Soweto-born Sizakele Marutlulle, founder and CEO of MARUTLULLE + C/O, is a testament to the ingenious spirit of woman pioneers and leaders of the continent. With an impressive resume in business leadership, brand-building, innovation and people development spanning over 23 years, Marutlulle now supports “pro-Africa companies to compete, win and prosper”.
Driven by a business philosophy rooted in merging creativity, culture and commerce, the seasoned cultural creative, strategist and businesswoman began her career with a degree in liberal arts, having completed her schooling in Swaziland. She credits her mother with wanting to give her the best education. It was in her third year at varsity that she stumbled upon advertising literature and her love for the industry was born.
“My brand-building teeth were actually cut on the inaugural election campaign that ushered in South Africa’s democracy in 1994, and throughout, I’ve been able to work on rebranding and repositioning other national assets like South African Tourism and South African Airways. So my journey in adverting has been as either a practitioner leading an agency or on the corporate side at companies such as Absa Barclays,” says Marutlulle.
In the years to follow, she would lead agencies and work at corporate, assuming roles such as Head of Marketing at Absa Africa, following her tenure as CEO of Grey Advertising in South Africa. A former COO of SA Tourism, she received an MA in Communications and Sociology in 2007 – the same year she decided to go at it alone, establishing her first company, Moonchild – and is currently completing her PhD.
“My everyday work is helping clients see the magic that can be unlocked at that intersection of commerce, creativity and culture. So every business is in business to make commercial gains, but we also know that creativity is means to solve the many problems we are faced with today,” she explains. “But then there’s an additional layer that is important to me, which is how then can you compound the success you derive commercially and reputaionally, which you draw from your creativity to effect lasting social change in a way that actually creates what I call a creative economy? That is, in a nutshell, what I do everyday.”
Her company works with clients across various industries, from FMCG to financial services. “I really do want to work with brands that are at an inflection point, so either you want to grow, accelerate your your growth, want to launch something or looking to reposition your business.”
MARUTLULLE also has an extensive footprint beyond our borders, having worked with clients in Rwanda, Senegal and Gabon.
“The idea of focusing on pro-Africa companies means we want to work with people that believe that Africa can solve all her problems, that Africa cannot continue to be positioned as this begging bowl. where all that people see from us are problems and they come in and tell us how we fix them. So attitudinally, its important that the clients we work with bet for Africa.”
On the differences and parallels she has drawn from doing business in different regions on the continent, she shares that “the experience and expression of power is very different”. Comparing the Nigerian market to SA’s, she found that “the most powerful person in that market is the one who speaks last, and who says the least, whereas in our setup, you’ll often find that the person who is the CEO wants you to know that they are the CEO, because they’ll introduce themselves as such”.
“What tends to happen is that if you’re the CEO who always dominates the conversation, then your colleagues don’t have room to disagree with you and you don’t get to learn. The second thing is the power of relationships. What I have found outside of SA is this deliberate and consistent focus on co-creation, where people are comfortable opening their most prized black books to me with no expectation of reward or acknowledgement via Twitter or Instagram. I found that black females in particular are incredibly generous in saying ‘I’m happy to connect you with this or that person.’ I think what we can learn is that as women in business, we must accept that there is enough success for all of us, and, we must be deliberate in helping each other up.”
As her passion for collaboration among women swells in our conversation, she notes that sustainable solutions for the continent’s problems can only be achieved through diversity and inclusivity, and that leaving anyone behind diminishes chances of chances.
Her entrepreneurial journey has not been without challenges, with self-belief being her lighthouse. “Stepping out on your own with only your dream is petrifying, which is why we don’t have a the marketplace flooded with Fentrepreneurs©.”
On a practical level, she notes the importance of continuously learning new skills to become a well-round individual, and not not just a businessperson who just understands money, or people and talent. “The other thing is knowing and believing that what you have to offer is important in moving humanity forward, even when the people you pitch to don’t understand or roll their eyes because they don’t believe in you. It’s important to not walk out of a room demoralised, because thet don’t necessarily negate your value.”
Next on her agenda abroad is speaking on the creative economy in advancing Africa’s growth at the 2018 Business Fights Poverty conference in Oxford this July, as part of the Mandela Centenary initiatives. “I’m excited because it’s yet another opportunity to just say to the world: ‘Africa is figuring out her own solutions, we’re happy for you to come in as an equal partner, but we have to forgo this saviour mentality that many people have adopted when they come onto the continent.’”
Getting and generating our true creative value
As a first-generation graduate, and one to rise to the level of executive at that in her family, Marutlulle recognised that there are very few reference points for young people. With this in mind, coupled with her passion for creating spaces where people can share and learn from the journeys of others, she’ll be hosting her next quarterly panel discussion on 27 June at Kaya FM, whose theme will be centred around African creativity, how it is valued, protected and how its equity can be harnessed.
“The panel, comprising of a copyright and patent lawyer, a film producer, a menswear designer, a gallery owner and the producer of South Africa’s Most Beautiful Object at Design Indaba, will craft tangible solutions that will inform how multi-national brands can and should engage with African creatives for mutual beneficiation.”
When: 27 June, 2018 | Time: 6.30pm-8pm | Place: Kaya FM, 195 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg
Tickets are on sale and more information may be found at: marutlulleandco.com