Profile - Mandie van der Merwe at M&C Saatchi

Mariam Cheik-Hussein
By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 29 April 2022
Mandie van der Merwe.

This profile of M&C Saatchi’s Mandie van der Merwe, the AdNews Emerging Leader, appeared in the latest AdNews magazine. Subscribe here to make sure you get your copy.

Mandie van der Merwe didn’t always intend on joining the advertising industry but was immediately hooked when she landed her first role as an intern.

The South-African born creative began her career at Ogilvy in 1999. Since then, she has climbed to the top of creative departments, acted as a mentor, and was recently named AdNews Emerging Leader.

Van der Merwe’s career spans three countries, working in her home country of South Africa, as well as Bahrain and now Australia. She spent the beginning of her childhood in Durban, a creative hub in South Africa.

“Then my family moved to Pretoria, now Tshwane, which was a real culture shock - Afrikaans-speakers, conservatives… and a handful of racists,” van der Merwe says.

“I went to so many schools but I found my people at Pro Arte. It’s a specialisation school for the arts that has produced so many incredibly talented artists, musicians, dancers and performers. I’m still friends with quite a few of the graduates from my year and I do get teased for going ‘full commercial’.”

While in school, van der Merwe was interested in geography and biology, but spent half of her school day studying fine art subjects such as printmaking, graphic design, sculpture, and painting. After convincing from her mum, van der Merwe attended the AAA School for Advertising in 1998.

“I feel a bit awkward to admit it, but I wasn't really interested in advertising at all,” she says.

“After Pro Arte, I was hell bent on going to the UK with my friends and pouring beers in a pub while I ‘found myself’.

“My mum was having none of it and convinced me to try out a year at AAA School of Advertising. I was hooked immediately. I found it by sheer luck.”

Van der Merwe’s first role in the industry was as an art direction intern at Ogilvy Johannesburg. At the time, van der Merwe was the only female art direction intern and shared the office with six other men.

“There were some good humans in that group,” she says. “But it was very much a bro culture.

“It was a misogynistic culture that was unwelcoming. I had an executive creative director turn up the air conditioning once during a review and then commented a little later I was clearly wearing a padded bra. Not what you’re hoping for in your first year of work.”

The advertising industry still has issues around gender equality, which van der Merwe has been passionate about improving throughout her career. There has been some progress. For example, during her time as national head of AWARD School, which van der Merwe had to shift online during the pandemic, 60% of successful applicants were female, up 11% from 2019, 69% of the top 10 students nationally were female, up 15% from 2019 and 34% of the tutors were female, up 6% from 2019.

“I’d love to take the credit but attracting more female applicants has been a focus of the Advertising Council Australia for several years now,” van der Merwe says.

“My predecessor, Karen Ferry, did tremendous work to set up processes for AWARD School that made gender diversity a priority. Esther Clerehan was really influential in helping us develop the strategy to get to those numbers. Jack Nunn is an incredibly good lateral thinker and was constantly challenging the old ways of doing things.”

For van der Merwe, chasing higher levels of diversity will improve the quality of work the industry is able to put out.

“This industry is at its best when we are pushing the edges of our frames of reference,” she says.

“The problem with a monocultural, homogenous industry, is that our frames of reference become extremely narrow. We become limited by the relatively one-dimensional nature of our shared experiences, histories and heritages. My goal is creativity – not just for me, but for everyone. And for that to happen, we need more women, more people of colour, more LGBTQIA+ individuals, more people who have a dramatically different experience of life to help us push the edges.”

She argues the industry must move beyond talking about gender equality and work on boosting the number of women in senior positions, particularly in creative departments. Van der Merwe backs the use of targets to achieve this.

“Targets are essential if you’re trying to transform something,” she says.

“Otherwise, you end up with a vague notion of change, where talking about the issue rather than making material differences, is regarded as progress.

“The presumption behind targets/quotas is that it comes with compromise; that the people who make up the new ratio are, in some ways, deficient. If we realised that adding diverse individuals into our businesses will attract outrageously new thinkers with ideas that shake up our businesses and offer up solutions that are energetically fresh, we’d all be clamouring for it.

“The other thing about targets is that it allows us to address over-corrections. Since coming to Australia, I’ve noticed how the marketing teams here are female-dominant. That’s just as worrisome to me as male-dominant creative department. Quotas give us a marker for balance that we can aim at.

M&C Saatchi Australia, where van der Merwe has been executive creative director since 2019, has implemented its own policies to support more work at work.

“We have arguably the best parental leave policy for women and men compared to any other place I’ve ever worked,” she says.

“The thinking is simple - parental leave hinders women from re-entering the workplace if not offered equally to both new fathers and mothers. Beyond that, there is a strong culture of supporting parents with job sharing opportunities and flexible work weeks.”

Another challenge for the industry van der Merwe notes since moving to Australia in 2012 is the lack of camaraderie, particularly when compared to South Africa.

“The complete abuse hurled at agencies and work in the comments section of the trade press here is intense,” she says.

“I never had to deal with that in South Africa or Bahrain. I’ve had several young creatives actively ask not to have their work publicised, even though I know the work is good, because they don’t want to have to deal with the aggression associated with it.

“As an industry, we should be pretty embarrassed by that. Not to mention, I've seen work slated in the comments go on to pick up metal on the international stage. We don’t have an attitude of banding together behind work. It’s unhealthy, it disadvantages us, and it makes our clients fearful of braver work. Basically, stop being meanies. It’s hurting us all and no one’s benefitting from it.”

Van der Merwe credits a few professionals in the industry for guiding her throughout her career, including Joanne Thomas at The Jupiter Drawing Room, as well as Matty Burton and Dave Bowman, Russ Tucker, Tom Martin and Julian Schreiber, and Cam Blackley.

“And then there’s Avish Gordhan - my work and life partner,” she says.

“He is the person I talk to the most. He loves to debate and usually disagrees with me, about everything from ideas to who’s going to do the washing. It’s quite helpful to have a person challenge your thinking. It strengthens both your ideas and your resolve. But there’s one argument I never lose; I never do the washing.”

Throughout her career, van der Merwe has worked on special projects that have demonstrated the power of advertising. For example, she recently worked on the Go Gentle Australia campaign which was followed by legislative change to assisted dying.

“The power of advertising isn’t just persuasion. It is the ability to engage someone in a way that makes them feel something,” van der Merwe says.

“Emotion is everything. Even when that emotion is sad or negative. It has the power to cut through and make people act off their own volition. That doesn’t just apply to the highly charged subject of voluntary assisted dying. It applies to every time we’re expecting a person to be receptive to something we’re trying to sell.

“Go Gentle Australia was an incredibly difficult project to work on,” she says.

“There was an immense sense of responsibility to tell the story honestly, provocatively and also with sensitivity. The stakes were also really high; Andrew Denton said to us at the outset that Victoria was the key. If the legislation passed there, the other States would follow. I felt an immense responsibility not to get it wrong. I am really proud of this work and what it contributed.”

Van der Merwe has made significant achievements in her career, including collecting more than 200 awards at shows including Cannes, D&AD, and the Effies. However, her main goal is to leave the industry in a better state than when she entered it.

“For me, that would rely on nailing the trifecta - excellent creative work, that works its socks off for my clients, all done without destroying people in the process,” she says.

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