Avatar photo

By Bonginkosi Tiwane

Digital Journalist

Melusi Mhlungu returns to Mzansi to open own creative agency, make great SA ads

The award-winning creative has returned to South Africa after spending nearly a decade in the US honing his skills and growing his brand.

“Chase your dreams but always know the road that will lead you home again,” Lebanese-American investment banker Ziad K. Abdelnour once said. The quote read as though it was tailor-made for creative director Melusi Mhlungu.

Having started his career in Joburg and moved to Chicago, Miami, and New York, producing award-winning ads for agencies such as FCB, and Ogilvy which resulted in Super Bowl halftime ads under his belt, Mhlungu’s journey has led him back home to launch his own creative agency, We Are Bizarre last Thursday to a warm reception.

ALSO READ: Watch out for these illnesses this winter

Launching Bizarre

Speaking to The Citizen about the real reason for coming back to South Africa, Mhlungu says: “I’ve always wanted to one day open up my own creative agency and over the past seven years I’ve been getting so many calls to come back home and lead up another creative agency, whether it’s one of the big ones or global ones.”

“Our goal is to challenge conventions; we want to create a space where creatives can come up with ideas that don’t wait for briefs from clients, ideas that don’t just change the world but also the lives of the people around us. Ideas that outlive us and create a meaningful impact in the world, hard-to-ignore ideas, bizarre ideas,” he explained.

Mhlungu says that if he had to come back, it had to be an impactful return home.

“I had to come back to be a true industry leader. I think I was always a creative and I think for the first time I can actually make a mark for myself and make my name as a leader when you think of creativity coming from Africa.”

“I could’ve opened Bizarre anywhere in the world. My story started here, it only makes sense for me to put back into my roots, to go back to the place that made me the creative that I am. Also, it’s to help nurture the next generation of creatives,” says Mhlungu.

ALSO READ: SABC ends relationship with soapie 7de Laan after 24 seasons

The agency’s first project is an impactful campaign called “Jozi My Jozi”.  With this ambitious project, Mhlungu and his team will breathe new life into the heart of Johannesburg, celebrating the city’s vibrant spirit and cultural heritage.

“It’s an ode to the city we love. My thinking is, if we can use that love we have for the city, let’s use that love to help fix it. It’s not enough to say ‘I love Joburg’.”

For Mandela Day Bizarre cleaned up the Nelson Mandela Bridge.

NOW READ: Taylor Swift sets women’s record for most number one albums

Adjusting in the US

Mhlungu shares a story of losing an envelope that had $9 000 (about R160 000) which was supposed to help him when he got to the US.

“I almost decided to turn around at that moment. I got to the States with absolutely zero,” says Mlungu. He quips that he embraced the stereotype of being an impoverished African who needs aid when he arrived at the company he joined in the US.

“When your journey starts off like that, that hard and it starts off with you saying ‘am I making the right thing’ for me there was nothing that could’ve been harder than that moment. The hardest part was saying ‘I’m still going to do it’.”

“It was so new to me and obviously very scary,” says the creative about his early days in Miami, US.

“I was learning so much about different people, different cultures. My voice as a creative changed after that.”

He says his time abroad broke the cycle of assumption and he adopted a child-like attitude. “You know when you’re local, sometimes you take for granted the market…so the creative becomes the same and the voice becomes the same because we assume we know ourselves and know each other. When I got to the States, I assumed I knew no one and nothing − it was a learning experience.”

NOW READ: World Emoji Day: Emoji’s growing influence and challenges for older generations

Despite having created globally recognised work, which has won him Cannes Lion Awards, he says life in the US was not all swimmingly.

“For the first six months I was in boardrooms where the creators around me were coming up with brilliant ideas and my ideas were not being liked. So you start to doubt yourself,” confesses the award-winning creative.

“Creativity is an energy thing, if your energy is off in terms of self-esteem, your work is going to show and your ideas are going to show and I was like that for the first six months.”

His confidence slowly picked up with some of his ideas being used, but a Budweiser ad during the Super Bowl changed everything for Mhlungu in 2019.

ALSO READ: Burna Boy bringing his show-stopping ways back to SA

Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits