chance possible to succeed. So, although only my mother raised me, who was also a nurse, like Uyanda’s mother, and we faced trials and tribulations from time to time, it is incomparable to the challenges faced by a black woman growing up in SA at the time. Apartheid only really ended in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as our first black president. Uyanda’s story of getting to London and landing a job at Publicis in early 2000 is a remarkable one and pretty unique for the time. It underlines her grit, determination, and absolute belief in herself – traits instilled in her by her mother – and shows what we can achieve against the odds.

An interesting fact is that we both worked at Publicis London during the 2000s – our time there overlapped by about two years, yet we never actually met each other. Quite surprising as Uyanda is no wilting violet! But Publicis employed about 600 plus people so entirely possible. As Uyanda will tell you with much enthusiasm, I was a second-class citizen in those days working in digital. Uyanda was the highflyer working in the glamorous world of TV advertising! 😉. But the world works in mysterious ways, and nowhere is Uyanda as MD of a digital agency. She has seen the light!

When I took Uyanda’s call (at Heathrow airport about to board a flight to SA) for a role with Conversation LAB I thought it was a prank. She said she had worked at M&S – so had I – and that she’d also worked at Publicis and then named people I knew well. It felt like a setup somehow. But it wasn’t; we met the next day in Johannesburg, and the rest is history.

UM: As a young girl, I believed that someday, someway, somehow, I’d make it overseas, to work and live there. At the time, the US represented “overseas” in my mind and the minds of many black kids in South Africa. Mainly because of the TV shows we used to watch then. The US represented freedom, opportunity, and equality; it seemed like an idyllic life framed by shows like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show. These were black American families who were successful and free; a stark contrast to the black South African existence.

During my final school year, I applied to take part in an exchange student program. I didn’t tell my mother and had no idea how I’d pay for it, but I applied nonetheless. And I got in! I remember being so excited that I’d been accepted into the program. But when I broke the news to my mother, she, unsurprisingly, told me that she could not afford to pay. So I went back to the organization to tell them it was a no-go. But a few weeks later, I got a call telling me that a sponsor in Switzerland had been found. Not long afterward, I walked out of the airport into the icy coldness of Zurich. I’d made it. I was overseas, and it was quite possibly the best year of my life. That’s when I started believing that anything was possible; the door just needed to open. And the rest would be down to hard work and faith.

It’s that faith that got me to London, where I landed with a suitcase and no job. I slept on a friend’s couch until I found a job at Marks and Spencer as a shop assistant – it was a humbling, enriching experience. After a couple of months of doing that, I landed a job at Publicis UK. The reason I got invited for an interview was that I had previously worked at Loreal in SA and Publicis held the global contract. And now, here I am.

B&BAN: What inspired you to start Conversation Lab and what do you hope it accomplishes?

KP: Nothing hugely exciting other than the well-trodden route where one gets fed up in their current role and, either by design or a narrowing of options, they take the plunge. I was back in SA and working for one of the big global networks and began not to see eye to eye with the Exco of which I was a part. It was quite a shock to the system from my days in London, and it spurred me to put my money where my mouth was and set something up that looked and felt a bit different. I suppose I have always been a little entrepreneurial without really knowing it; delivering newspapers at 13 and running school discos at 16. So starting a digital agency in 2012 with two ex-colleagues (as co-founders) of the same global network sounded like fun and worth a shot. I didn’t have too much to lose at that point.

We had an amazing early start and went from strength to strength. I think we hit 70 staff before our 5th birthday. It was much more than we planned for or expected, and it all happened pretty quickly. We made some great early strategic moves and partnerships that set us up for success, and we put in some long but rewarding hours.

Now the agency has grown up quite a bit, with a senior team headed by Uyanda in SA.

We are much more settled, and the plates still spin but less hit the ground these days. I would love the agency to become a real go-to place for young graduates and other talents in South Africa to help make us better learners along the way and accelerate their careers. Our ambition is that clients, employees, and partners working with us grow better and stronger because of it. And that we get better and better and break fewer plates and, importantly, that we all enjoy it. I don’t think I could ask for fairer than that.

B&BAN: What do you think makes Conversation Lab different from its competitors?

UM: One of the main reasons I joined Conversation LAB (and stayed) is because of its diverse breadth and depth of disciplines – everything from strategic planning to creative development right through to SEO and Dev. I come from a very traditional agency background, and it’s rare to have an art director sitting next to a back-end developer working together on a campaign. That’s what ultimately sets us apart.

KP: We are radically accountable. We don’t take on work we don’t feel we can deliver or make a worthwhile engagement for our clients. We are kept up at night obsessing over hitting client targets and business goals. We start strong, build great client relationships, and ask to be judged by what we achieve in the market for their brands. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. I think it was you, Tony, who used to remind us that we are not solving the world’s problems, finding a cure for AIDS (and now a Covid vaccine) or putting people on Mars, but that we owe it to our staff and our clients to do our best and push forward all our careers.

B&BAN: Can you give our global audience, some insights into the South African agency marketplace and where its going over the next 5 years?

UM: I think customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) have yet to come into their own in SA. While it’s been on the agenda for a while now, for many organizations and brands, it’s still just lip service. They, together with their partner agencies, either fail to see the benefit to the bottom line or they just don’t understand it. It’s risky because the best marketing is ultimately undone through poor customer journeys. If the experience isn’t seamless, or the product doesn’t help people or improve their lives in some way, what’s the point? The brands and teams which get this will win, especially given the impact COVID has had on how we live our lives and consume products and content.

I also think the leveraging of technology, such as IoT, artificial intelligence, and gaming, to enhance consumer experiences, is a huge growth area. We are moving from a position of creating consumer experiences across connected touchpoints to using technology to reach people, engaging them on a more human level.

KP: South Africa is not that different from other parts of the world as to how the industry is evolving – albeit being at a slightly different point on the curve.

We see increased fragmentation in several directions:

  • Clients building in-house capacity by hiring creative and digital talent
  • Full-service and digital agencies, competing with management consultancies & vice versa.
  • Digital agencies, adding product offerings in the form of software.
  • Specialist agencies, targeting digital consulting and end-to-end digital solutions.

As clients become increasingly tuned in to the post-Covid landscape, agencies should straddle the domains of creative brand consulting with deep technical knowledge of SEO, paid media, data science, and UX. We are significantly increasing our strategic business consulting, and technical capacity as digital experiences merge with clients’ businesses.

B&BAN: In South Africa, are we now starting to see a rise of more black talent in your industry and others?

UM: Yes and no. Our industry is still not entirely representative of the make-up of our country. The rise of black talent has improved but not enough has shifted in the way of diversity, inclusion, and ownership, especially in leadership positions. And black women in particular are still on the sidelines. The old boy’s club has changed in color, but not gender.

Most organizations open doors for black talent to be compliant with labor legislation. What we need is a practical and tangible change that inspires the next generation, that showcases what transformation and opportunity can and should look like. Money simply exchanging hands is not what is needed for a real groundswell that will be felt by generations to come. The way Conversation LAB has structured and changed ownership at a grassroots level by including four young rising stars is more tangible and meaningful. It is about spreading opportunities as wide as possible. My vision is to work at including the unseen and unheard in our industry, such as the youth. I want to see youth represented and given meaningful opportunities, which they can grab with both hands.

KP: There certainly is change, and it has accelerated over the last three years, but there is still a significant way to go in our industry. A lot of progressive business now in SA wants to work with black-owned and run agencies and not just the big networks which tick an employment equity legislation box. It is a very positive shift where businesses are wanting to, as opposed to having to, invest in black businesses and work with and support them. The ‘middle ceiling’ is apparent in our industry but with the right effort and focus we will be able to match the opportunities with the talent and keep accelerating the change. As a white South African, I try to put my money where my mouth is, but don’t always get it right.

We started a black-owned agency four years ago where my business partner and I were minority owners, and we gave shareholding to six black staff in our agency to own the majority. We thought it was a very innovative idea to help accelerate change but we struggled to get it going while still trying to build Conversation LAB (along with the other shareholders). We bit off more than we could chew. We didn’t have everything in place that was needed for it to be a great success and were not happy with the speed things were moving, so we then did the full structural changes within Conversation LAB and gave ownership to Uyanda and the other young talent in the main agency. This move has been much more focused and is working very well. We are very proud of the changes we are seeing in everyone’s lives, but there is much more to be done. Uyanda is now making sure we drive deeper and faster change.

B&BAN: Do you have a perspective on how we accelerate the rise of more black talent, and what are the biggest challenges?

UM: It starts with access to opportunity and skills development. It’s easier to get into our industry if you’re black middle class. For most black South Africans, advertising isn’t a viable career option. The colleges that feed into our industry are fairly elite, which means there’s very little in the way of black diversity. We need to look at how we go about opening the doors to young people from different walks of life; establish representation from the bottom up. That’s the type of work I want to be doing with Black and Brilliant in our country and industry: highlighting success stories as inspiration.

KP: Our structural changes at the agency have tried to have an impact here by giving ownership to a group of young middle-level talent and others, backed up with real-time mentorship and support. There is still a lot more to do, and we too are on a journey. Businesses have to carve out opportunities to identify young black talent and support them on their journeys. Support is critical here. Black talent is still coming from a huge disadvantage in the unequal economy of South Africa. The opportunities have to be meaningful and well thought through. There have been many plans with the best intentions that falter and fail in a very complex South African socio-economic environment. It is devastating how many young black South Africans are being left behind and continue to be marginalized due to the failings of the South African system. We need business and government to work together more effectively to deliver the right change quickly.

B&BAN: You both wear lots of hats, both professionally and personally. How do you balance all of these dimensions of your lives?

UM: There is no balance. I’m a working mother of a seven-year-old little girl, and she comes first. Her well-being and development are of the utmost priority to me. But I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that prioritizing her development and access to opportunities does, at times, mean sacrificing the odd ballet recital and eating supper together in favor of work demands. And then there are times where I have to defer work to after-hours or weekends so I can spend time with her and tuck her in at night. The beauty of my role now is I can work with the rest of the leadership team in finding ways to enable our working mothers to make the most of their careers without having to abandon their children.

KP: Eight hours of sleep a night and a lot of good wine! I try as much to keep work Monday to Friday and weekends for family and non-work time. I prefer to work intensely and get things done and then relax intensely. Knowing I have a weekend to switch off drives me to get stuff done. We have been quite privileged in that even during our early days of building the agency, a full weekend push was pretty rare. I also have a strong team around me who all muck in and support each other, making it all possible. Not to mention a wonderful wife that does all the different hats wearing and juggling! One might say, I have got it quite easy!

B&BAN: We live in a globally interconnected world, how have issues like Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, or Me Too impacted you here?

UM: COVID has made us all stop, slow down and assess the lives we lead and the state of the world around us. George Floyd’s murder touched every black person at their core. We could identify with that moment of “I can’t breathe”. We can all recall many moments where one felt the pressure and oppression of those in power. BLM reminded us that we have a voice and this is the time to use it. Sadly, I don’t think the Me Too movement ran as deep as the BLM narrative for us, which is indicative of the dire state of gender equality and gender-based violence in our country.

KP: I think Covid has made us all a bit more human and forgiving. We have been into our client’s homes and bedrooms and they have been into ours; it is a great leveler. We all have our weaknesses and challenges and I think Covid made us a bit more aware of others and we were all able to put into perspective what matters in the bigger picture. BLM and Me Too have brought to a head the critical issues that have been bubbling away for a long time globally and in SA. Initiatives must lie B&BAN (which was born out of recent events) thrives and stays the course and we will do what we can to keep pushing in our small way.

B&BAN: If you met your 10-year-old self today – what would you say and what advice would you give if any?

UM: Cut mama some slack – she is doing the very best she can!

KP: Read, read, read.

Video Interview

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