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Recognising And Rewarding Creative Talent + Enter This Year’s Bookmark Awards

  • 14 min read

Khensani Nobanda is no stranger to creativity. Having cut her teeth across various industries working with the likes of Unilever, Diageo, SAB and Vodacom, she is now at the helm of Nedbank’s Marketing and Corporate Affairs department, leading the evolution of digital banking with marketing that had me wondering if I’d stumbled into the wrong movie theatre on a night out (the ad — and I don’t say this lightly — literally felt like a mini movie before the actual movie began; it also didn’t hurt that I opted for 3D). 

This is why she is also perfectly positioned as Jury President to lead the Bookmark Awards 2023. This annual showcase of the best work in digital media and marketing is now in its 15th year and entries are open until Monday, 24 April. As you prepare your entries, read Khensani’s thoughts about the importance of awards for creative talent in the digital media and marketing sector and where the industry is headed as AI technologies come into play.

The Bookmark Awards: The Bookmark Awards is one of the pre-eminent award showcases of the South African creative industry. What do you feel is the purpose that awards such as these serve other than being a tool for agencies and publishers to promote their work?

Khensani Nobanda: For me, it’s more than the promotion of the work that different agencies and publishers have done. It’s more about raising the quality and the standard of the digital work that we have in this country because when you reward great work, it really challenges your peers and other agencies, other publishers, to do better themselves. The promotion is almost secondary to what it does for the entire industry because when you see what good looks like and what great work is being rewarded, you as an agency or as a client of an agency will say, ‘For us to make an impact, we must at least be at that standard or even higher’.

The Bookmark Awards: How do you feel about all the different technological innovations that are being used, not just in the industry but on a mass scale — AI innovations such as ChatGPT, for example? How do you feel it impacts the industry as a whole? Do you feel that it adds to what agencies can offer or do you feel it deters from the creativity that humans usually provide?

Khensani Nobanda: I think it’s great! Maybe let me get a little personal. My head of PR always writes for me and the business so when ChatGPT came out, she was like, ‘Oh, that’s a little bit scary. That feels like it’s going to take my job’. And we’ve actually played with it [ChatGPT] a bit and what we realised as we were playing with it is that it’s great. I think it gives a good starting point for thinking but you still need the human element. The creativity and the human element of being able to judge what ChatGPT is producing or is telling you, or to even judge what it gives you from a creative perspective.

I’ll give you another example. I recently saw an AI tool that created all these different countries as villains; it was really cool! But even all of us — as consumers or humans — as we’re looking at what was being produced creatively, we judged it, like, this works, this doesn’t work. So AI and tech like that don’t scare me. I think it gives us a starting point or a base but we still need people — sharp, creative people — to be able to take what that is and take it to the next level, make it better or even say that it doesn’t work because no one knows the brand narrative of the client as much as the agency or the client will so there’s still a need for that personal touch. You can put all of those elements as a guardrail when you input it into an AI tool but, ultimately, someone must look at it and judge whether it works or not. In that sense, it adds to the industry.

The Bookmark Awards: Given that, what are the most important aspects of recognising creative talent? How are those criteria defined because isn’t any form of creative work really subjective?

Khensani Nobanda: I certainly think it is but where the Bookmarks then take it is not just focusing on the creativity; it’s about the results of the creativity. By the way, one of the things I love about digital is, as a marketer, it’s become so much easier for me to speak with our board about retail and marketing investment because the attribution around what you put into the market and the actual success of a campaign is a lot stronger and better than, for example, a TV ad or a billboard. So, because of that strong attribution on results, what sets something like the Bookmarks apart is that yes, digitally, it’s an app or it’s a creative idea or whatever it is, it’s creatively strong, but if the results are not there, it can’t be an award-winning entry because then it didn’t actually deliver. In digital, we almost have a higher purpose, a higher standard that we need to set around return on marketing investment. 

One of my personal challenges is to ensure that the heads of marketing in organisations — whether it’s the chief marketing officer or marketing director, whatever the title — deserve a clear seat at the C-suite table with the chief financial officer or chief risk officer and all of that. And the only way you can earn a seat like that is if you can prove that marketing works. And that’s the power of digital — it’s that we can prove in digital, that is what we did and these are the results. 

So while there is the potential for a group of people in a room to be biased and have some subjectivity as to how creative [a campaign] was, what you can’t be biased about is the results. When you take those two together, then that is a winning entry. 

The Bookmark Awards: What would you say is the significance to individuals that receive awards like the Bookmarks, especially when most of the work is submitted under agencies, brands or publishers?

Khensani Nobanda:  For me, firstly, winning an award, any award, is freaking incredible! Like it really, really is. And what it does for your confidence in the work that you do and that you’re putting out is, you know, getting the industry to recognise that the work you’re doing is really standing out, is great, and it’s a personal boost for yourself. We don’t walk around telling people that they’re doing a good job so sometimes it’s easy to forget that some of the work you do has been impactful. So firstly, that recognition is a fantastic boost to continue with the energy and resilience to do good work and actually want to, not even beat other people, but beat yourself. I think that’s powerfully important and, in terms of working in the industry, a Bookmark Award tells people that the work you’ve done is creative but also drives results and achieves a return on investment — if you have that on your CV, it really does set you apart as an individual when you’re looking for a new position or even when you’re eyeing a better position at your current organisation. And this comes from an understanding that while we may award a campaign for a brand or agency, the agency, the client and the brand are aware of the people who have worked on that campaign. The Bookmark Awards also has the Special Honours panel, where we award the top marketers and other individuals such as young achievers. These individual awards are also great in that they help the rest of the industry to role model what good work looks like.

The Bookmark Awards: So how would you say awards such as these shine a light on the diversity of the South African creative industry?

Khensani Nobanda:  Here, we can start with just the jury itself. As a Bookmarks Committee, when we decide on who will be a Jury Chair or who will be part of the Jury panels, we always want to make sure that it’s a diverse group of people because we certainly don’t want one lens around what good creativity looks like. When you have the same backgrounds — and I say the same backgrounds because you and a colleague could literally be of different races but you attended the same private schools — the way you think could very well be the same. I look at diversity very broadly and, as a starting point, it’s important for us to ensure that the jury chairs and the panels are diverse. What this means when we’re judging is that there are multiple opinions in the room. 

Before I was Jury President, I sat on two panels as a judge and we have some incredibly robust conversations where we were not entirely on the same page but it means that when we come out of the judging process, we know that the works we’ve awarded come from diverse places and from diverse backgrounds and tells diverse stories. So it really starts with selecting the right jury chairs and panels and then ensuring that the entries we receive are also diverse, and I really think the IAB has done a fantastic job in getting different types of companies to enter the Bookmark Awards. 

When I saw how well the car brands did at the Bookmarks last year, I actually said to my team — and we’re in banking — ‘Let’s do some case studies on some of the car brands and what they’re doing from a digital perspective’. And that diversity allows brands, publishers and agencies in other categories to learn from each other. So by ensuring we receive entries broadly — from FMCG to banking to cars, all of these industries — it helps ensure that diversity.

The Bookmark Awards: I remember those car brand entries and I also found them very interesting. Obviously, last year’s entries were for work that had been created in 2021, and I found that a lot of the work was speaking to what was happening in society at the time; they were a response to people coming out of COVID and out of the pandemic, and I found that very interesting as well, like, I’ve been so exhausted, where did people find all these creative ideas? [Both laugh.] It was very interesting to see where their thought processes had gone and reading the statements about how they came up with the ideas was also very enlightening for me.

Khensani Nobanda: Agreed. I always think context is important when it comes to brands. One of the things I say is that brands should be a great reflection of the societies that we live in but brands must also push us as a society to try and be better. I don’t know who was the first brand that ever did an ad of a mixed-race couple in South Africa on TV but they must have been incredibly brave and — I don’t know what brand it was —but whatever the brand was, it was reflecting the type of society that we wanted to see. It might not be everywhere but it’s certainly the type of society we want to see. So you talk about COVID and how a lot of the work we were seeing around that time was absolutely using COVID as a context but there were also other brands thinking about post-COVID and moving us forward. And I believe that brands can play those roles; they can really motivate and inspire people.

The Bookmark Awards: There were also some really great entries where agencies, publishers and brands spoke about things that people were concerned about. It wasn’t a call to action to buy a product; it was more to just inspire or to make people think about their future and what the world would look like after COVID. I mean, I certainly felt very inspired by some of those ads. What are your thoughts on taking that forward post-COVID, taking those ideas and innovations forward?

Khensani Nobanda: Actually, one of my favourite categories at the Bookmarks is the Pixel for Purpose because it’s not necessarily selling [a product]. Pixel for Purpose is about a positive impact on moving society forward. The thing that I think we need to get agencies and brands to realise is that the Pixel for Purpose isn’t about CSI. What I’ve found most lacking in the past is that organisations are showing us their CSI programmes when Pixel for Purpose is more about how you do business and ensuring that you do it in a very impactful way to society, in a way that helps society. I’d like to see more of those entries that are not in the CSI realm. 

I’ll use an example in the bank. At Nedbank, we have a programme called the Yes Initiative, where we take in, on average, 2-3,000 young people and give them their first job ever — that’s CSI. It’s impactful in society and it’s positive but it’s not Nedbank’s business; we’re just helping people get their first job. However, if we created a product from an educational perspective that allowed people to access funding for education in a different way than we provide now, like if we created a loan that had a different way of credit risk modelling, then suddenly we’re not just giving 500 young kids access to university education but we’re giving that to 10,000 kids. That type of product is very purposeful and that’s where I want to challenge brands and agencies to think about Pixel for Purpose as a way of doing business that has a positive impact on society versus just showcasing your CSI projects.

The Bookmark Awards: To wrap up, are there any other ways in which you believe creative talent can be recognised outside of the awards showcase?

Khensani Nobanda: That’s a difficult one. I can only tell you, for example, the way that we at Nedbank work with our agencies. Whether or not the work wins awards or gains recognition, ultimately, my job as the person who heads up marketing for Nedbank is to ensure that we’re growing our brand and our business. And when we do that, I share that with our agencies because it’s not just me and my internal marketing team who are doing this; it’s a team of agencies working with us. I do think clients need to acknowledge agencies a lot more than they do; we don’t need to wait for awards. And sometimes our work doesn’t win awards, you know? I was looking at a campaign we did last year for deposits at Nedbank. It’s not an award-winning campaign at all. It’s nice because we aren’t going to put crap work out there, but it’s not going to win us any awards. However, if you look at our market share within that space, it has started to increase and I shared that with the agency because it’s the result of the work that we’ve done together. I certainly think that we as clients should be stepping up more and sharing with our agencies that the work we’re doing is actually having a positive impact on the brand and the business.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Inspired? Entries for the Bookmark Awards are open until Monday, 24 April 2023. Entries submitted past the entry deadline will be subject to a 10% late penalty fee. Late fees are applicable from Tuesday, 25 April until Monday, 8 May. The awards ceremony is set to take place on Thursday, 27 July.


For more information on the 2023 Bookmark Awards, visit Companies interested in sponsoring the 2023 Bookmark Awards categories, can view the sponsor pack here.