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Executive Lounge: Mike Abel of M&C Saatchi Group SA and M&C Saatchi Abel

Mike shares perspectives from his personal life and business in terms of being useful for others, problem-solving, leadership in difficult times and family values.

DUDU RAMELA: It’s Wednesday evening and that means it’s time for our Executive Lounge feature. This evening we’re in conversation with Mike Abel, founding partner and CEO of M&C Saatchi Group South Africa and M&C Saatchi Abel. Let’s tell you a little bit about Mike, with 30 years of extensive experience in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) financial services, automotive and retail advertising. Mr Abel is recognised as one of the continent’s leading marketing, advertising and communication specialists. He has co-led the largest communication group on the continent, Ogilvy South Africa. He ran the giant M&C Saatchi Group in Australia, and in February 2010 he founded M&C Saatchi Abel.

His latest feat is a book titled Willing & Abel: Lessons from a Decade in Crisis. He joins us this evening for all things on his life. A very good evening to you, Mike, and such a pleasure chatting to you. I would like us to go way back in time.

Do you remember your first job? What do you remember about it? What do you remember feeling? What do you remember knowing about it?

MIKE ABEL: Well, for my first job I spotted the opportunity. I used to live in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) at the time. I was a surfer, a particularly bad one, and I noticed that there were posters on the back of the windows of vans, which were of perforated plastic called Contra Vision, which you could look through one way. It was transparent from the car out, and opaque from outside in. I thought what a wonderful material to use for advertising.

So I started my first business in the late eighties during apartheid, with Uncedo, the black taxi association in the region, advertising on the back window of black taxis. That was my first job in advertising and my business was off glass ads. We operated out of Motherwell, Zwide, Kwazakhele and New Brighton.

DUDU RAMELA: You couldn’t have been all that bad a surfer, because you’re giving new meaning to the phrase ‘ride the wave’.

Fast forward to where you are right now. You’ve since come such a long way. Talk us through the journey of writing this book, Willing & Abel: Lessons from a Decade in Crisis.

MIKE ABEL: Most of all I wanted to put down my life lessons, both in my personal life and in my business in terms of being useful for other people. So it wasn’t really a vanity project as such, or reflecting on my career. What I wanted to do was to write, I guess, a recipe book much the same way as a Jamie Oliver would in terms of how I approach problem-solving, how I’ve approached personal issues in life, emigration, moving back to South Africa, running big companies during difficult times. I wrote it in partnership with a very talented author, a man called Tudor Caradoc-Davies, who lightened the load and burden quite a lot on that journey and made it fun and exciting.

DUDU RAMELA: Let’s take, perhaps from your recipe book, a chapter on leadership. We are at a point in our lives where we are going through so much and we need strong leadership. You have been at key leadership positions for so long over the course of your career, which perhaps speaks to your leadership qualities. Let’s start with what or who is a leader.

MIKE ABEL: I think you have to know very clearly who you are in order to be a successful leader. I think there are a lot of people in senior positions, leadership positions, who aren’t leaders. The key thing is in terms of leadership security because insecurity, I think, creates an underbelly of making the wrong decisions and fear-based decisions. But I think if you know who you are, and if you have a very clear plan for your company, and if you are people-centric, if you put your people’s careers and your clients’ needs ahead of yourself, miraculously things fall into place.

I think it’s when people focus on ego – how am I doing, how am I looking – as opposed to just liberating themselves to looking after other people’s careers and meeting clients’ needs, that they are not successful leaders. So in my view it’s having a servant mentality and knowing your business from the bottom up, not from the top down, and caring for your people from the bottom up and not from the top down.

DUDU RAMELA: When you speak of the leadership deficit that we have, having a lot of people who are leaders that shouldn’t be leaders, a book comes to mind – The leader who had no Title by Robin Sharma – which speaks to you and me. So for the everyday person or the average-day person – what role do you have in stepping up and not necessarily needing a title but offering direction?

MIKE ABEL: I think the key thing in how I probably ended up becoming the youngest-ever – I was only in my very early thirties – managing director of the Ogilvy Cape Town group – was because I would always look, if there was a problem, and treat the company like it was my own and step in to try and solve that problem, Dudu. I never waited for, I guess, permission. If I looked around me and saw people were struggling, and I saw a way of settling a client problem, I would simply muck in and do it.

So, when the opportunity became available for them to appoint a new leader of a company, I guess they naturally looked towards me because of stuff that I was already doing in terms of trying to help the company and its people. I think it’s those people who are proactive, who don’t jostle for position. I always say to people: “If you want to get ahead in our company, just do the best possible job that’s put in front of you, and look around and see how you can help those around you. That’s how you can get ahead of those people around you.”

DUDU RAMELA: If you want to get ahead, find a problem and solve the problem, I guess. I would like us to also take a look at your journey. I think when you look at somebody as successful as you, you think, wow, I want to get there. But you forget that with the glory come a lot of challenges. Talk us through some of the most difficult moments in your life.

MIKE ABEL: Well, the first thing was when I became the group managing director of Ogilvy Cape Town., I realised for the first time that I’d been on the board for a long time, but I’d never had up close and personal interaction with the hard numbers in the company. At that time I could see the company was completely over-structured. We were just going into the dot-bombers. It was called the global meltdown of the tech stocks and [concerned] the massive over-investment with which a lot of companies, ourselves included, had played in the digital space. And so, from having been like a buddy in the company and being there from age 25, six years later the first thing I had to do was actually reduce the staff complement from 240 down to 180 people. I had to lose 60 jobs in order to save 180. That was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do. It was brutal. I used to drive home in the evening and actually cry in the car driving home because I had to tell people that they didn’t have a job any more. I understood that I wasn’t talking to a person X, You or Z, but I was talking to somebody who had a wife, had a husband, had bonds, had car payments, had children at school. I think that that was something that shaped and scarred me very early in my career.

Having realised that you need to structure companies properly, you need to understand the ratios that are relevant and pertain to your business, and stick doggedly to those ratios in line with your revenue – and not build a company based on hope but build a company based on hard realities, because cashflow is blood flow. If you don’t have the cashflow to support those jobs you lead your company to peril very quickly. I think that was probably my first and harshest lesson, but one that steered me well all these years subsequently.

DUDU RAMELA: I would like you, if you would please indulge us, to let us look at your personal life. You are a family man, and congratulations to your father because I see here you’ve given him a shout-out for publishing and writing his first book at age 85. So I guess you’ve had a good example, and you’ve taken a leaf out of his book. How important is family to you?

MIKE ABEL: I think family is pretty much everything to me. I was blessed; and blessed, I guess, to have grown up in a very happy home, with a very close relationship with my parents, with my grandparents, with my siblings and my broader family. When things go wrong, when you experience major issues in your life outside of work, health issues or whatever, at the end of the day that is when you realise the importance of family. And for me to be able to raise three sons – I’ve got three boys aged 20, 18 and 13, with good family values, respecting their parents, respecting their community, respecting their friends – the joy that I get out of being a family man, out of being a dad, out of being a brother or a son is incredibly important to me, Dudu. I think that family is undervalued.

People pursue – and it’s easy to say it because obviously you’ve now had a degree of success, so you get the material things that come through it. But when the rubber hits the road some of the richest people I know are the unhappiest people I know, and some of the poorest people I know are the happiest people I know, because they focus on the stuff that means the most – and that is family and friendship. When I talk about family, I also mean my work family, because I’ve developed unbelievably close relationships with people in the workplace. Many of my partners I’ve worked with for over 20 years, for the majority of my career. They are my family, and I think that those family values have actually imbued the values of my company – loyalty, trust, commitment, being in it together, succeeding together, or failing together.

DUDU RAMELA: I’ll tell you a secret. I used to work at Ogilvy under your tenure, and I can attest to everything that you are saying right now.

I would like us to perhaps talk about an issue that is plaguing South Africa, which is gender-based violence. When we talk about family and the importance of family and not undervaluing it, perhaps your word to somebody right now who is facing such deep obstacles and cannot help but take out their frustrations on their family, which takes strain. What would you say to somebody who is really going through most of it?

MIKE ABEL: I think firstly there’s this most quoted saying, which is a horrific thing, that ‘People hurt those that they love most’. I think that that is one of the great and deep tragedies of our time. There is never an excuse, no matter what, for any form of violence or abuse, be it physical violence or even verbal abuse, because what you’re doing is you are stealing dignity from somebody else. I think that what we need to do as a society is focus far more on the headline slogan of ‘stop gender-based violence’. Of course we need to. People must feel safe and open and available to report it wherever possible, specifically given the tsunami and the numbers that we know are associated with gender-based violence in South Africa.

But we’ve got to look at the underlying causes of that. I think that there is such a level of desperation in the country right now. When you look at the level of youth unemployment being over 70%, when you look at unemployment hovering somewhere in the late 30 or early 40% – I don’t know what the very latest figure is, obviously exacerbated dramatically by Covid and there was no give in our economy before Covid – when you look at that level of desperation I do understand how it can take these people into lashing out. And so I think there has to be a huge focus on understanding the pain that people are going through, giving people a vent, and giving people a space to talk through therapy and through societal interventions and through the churches and the mosques and the synagogues and the temples, to reach out and to lean on people.

And I think that there’s far too much of an expectation on people today to bottle it up or to keep it all together. That is when it kind of manifests or lashes out with all kinds of abuse obviously led by things like alcohol. I’m in no way against the consumption of alcohol in a responsible manner. I think it can be a great social lubricant. But I think that all of us today as a society have entered such a judgmental age, Dudu – whether it’s the intolerance of the work culture, the culture or judging people.


MIKE ABEL: Exactly. Where people are looking to put more pressure on people. What people actually need right now is less pressure. People need love and acceptance, you know, and I think that the queues of judging people are all in the wrong areas. You know, people aren’t judged for being a good person and a kind person. People are judged on being successful – do you drive the right car, do you live in the right house, do you have the right job – as opposed to how you live your life as a values-based person. We spoke earlier about family values, and I think that in South Africa the tighter the family and the tighter the community the greater chance we have of actually driving down a decent society. Those are the things that need investment in terms of our focus.

DUDU RAMELA: It has been such a great pleasure chatting to you this evening. Thank you very much, Mike, for making time for us. All the best with the book. Mike Abel is founding partner and CEO of M&C Saatchi Group South Africa, and M&C Saatchi Abel.


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