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Interview with Pepe Marais

Co-founder and owner of South Africa’s largest independent advertising firm Joe Public, Pepe Marais’s recently published book Growing Greatness is part autobiography, part account of the rise, fall and rise of Joe Public, and part how-to guide to discovering the deeper purpose of a business.

Tracey McDonald proposed I write a book about entrepreneurship. One of my firm beliefs is that you can’t close the poverty gap in SA without creating more entrepreneurs…[so] the broader intention of this book was to inspire people towards entrepreneurship. But there is a deeper reason behind the book, and that is to inspire any entrepreneur out there to find greater purpose to their business. A reason beyond money.

I attribute Joe Public’s success to this sense of purpose, and to the diversity that has developed organically as a by-product of it. Our purpose is growth: to be the fertile soil which grows our people, our clients, and our country. We’re a small to medium enterprise, with 300 people, but our diversity is amazing. I believe that at the heart of diversity is creativity.  If you’re selling creativity and you’ve got one section of the market’s point of view, in a market where you’ve got eleven different points of view – just culturally, let alone taking gender into account – that’s not going to work.

There’s a quote that says it takes 17 years to become an overnight success. We only began to see returns on our blood, sweat and tears 16 years after the inception of Joe Public. We didn’t go: “year two, drive a Porsche”.

My advice for people wanting to start their own business: START. I find that people dreaming of starting a business tend to overthink it, instead of letting it run and seeing what happens, and maybe failing quicker. We’d rather over-strategize and business-plan it to death, which creates so much angst and fear that we never actually get out of the starting blocks.

My other piece of advice is – if you look at Phil Knight from Nike or Giovanni Ravazotti who runs one of the best performing shares on the stock exchange, the Italtile group – both those men know now that it’s not about money. At school now, entrepreneurs are being taught that the purpose of business is to make money. I think that’s wrong: if entrepreneurs know that money is a by-product, and the purpose of business is something far greater, they might just have a better chance of succeeding.

My advice to someone wanting to succeed in marketing: become product obsessed. The most valuable company in the world, Apple, is product obsessed. In any business, you’ve got a product and you’ve got service, and you need to deliver both to the highest level possible – but always product first. Exceptional, excellent product will create sustainable business over time.

Some of the many books that have inspired me include:

  • Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline
  • The Art of Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins

I started One School at a Time in 2008. I’m aiming to change education… I learnt that some 22 000 schools in SA are dysfunctional, so I started with one. It’s been ticking now for 11 years: the results are slow, but significant – the Soweto school is today ranked as one of the top 3 township schools in Gauteng.

I love advertising. It’s one of the few means to counter the negative news out there. It can also be used to inspire people towards greatness. And it can assist brands to play a more meaningful role in the lives of the man on the street. Through this lens, it is perfectly aligned to my purpose in life.

Pepe Marais, Growing Greatness: A Journey Towards Personal and Business Mastery is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers and available in bookshops from August 2018.