Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Slowly does it to succeed in South Africa

WILD GEESE: Aiden Connolly, MD, Lowe and Partners Advertising, Cape Town. It took a while for this Waterford man to assimilate to the ‘Rainbow Nation’.

Fri, Dec 21, 2012, 11:00



WILD GEESE: Aiden Connolly, MD, Lowe and Partners Advertising, Cape Town It took a while for a Waterford man to assimilate to the ‘Rainbow Nation’

Aiden Connolly: 'The culture of creativity and entrepreneurship allows ideas to incubate for longer than I've seen back home. And this makes for bigger and bolder strategies and campaigns'

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.

Starting out

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”.

Chance meeting

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.

After a year in this business, Connolly has recently been appointed managing director of the international advertising agency’s Cape Town office.

When asked to compare Ireland’s advertising industry with that of his adopted country, Connolly maintains South Africa has a creative advantage over his homeland that is rooted in its liberation struggle.

“The South African people’s drive to overcoming apartheid has fashioned an environment in which challenges that seem impossible at first are not off-putting … Because of the history here many people believe that anything is possible.

“This is especially noticeable amongst black South Africans. From an agency perspective this is invaluable because people are not put off by the obstacles one faces in trying to get an idea off the ground,” he says.

Cape Town itself also holds added benefits for the advertising industry, he says, because the city tends to attract creative and interesting people due to its cosmopolitan feel and natural beauty.

“The culture of creativity and entrepreneurship allows ideas to incubate for longer than I’ve seen back home. And this makes for bigger and bolder strategies and campaigns. That said, a huge factor that contributes to this longer incubation period is the cost of labour, which is significantly lower here than it is in Europe,” he states.


However, there is a downside to working in South Africa’s advertising industry, Connolly concludes.

“Unfortunately there can be a culture of laziness and ineptitude and, among some people, there is a shocking lack of integrity both personally and professionally,” he says.

Connolly says many of the Irish people he has met in South Africa have come into the country under the exceptional skills work permit, a visa that allows foreigners with sought after skills to gain employment in a country where local unemployment remains above 25 per cent of the working population.

“For anyone thinking of moving here, the first port of call should be to try and get an intra-company transfer as getting a work visa can be tricky. Once that has been overcome, I’d advise Irish people to soak up the diversity and culture South Africa offers.

“In Ireland most people are Irish born and bred, so the culture is similar throughout the country.

“But in South Africa each racial group is very different and they don’t respond in the same way, and it requires humility and respect to communicate in a meaningful way,” he advises.