Google CMO Mzamo Msizi.
Google CMO Mzamo Msizi.
Image: Aart Verrips

He owned the stage that Friday in Durban. Marching up and down. Calling out agencies, marketers, strategists, men. Flicking between slides, always showing the scientific data. Mzamo Masito, the chief marketing officer (CMO) of Google, sub-Saharan Africa, was larger than life — and wearing his trademark colour-coded glasses. It was the Loeries DStv Seminar and after some mediocre, patronising speakers he lit the place up to a standing ovation.

So it was surprising to meet him — quiet, softly spoken, considered. The outfit and glasses were there, but the booming man who called creatives lazy, strategists even lazier, blew up the K-word, and called out men and white people on privilege, was replaced with someone uncomfortable to be talking about himself. “I’m not sure that I have a story to tell yet,” he says, quietly.

At the seminar he put the K-word up on the screen. “I learnt this word when I was four years old and the power of that word. All of the years later this word still holds so much power. And I blame the people in this room. You are the people that are supposed to be coming up with new words, new stories, new narratives and what have you done?”

Silence from the floor.

“My intention was to just prick into people’s consciousness — not necessarily burst it, and hopefully push one or two people to do something about it.”

Masito urged the audience to use the platform of creativity and art as tools for social change. Even if it’s for profit. “We are influencers. We nudge people, we persuade people, we even change behaviour — we influence what they buy; how they feel about themselves. We self-embed their values, their stereotypes. I don’t think as a community we realise how powerful we actually are.”

Masito has many mantras he repeats over the interview: “What am I willing to let go of and what am I willing to give.” And: “If you don’t deliberately, intentionally, and proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude.”

“In this country people say I want affirmative action but I don’t want to be the one that makes the sacrifice. But if you are not willing to let go or give something then you are not willing to do the work. The work requires give and let-go on both sides. If I’m black, to get to a rainbow non-racial society that I believe in, I must also be willing to let go of something painful — like forgive or let go of 500 years of exclusion, colonisation, murder.”

Masito checks himself constantly. He’s a prolific reader, a teetotaller (“the costs far outweigh the benefits”), and a father of three daughters (16, 14, and two). He doesn’t own a TV, believing in mobile first. “I am on a journey of mobile first: everything must happen on this phone,” he says.

“I want my daughters to have new struggles. They don’t have a poverty struggle, that was my struggle. They go to private schools. Private schools are no different to agencies. They are exclusionary,” he says. “It is about assimilating. I look at their interior décor, I go look at the canteen — the food they serve — it says a lot about the psyche of the space and what these people think about.”

Diversity and inclusion are a big theme in Masito’s life. The seed was initially planted at Unilever’s unconscious-bias workshops, “It helped sensitise me to diversity. I could see the business case; I could see the moral ethical case.

Watching five fingers in my mother tongue, Sesotho, was a revelation. I didn’t need to translate or decode: we underestimate the power of language in this country

“When I joined Google, they added the word inclusivity. So, all along I had been dealing with diversity without dealing with inclusivity. I hadn’t been asking when I bring you into space, how inclusive is this space? And how safe?

“I got woken up to gender diversity and the pay gap. I started realising that as black as I am, I had unearned privileges, because some of my promotions happened because I was hanging with the boys.”

THE DATA DOESN’T LIE

Part of Masito’s talk was sharing data from an assessment of new television ads over the last six months. Women make 85% of the purchasing decisions, yet the majority of the ads have male voiceovers; less than 3% of the ads show women as being funny; and only 3% to 5% of the ads show women in positions of authority such as CEO, leader, business owner, top scientist and so on. Uncomfortable viewing.

Which agencies and marketers are getting it right at the moment? Masito takes his time: “Filmmakers are getting it right. I feel this when I watch films like Catching Feelings, Five Fingers for Marseilles, and Inxeba. I recently went to watch a documentary by Akin Omotoso, The Colour of Wine. It’s the filmmakers for me — short or long form — they are getting it.

Inxeba held up a mirror to our consciousness and it was making us uncomfortable and I liked it because it made me uncomfortable. Watching Five Fingers in my mother tongue, Sesotho, was a revelation. I didn’t need to translate or decode: we underestimate the power of language in this country. Ninety-eight percent of our TV ads are in English. How? About 92% to 95% of our population don’t speak English at home.”

That’s why Masito drummed on about agencies needing to be diverse and inclusive. “The black person at the agency or the Afrikaner who speaks Afrikaans so well must know that it is okay to start from Afrikaans — and to do this thing as Afrikaans all the way though. We will put subtitles on if need be. I love this book called White Fragility. You can’t, if you are white, be nursing my black anger. And I can’t be nursing your white fragility.

They say when the student is ready, the teacher shows up. Mzamo Masito showed up.

QUICK QUESTIONS WITH MZAMO MSIZI

What language do you swear in? I like Afrikaans: it just glides better. And Zulu. Xhosa sometimes. English takes too long.

Favourite designer? MaXhosa by Laduma.

Best song to dance to? Sjava’s Iqhawe or Spirit by Kwesta, featuring Wale.

Best tactic for surviving meetings? I make endless notes I am never going to need.

Always splash out on? A watch and books. The classic brands. I’m a brand guy.

Currently reading? Seven books: I get bored. I’m obsessed with James Baldwin. His The Fire Next Time is my favourite book right now. I reread The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho because I was reading The 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. Sello K Duiker is there. As is White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo and a book on the history of hip-hop. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. And How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know by Byron Sharp.

- From the December edition of Wanted 2018.

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