It doesn’t surprise me at all when Brian Mtongana, head of design at Woolworths’ marketing department, suggests we meet after work at Cape Town’s new trendiest hot spot, The Willaston Bar at The Silo Hotel, behind the V&A Waterfront. Housed in a converted grain-storage tower above the Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), The Silo represents history, development, culture and art – all aspects that play a part in Mtongana’s own rise to success.
We settle into a plush turquoise velvet couch, sipping strawberry daiquiris and nibbling on a cheese platter. Thirty-seven-year-old Mtongana looks fresh and stylish in skinny jeans, a collared shirtand sneakers with his signature MaXhosa socks. When I comment on them, he modestly remarks that MaXhosa socks have become ‘very accessible’ and that ‘everyone – including conservative people – now wear them’. I scan his outfit, shamelessly looking for the ‘Next Big Thing’ in fashion. His style challenges the stereotype of an executive at a corporate company, but that’s why Woolies has hired Mtongana: His innate eye for style sets him streets ahead of the rest of us.
STAR FROM THE START
Growing up, the young Mtongana wanted to be a luxury-automobile designer. ‘I designed my own cars and even had a badge for them – the brand was BRIMTO,’ he recalls. However, he was just as passionate about visual communication, and pursued studies in graphic design instead. ‘My folks were very supportive of me, although it took them years to really understand what I studied,’ he laughs. ‘Remember, I was one of those kids who broke convention. The career I pursued had no reference, especially no black reference.’
Mtongana graduated from Durban University of Technology in 2002 with three distinctions in design, as well as the Designer of the Year award. In the same year, he won a competition judged by world-renowned creative director Vince Frost, who had long been his role model. In 2010, after years of working with Design Indaba and a stint in Australia, he was headhunted by Woolworths South Africa to head up design in the marketing department. He now directs all packaging design for foods, clothing, homeware and beauty, plus communication design. ‘It’s
a challenging yet exciting portfolio,’ he declares. ‘I oversee branding across all platforms of the business, internally and externally, as a creative custodian of the Woolworths corporate identity.’
DOWN TO BUSINESS
As the sun dips over the harbour through the lofty glass windows of the bar, I decide it’s time to get down to business. I ask Mtongana the secret to his success, and he smiles thoughtfully as he licks a morsel of Cheddar off his finger. Successful design, Mtongana maintains, lies in a deep understanding of the end user. ‘Aesthetics without function is a waste of investment,’ he asserts. ‘Good design has to improve both the consumer’s life and business performance.’ Mtongana’s job is to sell products through great design. For example, that Pharrell Williams campaign that was plastered on billboards across the country? Mtongana was an integral part of it. ‘I could not take credit for it,’ he modestly insists. ‘I designed the typography look and feel for the campaign, including the sign: “ARE YOU WITH US?”.’
Social media has added another dimension to creativity, reveals Mtongana, as ‘it’s a powerful and real-time platform with immediate feedback from consumers.’ From a design perspective, ‘it’s made creative thinking accessible to everyone, from people creating funny memes to the most powerful hashtags. A big trend is activism, with powerful hashtags giving voice to certain issues.’ Creatives increasingly use social media to find talent and inspiration, he notes. ‘I think it has added value to many industries, including retail and the creative industry at large.’
MAN ON THE MOVE
Mtongana’s work requires extensive travel to keep on top of global design trends. His most inspiring global destinations are New York City ‘for its bold, nothing-is-impossible attitude’, Paris for its fashion, London for its constantly evolving milieu, and Sydney for its ‘strong food culture and beautiful climate’. On our home continent, he loves Joburg ‘for its vibrant, colourful and daring nature’ and Nairobi ‘for its entrepreneurial spirit’. His top travel tip is to pack strategically so you don’t have to iron your clothes again when you unpack. Also make sure you have basic meds and comprehensive travel insurance – ‘the worst thing is to get sick in a foreign country and you’re not fully covered’. Lastly, Mtongana recommends joining a frequent-flyer programme that gives you priority passes and access to lounges where you can catch up on emails, charge devices and enjoy a substantial meal while you wait at the airport.
A renowned speaker, Mtongana has addressed forums including the Business of Design conference. However, he cites talking at the World’s Global Style Network (WGSN) Futures Summit in Cape Town in November 2017 as his biggest oratorial highlight to date. ‘It’s an international conference and it was the first time it was held in Africa. I was really honoured to be part of the inaugural conference on our soil,’ he reminisces. Mtongana also lectures at various local colleges. ‘It’s something I’m passionate about,’ he asserts. ‘It’s important to invest in the future creative thought leaders, to keep improving the standard and quality of the industry. I believe we all have a responsibility to leave a legacy in whatever industry we’re in, and the younger generation needs to understand the commercial impact of creativity.’
Mtongana is married to celebrity chef Siba Mtongana, of Siba’s Table fame. (His favorite dish is her stuffed salmon with citrus and asparagus: ‘Yoh! It’s Siba-licious!’) He proposed to Siba on a helicopter flying over Clifton beach on her birthday. ‘She accepted, and the rest is history,’ Mtongana grins, raising his glass. ‘She’s a really amazing woman and I love her to bits!’ The pair married in 2010 and Mtongana is now a proud and involved father to sons Lonwabo (5) and Linamandla (3) and daughter Buhlebenkosi (2). As working parents, the couple aim to impart a good work ethic in their children, teaching them to give their very best in everything they do. ‘But we also want to communicate to them that no man is an island. We want them to fully understand the concept of ubuntu.’ I’ll drink to that! (I order another daiquiri.)
Mtongana is so comfortable in himself, it’s easy to see where his confidence comes from. He’s currently focusing on developing himself professionally. He’s completing an international leadership-development programme through the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Pretoria, which requires studying in South Africa, the US, India and Ghana. He also hopes to pursue his MBA in the near future. ‘I’ve been postponing it because of time, work and family commitments. But, as they say, there’s never a perfect time. Let’s see.’