Ulric Charteris: Conquering Kilimanjaro

South African adman Ulric Charteris on setting up shop in Dar es Salaam and why Tanzanians hate billboard advertising.
Ulric Charteris, executive creative director and founder of Roots255.
Ulric Charteris, executive creative director and founder of Roots255.

South African Ulric Charteris might be a transplant in Tanzania, where he is the executive creative director and founder of the marketing and communications company Roots255, but he is passionate about engaging with the local market on its own terms. He took a gamble and opened up an agency in Dar es Salaam without any clients after seeing a gap in the market for a different kind of agency. Roots255 has now grown to become one of the most successful agencies in the country, and Charteris has expanded his territory to include Uganda and Kenya. He talks to us about the fatal flaws marketers make when trying to communicate with different markets in African countries – and how he avoids falling into the trap of ‘Westernising’ the ads he creates.

When did you realise you wanted a career in advertising?

I actually did a music composition and arrangement degree at the University of Cape Town. In my final year of music, I figured out that I was never going to make a living being in the music scene, so I wanted to do something that was in the creative industry but on the business side of it, which is why I got into advertising.

What made you move from South Africa to Tanzania?

I had never been out of South Africa properly growing up. My father lived in Nairobi for three years and what was then called Tanganyika, now Zanzibar, for a further three years in the 1950s. I was brought up with the stories of ‘Africa’ and that was always somewhere I wanted to go. In 2006, when I was a creative director for FCB, they asked who wanted to go to Tanzania for three weeks to look after the Vodacom account and I jumped at the opportunity. After the three weeks, I came back, resigned and three months later moved there and opened up shop.

What differences have you seen between the South African and Tanzanian creative industries?

Tanzania went through socialism for 20 years where there wasn’t an advertising industry. This created two problems: firstly, people didn’t actually see creative advertising so they couldn’t relate to it and secondly, you didn’t have people growing up and saying "I want to do this when I get older", so there was a shortage of skills. Creative expression is not where we would like it to be, although many of the big companies haven’t made enough effort to understand the market and talk to them in an Afrocentric way.

You have worked in Kenya, Ghana, Botswana and Zambia. Can you give us some insight into how these markets differ?

Advertising in Tanzania, Uganda and to a lesser extent, Kenya – the three markets I focus on – is very literal. It’s very much ‘show and tell’. Generally, in Western countries you’ve got very homogenous cultures where you know you can talk to people in one way, whereas in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya you have over 120 different cultures and 120 different identities, or religions, and to be able to talk to them in the right way is a lot more complex.

Many marketers try and force the way Europeans think and the way Europeans communicate on African markets when they are totally different.

It’s very much a “if I shout loud enough in English, everyone will understand me” ideology.

How would you describe your overriding mission?

My mission in life is to find that African voice and try to talk to the consumer in a way they understand. It’s a different market. Eurocentric tools don’t work in Africa, we have to start developing our own methods and using our own research.

What inspires you?

The street. An idea can be global, but how you dress that idea needs to be local and we need to have the confidence to dress it the way we should in a Tanzanian or a Kenyan way.

What has been the ad you are most proud of?

My favourite was a through-the-line campaign for Kilimanjaro beer where we got 60 Tanzanian athletes to run a flag in relay from Dar es Salaam to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is about 900 kilometres. The whole process took seven days. We had national team soccer players, boxers, runners and other celebrities. We had our own film crew and a bus of journalists following the entire relay of the flag to the top of Kilimanjaro. Everyday, articles were published like it was some huge event, but it was actually a television ad shoot. On Independence Day 2010 we launched the ad. It showed a guy sitting at a bar in Dar es Salaam looking at a Kilimanjaro beer, looking at the mountain, looking up at the flag and saying ‘I am going to take this to the top’ and then the relay starts and the final shot is the man standing at the top of the mountain, violins playing and tears streaming. To this day it was our best-researched ad. It had 97% likeability and 94% recall, it went through the roof. That is still one of my favourite ads.

What are the most common traps marketers or advertisers fall into when they are trying to speak to different African countries?

Not talking to people in the language. When I say language, I am not necessarily talking about the vernacular language, but understanding the market. To give you an example, I will be living in Tanzania for 20 years, but I will never be Tanzanian, I’m South African. I will never be culturally aligned with Tanzania. I have to farm my insights. When I do a brainstorm, I bring in writers, cooks, cleaners, our security guards… it’s not just a bunch of overpaid creatives sitting there trying to crack ideas, because we don’t fully understand the market.

One of our cleaners actually came up to me with a Gillette ad that showed a buff guy standing in front of a mirror shaving with a towel around his waist looking really good with the razorblade. He asked me, “What’s wrong with this ad?” (I ask everyone in the office to question advertising). The first thing I thought was the translation was bad, and he said no. Then I asked if he looked like an African-American, because Tanzanians hate seeing African-Americans pretending to be Tanzanian because they can tell the difference. He again said no. He then told me that the problem was that Tanzanian men don’t shave their faces with razorblades, they shave their underarms with them. If I saw an ad of a man shaving his underarms I would think there would be something terribly wrong, but in Tanzania it would make total sense. So why hasn’t a company like that done their research? We just automatically assume that the cultural norms are the same.

Another thing is that Tanzanians hate billboards. Politicians use billboards and politicians lie, therefore billboards lie.

They are very cynical of certain mediums, but billboards are one of the most used mediums there so marketers and advertisers are not doing their research. Communication by definition is a two-way dialogue. We as communicators tend not to dialogue but rather shout at people. In Africa particularly, Africans like to talk back – it’s a conversation. The most effective medium in Africa is word of mouth. Brands need to listen to what people say, then talk back to them in a language they will understand.

How do you not fall into the trap of using Eurocentric insights on African markets in your work?

I crosscheck everything. I speak to people on the street. My security guard is my executive creative director. You need to involve everyone.

What is your creative process?

Research is a big part. Insights and research liberate creative thought. The core happens at the brief. Is it relevant to the market? We are very strategic; you cannot work on gut feel in Tanzania.

What is the most rewarding thing about working in advertising?

Seeing as we work predominantly with SAB Miller, I think the free beer!