Slowly does it to succeed in South Africa
WILD GEESE: Aiden Connolly, MD, Lowe and Partners Advertising, Cape TownIt took a while for a Waterford man to assimilate to the ‘Rainbow Nation’
It was a confluence of personal and professional circumstances that prompted Aiden Connolly to pack his bag, surfboard and notions of self-importance and swap Ireland for South Africa in late 2008.
The Waterford marketer’s South African girlfriend returned home to Cape Town at the end of that year because her Irish study visa had expired; at the time, as now, Ireland’s economy was in the grip of austerity.
At the time Connolly worked for Lexus Ireland as the luxury car company’s head of marketing and customer experience, a position he describes as his “dream job”. But as the months passed “the writing was on the wall” for the country’s car industry, he says.
“It was difficult to leave, but I could see the industry was being decimated by destructive government decisions around car tax which was compounded by the uncertainty of our economy,” recalls Connolly as we sit in Lowe and Partners Advertising’s offices at Cape Town’s VA Waterfront.
“And when you add to that Camilla [van der Walt, his girlfriend] having to go home to Cape Town, I decided it was time for a change and a fresh challenge,” he added.
With a three-month visa in his pocket and a surfboard under his arm, Connolly pitched up in the Western Cape’s capital expecting to pick up where he left off in Ireland, in terms of his career graph.
As is often the case, the reality did not mirror the expectations he harboured.
“Finding employment proved to be a lot more challenging than I bargained for. I thought my work experience in Ireland would mean getting work would be fairly easy, but that was not the case and I ended up surfing more than working during the first year.
“To be a successful marketer, you need to have an innate understanding of people and their motivations, and here I was in a country with a huge diversity in culture, income and racial baggage, with lots of assumptions and very little African experience,” he says.
Initially, the 38-year-old volunteered as a small business mentor in the Kayamandi township near Stellenbosch, a town known for its vineyards an hour outside of Cape Town, the Western Cape’s provincial capital.
And while it was eye-opening and distressing to see the difficult life of many black South Africans, he maintains it was a worthwhile undertaking as “it gave me a rich understanding and love for black culture in today’s Rainbow Nation”.
After meeting a former Lexus colleague by chance, he went on to became dealer principal for an automotive group for two years and when an opportunity arose in late 2011 to join Lowe and Partners Advertising as the company’s client services director, he jumped at it.