Nomfundo Msomi is a powerhouse. With experience working in London, New York, Hong Kong, India and the United Arab Emirates, she’s now Head of Strategy at whiteGREY Melbourne. But it wasn’t a linear path.
While Nomfundo has had great opportunities in her career, she's also experienced the hurdles that come with being a woman of colour in the workplace. Mavens asked Nomfundo what it is about strategy that stole her heart. The answer? Good strategy doesn’t live in slides, it lives in the world. And that’s a powerful hand to have.
Can you tell us about your background and path into advertising? What drew you to strategy?
Marketing was the last thing on my mind when I started working. My first job was in nonprofit communications and project management, and I had every intention to follow that path but then the global financial crisis hit and I found myself in a tough spot after my US visa ran out. I returned home to South Africa, volunteered at an NGO in Cape Town, and applied to graduate school in the UK. I was genuinely surprised to get a full ride to the school my mom made me apply to (thanks mom). I packed my suitcases and moved to England less than a year after returning home.
Grad school meant I could delay the whole career thing for two years, which felt like a real privilege because most people I knew were really struggling to find jobs. Eventually, time was up and I had to decide what I was going to do after I got my Masters degree. I was completely disillusioned with NGOs by then after repeated problematic experiences while doing field research. I’m not sure how I heard about the WPP Fellowship exactly but it landed on my lap and I liked the sound of a job that allowed you to move around the world, even if it was in marketing. My parents were both marketing professionals their whole careers, so I’d grown up hearing about brands and target audiences and market share.
I was one of eleven Fellows chosen out of hundreds of applicants that year and it really did alter the course of my life.
Strategy felt like a natural fit since I’d been in research mode for two years. I was drawn to brand strategy in particular because it was long-term and required a little wishful thinking. It’s still where I’m happiest – inventing new things or imagining something better than what’s there.
My first Fellowship role as brand strategist shaped the way I think about all marketing: everything starts with brand.
What’s been your best memory of working in strategy?
In my role at Etihad Airways, my team and I rolled out new brand guidelines based on the airline’s refreshed brand strategy. We did all of this during the peak of the pandemic as a team of three women in a thousands strong, male dominated space. It was the hardest, most rewarding project and became a proof point (at least to me) that strategy doesn’t live in slides, it lives in the world. I came up with the names of the colours in the brand’s new colour palette – my hardest flex to date!
What sorts of challenges have you faced in your career?
I’ve been incredibly privileged in my career and I want to point that out because as challenging as it’s been sometimes, I know I’m an outlier who continues to have an unusual amount of access and autonomy.
But there have been setbacks. Being underpaid, undervalued, and poorly supported in roles. Being overlooked, spoken over, and discriminated against despite being highly qualified. Being tokenised instead of genuinely valued. I once had a very senior executive at a massive company tell me he wanted to “publish my story – from Apartheid to Advertising!” which still makes my jaw drop when I think back on it. I would have preferred a promotion. I’ll go to the front lines any day of the week for my colleagues but I’ve always been terrible at protecting and advocating for myself at work. I’m getting better at it but it’s a practice, not a destination.
You’ve previously said that for women, there’s no upside to not talking about salary. Why do you think it’s so important that women demand their worth?
Because we’re already starting so far below the bar. Black women and women of colour in particular experience inexcusable pay inequity. Sadly, demanding our worth in many cases means landing at okay, not equal or fair. The world opens up when we talk about money. We start to understand pay spectrums and how they relate to skills and responsibilities. We start to understand the competitive landscape and cross-industry norms and discrepancies. We start to see a path forward and to forgive ourselves for the past. Secrecy around pay shuts all of that down. Yes, it can be uncomfortable but I encourage women not to take on that discomfort alone. Pay is a transaction between parties and the accountability should be shared.
These days, you can find out everything you need to know about the ingredients in your shampoo. Let’s not live in a cloud of secrecy around salaries.
What advice would today’s Nomfundo give younger Nomfundo, just starting out?
Not that she’d listen, but I’d tell her that she’s allowed to ask for help.
What qualities make a great strategist?
I’ve always found that the best strategists have an inherent sense of justice, or an inclination towards it.
For me, ‘insights’ shouldn’t be these gotcha moments in a presentation where one person gets to monologue about their desk research. Insights should bring light to something that hasn’t been addressed before or desperately needs addressing. So, I always find that the strategists who want to right wrongs in one way or another are the ones that do the most meaningful work. The very best ones bring everybody along with them to imagine and build a better world.