Sylvester Chauke: Creative ground-breaker

Sylvester Chauke. Picture: Tebogo Letsie
Sylvester Chauke. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

The advertising industry is renowned as a reputation-fragile sector, so when someone gets a bunch of awards within a few years, disrupting a trend that has largely been dominated by the same faces and names, they become difficult to ignore.

Meet Sylvester Chauke, the founder and chief executive of the multi-award-winning DNA Brand Architects. Chauke is no Johnny-come-lately and, despite the company only being seven years old, the Sowetan creative is a veteran.

City Press met up with the ground-breaking maverick at his offices in Fourways and got a glimpse of what has made him one of the most sought-after brand development specialists in the country and the latest winner of the Prism Awards’ coveted Campaign of the Year – the first black agency to bag the award in the 22 years of the event.

“I was born in Soweto and grew up all over Soweto. My family moved around a lot so we stayed in Orlando East, Meadowlands, Dobsonville and Protea North, and that’s where we are now,” he said.

Chauke was born into a family of seven siblings. He went to several schools around Soweto, starting at Leresche Primary and eventually matriculating at Nghunghunyani High School.

His parents were both clerks. His father, though a qualified teacher, worked at a major construction company while his mother was at an optical lens manufacturer.

As a child, his earliest career ambition was to be a teacher, mostly because the profession seemed to have a “lot of stature and fashion sense”.

“I later wanted to become a journalist because I was good with words and writing but it seemed daunting so I then wanted to become a dancer. I joined a dance group in Chiawelo and when I was 12 years old that opened the door for me into advertising because it led to my first TV commercial where I was dancing,” he said of the passion for dancing that he still has.

After matriculating, though he would have preferred to head to the University of Cape Town or Wits University, he ended up at the now defunct Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) in Auckland Park, to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree in marketing and communications.

“It was very clear from earlier on, even when one of my teachers approached my parents, that I was going to be in the creative field,” he said.

When he arrived at university, he noticed the reality of his financial situation. “That was the first time I realised I was actually poor because I didn’t have a lot of things other kids had,” he says.

In his second year he was required, as one of his academic tasks, to approach an agency and sell himself into a job.

“I took my CV, put it in a pizza box and went to FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding) and told the receptionists I was there to deliver pizza for the creative director who, at the time, I didn’t know.

“So he sent someone to come fetch it and luckily they thought it was cute so I bagged an interview and passed that and became an intern there,” he says.

He remained an intern at FCB for three years until he graduated with his honours degree. It was while there that he was first exposed to working with some of the biggest brands in the country and was a part of teams that created memorable advertising campaigns.

His next move was to Ogilvy in 2001, but his stay there was only a year and he moved to DDB, which is where he says he really cut his teeth.

“At DDB, they chiselled me into shape. So, FCB gave me an amazing foundation and DDB chiselled me into shape. I walked out of there very skilled,” he says.

After four years at DDB, he joined restaurant giant Nando’s as its marketing manager for advertising, a job he considered very exciting and not too difficult.

At Nando’s it was the first time he led an award-winning team and, after four years there, he was headhunted to lead marketing and communication for MTV networks.

“MTV taught me the importance of venturing into the continent and speaking in dollars,” he says.

After three years at MTV, he jumped ship and opened shop as DNA Brand Architects.

“I always had ideas on how to run a company but didn’t think I was made for business. But then I felt like there was an opportunity because I had built enough,” he says. He points out that, unlike most start-ups, he did not need funding.

“I didn’t have funding challenges. My big problem was finding clients who would pay because in this industry it’s about the ideas which I don’t have to pay a supplier for. So money was not an issue but I had to make sure I prepared so that I did not have debt,” he says.

Knocking on doors in a largely untransformed industry, Chauke was forced to offer all round services at no profit to demonstrate that, as a one-person shop, he was capable of delivering on projects and campaigns just as he did when he was employed by major agencies.

“I am not a natural risk taker. I always want to know that things add up. Looking back, I now know that, as difficult as starting up was, it’s harder to maintain the business. The biggest lesson for me has been managing cash flow, because that can break the business,” he says.

Chauke is also passionate about ownership in the sector, which has very few 100% black-founded and owned major businesses.

“We don’t have a lot of strong black agencies in the country and, when some grow, they immediately sell and the barrier to transformation remains the ownership. Transformation in the advertising industry is like an Italian kiss; black people are window-dressing, honestly,” he says with a very sombre look.

Seven years and well over 70 awards later, Chauke says he has plans for taking the company global and his next step on that journey is opening offices in Cape Town before venturing into other regions.

From many awards, including six bagged at the recent Prism Awards, Chauke says the first he ever got was the department of trade and industry’s SA Premier Business Award for Young Business Leader of the Year for 2015.

“That was very special because it affirmed that we were on the right path. The other special award was the All Africa Business Leaders Award for Young Business Leader [2017] for Southern Africa because they looked at businesses across the continent,” he says.

The company currently employs 36 people and is recognised as one of the fastest growing small businesses in the country.

Chauke remains a passionate tap dancer and has the blessing of having most of his hobbies intertwining with his work.

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