Dale Hefer, best-selling marketing author and CEO of the Nedbank Integrated Marketing Conference (IMC), shares how she launched her advertising agency from a garage, as well as her hope for ‘a resurgence of brave creativity’ in the industry.
‘I was always hopeless at maths and science at school but enjoyed telling a story. Attention to detail and client service have also always been my thing so gravitating to marketing just happened,’ she said. She cut her teeth in sales while travelling around the world after studying – selling everything from ice creams to double glazing in London.
Hefer did a stint in client service at an advertising agency, then got lured by the Joburg lights and ended up as sales manager of media monitoring company Newsclip. In the late ’90s, the urge to have her own business became overwhelming and she decided to start her own advertising agency. ‘At the time I thought, ‘How difficult could that be?’ Fortunately, I didn’t know just how difficult, otherwise my agency Chillibush would never have been born,’ Hefer said.
Chillibush was started out of a garage, this before the concept of an ‘integrated agency’ existed. People said that she needed to specialise in a specific offering but she doggedly continued to offer everything from design to PR, media and more. ‘This tactic worked – during the 16 years running the agency, we were proud to incorporate a top creative and media service, as well as leading PR and Investor Relations offerings,’ she added.
Cash flow was one of her biggest challenges, and another was security. Zipping all over the city in her tiny Toyota delivering things made her a target for hijackings, and this happened a few times as she was always alone in her car. ’Eventually I got so frustrated with this, I went to a sex shop and bought the biggest blow-up doll I could find. I named him Percy, blew him up, dressed him and he became my permanent ‘passenger’ and security guard. It worked. I was never hijacked again. I often wonder where Percy is now.’
She sold Chillibush in 2014 with their annual turnover exceeding R100 million, and subsequently bought the IMC. Nedbank has since become the naming sponsor and they re-launched in March 2019 with the theme Marketing Gets Naked. ‘I am always on a mission to prove the business case for marketing and I wanted to strip away the bells and whistles to show that marketing does deliver on the bottom line. The conference was sold out and we are now working on the 2020 Nedbank IMC. The theme for this is simply ‘Marketing Works. Work it.’ Watch this space,’ she said.
What do you enjoy most about working in the industry?
‘The people and the passion. I know that sounds like a corny advertising slogan, but it does sum up what has inspired me over the years. Working in a space where you are constantly encouraged to think out of the box really blows my hair back and keeps me on my toes.’
2019 industry trends
‘I am hoping for a resurgence of brave creativity. At the 2019 Nedbank IMC, a strong trend was the need to push the envelope here again. In his presentation, Andy Rice said we have become ‘lily-livered’ and too afraid to push back to the client. And as always, I hope that a trend will be for businesses to embrace the role of marketing with more enthusiasm and understanding.’
The important industry-related changes she has noticed are both good and bad. On the good side, measurability and accountability are being pushed more and more. On the bad side, procurement is playing too big a role in the industry and suppliers are being mismatched with clients based purely on procurement choosing the cheapest.
Another good change has been the empowerment of women in the industry, especially black women. ‘However, the one area that never seems to change in our industry is our credibility. We are constantly perceived as the poor cousin by the C-suite. Businesses needs to realise that our place is undeniably and firmly at the boardroom table,’ she said.
Favourite project and tips for creating successful campaigns
‘I know it is going back many years, but the campaign I enjoyed the most at Chillibush was for City Press. We focused completely on outdoor and managed to get then President, Thabo Mbeki, to be our top model, together with other luminaries such as Patrice Motsepe. Mr Mbeki said we could use him but he didn’t have time for a shoot so our photographer had to attend all his functions for weeks trying to get the right shots. The campaign worked with a measurable increase in circulation and ad revenue.’
Hefer’s keys to creating successful campaigns are not over-engineering, always ensuring relevance and setting measurement criteria. She advocates for client service, ‘Many people would say creativity is key but as a ‘suit’ of many years, I have seen how good service always trumps good creativity that is badly delivered and implemented.’
‘I have a wonky back from years of long distance running, cycling, squash – you name it,’ she says. Hefer is originally from Zimbabwe, a place for which she still holds much affection. She has an unhealthy addiction to chillies (hence the name Chillibush) and is a single mom to 10-year-old twins James and Grace.