In our exclusive Modern Marketing Industry Interview series, Executive Creative Director at the Duke GroupSuhana Gordhan, discusses how her 16-year long career in advertising stems from her love of creativity, and that she had to be quite resilient to break into the industry – and fight to stay in.

Getting into advertising

Gordhan always loved being creative and grew up in a family that invited creativity and inspired it. They would all watch TV together and advertising was entertainment in some ways. ‘We would watch adverts, memorise them and say the words and sing along the next time the advertisement played. I think I started liking advertising back then, but didn’t know that I would necessarily pursue it as a career,’ she said.

She completed an Honours Degree in Drama at the University of Natal. ‘Then I wanted to find a way to create art – which is is not easy in South Africa. I wanted to still be a creative, but have a bit more stability.’ She then did a postgraduate diploma in copywriting at AAA, and went straight into an internship at Ogilvy, which she said is like the ‘University of advertising’.

‘I was quickly spat out, so I left advertising, went back to dancing and then returned to advertising. I had to take a breather from it and then come swimming back into it. It is not easy starting out in advertising as a young person – it can be very daunting. I did not survive the first try.’ Before her current position at Duke, Gordhan worked at King James, Black River and FCB Joburg.

What have you enjoyed most about working in this industry? 

‘The power of creativity and ability to make things is so rewarding. What gets me excited is getting to make my ideas grow into ‘big adult’ ideas that the world gets to see. When you get into the work and you get thrown into the production of a few ideas, it becomes really rewarding.’

Industry-related changes

When Gordhan first entered the industry, it was very male-dominated and she found that it was not an environment that nurtured and supported young women. This has changed over time, but she says transformation overall has not happened fast enough and that she would like to see women, especially women of colour, in creative leadership roles.

‘What has changed is the way we do advertising – the way we tell our stories – which is absolutely exciting to see. It is a journey of evolution. For example, the Loeries started as just a a TV awards show – it was all about TV. If you look at the work we used to make, it was all about print and TV. Then the digital storm happened and the media landscape opened up in such an exciting way. The ways you can now reach your audience are endless – you do not only have one form of storytelling. We have also moved rapidly in terms of how we produce things and how we create. Everything is much faster and the demand is greater.’

She said that relationships with clients have not changed for the better. ‘The relationships have kind of devolved – before the agency was your trusted partner but now the agency has become more of a supplier. The demand for the relationship and trust have been eroded.’ 

Watch the rest of of the interview below, where Gordhan discusses her hobbies and interests, executing a successful campaign and keys to being successful in the advertising industry. 

Gordhan’s favourite campaign is the Coca-Cola PHONETIC CAN. Her team tapped into a very big local insight, which is that even though we have 11 languages in South Africa and over 26 years into democracy, we still do not know how to pronounce other’s names. So the campaign takes people out of their comfort zone with the understanding that English is not the only language.