Duke Group

Duchess’ Nino Naidoo and Suhana Gordhan: “South Africa Is More Energised Than Ever”

The company’s MD and ECD on the current state of the South African industry, how Duchess is elevating female talent, and why ‘the journey to brave and beautiful work’ is a long one

Cape Town-based production company Robot is a proud supporter of LBB and South African creativity. Over the course of this interview series, we’ll be hearing from many of the great creative minds who are driving the country’s industry forward. Through these voices, we’ll learn more about one of the world’s most underrated creative capitals. 
Today, we hear from Duchess’ Nino Naidoo and Suhana Gordhan – MD and ECD respectively. The pair reflect on the resilience and charm that South Africa tapped into amidst the pandemic, how our lives have changed over the past two years, and what makes ‘unlearning’ such a vital skill… 

LBB> First things first – growing up, when did you first know that a career in this industry was right for you? 

Nino Naidoo> I fell into the industry, and production specifically, quite by accident. I started my career 25 years ago as a receptionist at Hunt Lascaris, and worked my way up into production from there. Advertising was not an intentional choice, but I fell in love with it very quickly.

Suhana Gordhan> I always knew that whatever I did in life, it had to be about creativity. When we were young, my siblings and I used to look out for our favourite ads on TV and memorise the ones we loved. I think this was the initial trigger. I then went on to study Drama and English and, at some point, I felt that maybe the pure art world was not going to sustain me. So, I followed my younger brother into advertising. Thus far it has been a fascinating career – one that continues to surprise and fulfil me. 

LBB> How would you both describe the industry in South Africa at the moment, and are there any trends which are exciting you? 

Nino> South Africa is a country that is constantly changing and evolving and, whilst that comes with a degree of risk or uncertainty, it also brings with it an agility and huge potential for new ideas and growth. So, whilst the industry has taken strain as a result of Covid and other economic factors, the difficult circumstances have also birthed amazing new ideas and developments. I’ve been inspired by the number of new start-ups and ventures that have emerged to help us better manage our new world. Online businesses have exploded and I am excited about the trend towards making life simpler and easier through the number of  new at-home and online services that are now available. 

Suhana> I sit on two industry bodies – The Loeries and The Creative Circle – and what I’ve noticed over the last two years is that we are more energised than ever. We’ve had to suffer so many knocks, transitions, loss of talent, and it’s getting tougher to sell big ideas, unlock budgets and maintain the trust of our clients. However, I’m inspired by the ability of our people to innovate and – in true South African style –  find different ways to navigate challenging contexts. I see more sharing of ideas, more commitment to diversity and transformation; I’m hearing new, young voices and seeing much more collaboration to achieve change and to ensure that creativity thrives. For me, the industry is displaying its resilience and charm. Creativity in South Africa is a representation of what South Africans do best – we bounce back, we make each other laugh, and we tell stories that are not only insightful here, but relevant across the world.

LBB> Are there any common misconceptions about the market in South Africa? 

Nino> Whilst we are a developing country with plenty of problems, we have incredible first world developments, resources and education. So, whilst people might think of the South African market as unsophisticated and even quite primitive, we have a population that is very conscious and discerning and demands the same high standards and quality that the rest of the world does.

Suhana> I think there are some misconceptions around lower-income earners.  Lower living standards doesn’t mean lower ambitions. There is enough research to show that you may live in a one-bedroom shack in an informal settlement, but you could also be an entrepreneur, harnessing more than one skill or talent, and not letting social or economic status define your ability to achieve. 

I think there are also misconceptions about the ambition and fire we have as South Africans. Yes, we have our problems, but this does not mean that all we’re trying to do is merely survive. I believe that what distinguishes us as people is our ability to look beyond, to “maak ’n plan” (make a plan) as we say, and to never give up. We’ve already produced world-class talent across the creative industry and we have more where that came from. 

LBB> Let’s talk about Duchess. What was the inspiration for you guys to create this company which elevates female talent? 

Nino> Throughout my career there has always been a lack of female talent in our industry and Duchess has been created with the intention of changing the status quo. We are creating a space where skilled women in our industry can do what they do best in an environment that works for them. As a result, transformative and lasting change becomes possible. Having women throughout the business and choosing to work with women, not only throws a spotlight on highly skilled and talented women in our industry, but it will automatically give us a female-oriented perspective with which to view the work and hopefully help to change perceptions.

Suhana> Nino is the brilliant brainchild and founder of Duchess, and I have helped to support and shape that vision. For me, Duchess is the answer to what the industry has needed for far too long. The aim of Duchess is not to lament lack but rather to celebrate and highlight skilled and talented women across the production chain. I love that it is simply about excellence and creating a space for women – and those who identify as women – to thrive. I believe Duchess is here to inspire and encourage, and to show others that normalising a diverse creative environment is not something we should be hoping for, but something that simply is

LBB> Both Duke and Duchess are all about creating a collective of South African talent. Does creativity from your country share some defining characteristics, and how would you describe them if so? 

Nino> South Africans are a population that, whilst being incredibly diverse, are also able to unify over a common cause and that collaborative spirit, which we refer to as “ubuntu,” is often the inspiration behind a lot of our creativity. South Africans also love to laugh at themselves, so we find a lot of local humour and unique characters that are specific to our culture in our creativity.

Suhana> South Africans have always been at the forefront of the radio category, in which we’ve consistently excelled. I think this is because of our historic roots in oral tradition. We are natural storytellers, and radio is the medium that many South Africans have turned to for self-expression and entertainment – even in divisive times like apartheid. 

I believe our sense of humour is powerful. As Nino says, we have the distinct ability to laugh at ourselves and find entertainment in the crazy scenarios that play out in our country on any given day. We also have a knack of doing the most with very little and this resourcefulness is part of our DNA. 

LBB> Nino, you’ve said that ‘learning and unlearning’ is part of your philosophy for life. Why is ‘unlearning’ such an important thing, particularly in the context of this industry? 

Nino> The rapid pace of our industry, and indeed the world itself, requires us to be adaptable and resilient. You cannot have one fixed set of ideas that carries you through your entire career, because something will quickly change the way we have always done things and the way that has always worked before simply won’t work anymore. Having children has helped me understand that what I know today may not apply tomorrow, and that there could be a different or better way of doing things that I have yet to explore. So ‘unlearning’ is in essence, letting go of my pre-set ideas and ways of doing things, and being open to new ones. And, trust me, that sounds a whole lot easier than it is!

LBB> Suhana, you recently wrote that ‘advertising has become formulaic, safe, and boring’. Do you take any steps in your work to ensure that there is an exciting creative tension at the heart of what you do? 

Suhana> My personal philosophy is that you can only make great work if you reduce the noise and fall in love with the idea. If you can get teams, clients and the entire agency to be wholly in love with an idea and invested in it, then that leads to excellence. 

I try to ensure that the creatives, while having to work under pressure, still have the ability to dream up impossible, big ideas. I also think that sometimes the journey to brave and beautiful work is a long game. It means having patience and the foresight to go the distance with the client until you reach the point where there’s a synergistic desire for, and commitment to work that is outstanding.

LBB> You’ve both spoken about the pandemic providing a powerful shared experience for so many people. Do you think that peoples’ priorities for life have changed, and in what ways if so? 

Nino> So much change has been brought about by the pandemic and, whilst there has been so much loss and tragedy, a large portion of it has been positive. Lockdowns and quarantines and people forced to die alone without their loved ones, have shown us how important human connection is. There’s a sense of community and appreciation for things we might have taken for granted before – our families, friends, loved ones and our health have all come under the spotlight and for the most part, people have demonstrated exceptional kindness and humanity.

Suhana> Personally, I struggle with the notion that the pandemic gave us an epiphany of what is important in life. I think we’ve always known. All that the pandemic did is make us more comfortable with where to place our energy. It might be a slightly cynical view, but I think that being surrounded by so much grief and loss has not necessarily awakened more empathy and kindness. I have seen a few moments in business that makes me believe that some people are unrelenting and inflexible, no matter what our circumstances. I think the only people who are embracing the lessons and shifting consciousness are the ones who self-interrogate, and have allowed themselves to be permeable and vulnerable.

LBB> What was the best piece of advice each of you ever received? 

Nino> Create your own plan, then back yourself and your world will wonderfully open up to every kind of possibility.

Live abundantly.

Dare to do.

Suhana> My dad always told me that nothing in life will stay the same. This idea of impermanence is powerful. I think it makes you give from your heart and soul. It teaches you to relinquish what doesn’t matter, to be brave enough to move past mistakes, and to allow yourself to completely immerse in the present and then relish it.

LBB> And finally, the past 18 months have been challenging for many of us. How have you both been staying creatively inspired and motivated throughout it all? 

Nino> Working from home hasn’t always been easy and it certainly has not been terribly inspiring being away from colleagues and friends and new environments, all of which help to stimulate creative thought and ideas. But being forced to slow down has allowed me to take the time to look around and see things differently, which has inspired a lot of different creativity. On top of that, being at home with my three adult children 24/7 has given me a lot of new perspective and insights that have inspired me hugely. 

Suhana> It has not always been easy to stay creatively inspired. Accepting that creativity might sometimes become stuck is a way of dealing with the overwhelming context we face. As a writer, letting my words tumble out onto paper has offered me solace, as well as meditation and my 400-year-old martial arts – capoeira. I also think that as a leader, you have to summon the ability to inspire, even when your own creative resources are in drought. Focusing on the idea that creativity can solve anything is, perhaps, one way to remain hopeful and encouraged.