New agency BE catapults young talent into owner-managers

by Herman Manson (@marklives) Conversation LAB, a full-service digital agency headquartered in Durban and with offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London, has taken seven of its young black managers and given them majority ownership in their own agency: BE — a play on black empowerment but also on being bold, confident etc.

Taking middle management and catapulting them into owner managers of their own shop is an unconventional strategy but it addresses gaps in the current empowerment model employed by agencies, which often sees the majority of their staff members overlooked in favour of a one or two senior managers.

It comes with plenty of safety nets for the new owners of BE agency, says Kevin Power, co-founder and managing director at Conversation LAB. BE will be 51% black-owned by former Conversation LAB staffers, with the agency-holding company retaining the remaining 49%. Each of the staffers will hold a 5% stake outright — no cash required and no loan to repay. The only catch is that they “pay it forward” later on in their careers by creating opportunities for other deserving candidates.

Conversation LAB offers BE access to all its infrastructure, including offices and support staff. Should any of the new owner-managers decide they would rather return to the mother agency, their previous contracts resume, which is also the case should the agency fail for any reason. According to Power, the move is designed to offer black staff an equal footing and opportunity in owning a stake in their own agency. The aim is to transform their lives.

Back row (L-R): Jon Oliff (Conversation LAB/BE, head of technology); Siyabonga Ntamela (BE, senior art director), Kevin Power (Conversation LAB/BE group MD). Middle row: Kitty Mkhize (BE, account manager), Silindile Nkosi (BE, copywriter). Front row: Mark Stuart (BE, developer), Saudiqua Simpson (BE, senior SEO manager), Kevindren Govender (BE, technology lead). Absent: Samad Yakob (BE, SEO and UX manager).


The seven staffers picked to take up initial stakes in BE are:

  • Siya Nhlanhla: senior art director (with Conversation LAB for three years). He was awarded the first bursary to Vega given by Loeries in 2008 for creative talent from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. Nhlanhla then joined FCB as a junior art director and spent four years there in Johannesburg and Durban. He joined Conversation LAB in December 2014 and has won loads of awards from Smarties, Assegais, New Gen and more.
  • Silindile Nkosi: copywriter (Conversation LAB for two years). She started with Conversation LAB in social media after leaving Gorilla and has won a clutch of awards, including New Gen Awards Silver for best social media manager.
  • Khethelo “Kitty” Mkhize: account manager (with Conversation LAB for 2.5 years). She has worked in digital for leading Unilever agencies, including The Hardy Boys.
  • Saudiqua Simpson: senior search manager (with Conversation LAB for one year, based in Cape Town). Over the last 10 years, she has worked at several large digital agencies for premium clients such as, Capitec Bank, RE/MAX, Pam Golding, Woolworths and Deloitte. Simpson heads up the SEO function out of the Cape Town office.
  • Samad Yakob: senior search manager (with Conversation LAB for three years). He has worked in SEO and technology for over 10 years, and has spent his last three years with CLAB as a lead SEO manager.
  • Kevindren Govender: technology lead (with Conversation LAB for 1.5 years). He has been the back-end solutions developer for Conversation LAB.
  • Mark Stuart: developer ( with Conversation LAB for one year). He is part of the Facebook Bot Developers panel and has recently returned from the Africa Summit in Namibia. He has just launched ADvTECH’s new BOT technology for online leads — an industry first in South Africa.

The seven shareholders will eventually be expanded to 10. This could potentially include an MD, although Power, who will serve as MD in the interim, hopes the appointment will be made in-house, depending on the skill sets of staff currently working at the agency.

Investing in a new generation

Conversation LAB, through BE, is investing in a new generation of black agency leaders, says Power, in new small business owners and in industry transformation. BE’s new owner-managers will receive hands-on training on how to run a business. BE doesn’t have a rigid business plan but then neither did Conversation LAB, which has been built into a 75-person shop within five years. The idea is to learn, grow and adapt.

BE will be actively pitching for new business and has the backup and skill sets held within Conversation LAB available to it as required. BE is positioned as a full-service digital agency.




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