#21interviews: The strength of vulnerability

by Louise Burgers. Wayne Naidoo, CEO of the Duke Group, says during crises, leaders need to be vulnerable and companies must be courageous.

by Louise Burgers. Wayne Naidoo, the founder and CEO of the Duke Group, has won more business this year than in any other. Why? Because during times of crises, it is important to be vulnerable as a leader, as well as courageous as a company.

What did you do first when the pandemic hit?

Our saving grace was that I never listened to anybody. I realised that no one knew what they were doing. So, if nobody knows and if you focus on every single step forward, you are already better than the rest. All we needed to do was get to the next pole, we didn’t have to run the whole race all at once. I genuinely embraced that. I was also very concerned with our people. I saw beyond the employee and client, this was next level – people needed security. Not just financial security, but emotional and psychological, they needed care and warmth. It was the strangest experience I have ever been through. The reality to me was that we had to prove everything would be fine. I treated the agency as a ‘dad’ would treat his family, and that is the truth. I didn’t know what to do from a technical, practical, business point of view, so I literally went with my gut and every single day, every single thing, was, ‘how do I make people feel safe’. And I didn’t even know what that meant at the time. Because of that and seeing our people gain more confidence, it gave me more confidence, it gave our senior team more confidence.

When we started Duke back in the day, we lost our only client three months in. We were pretty f*ucked. We were about to lose everything. I was asked what I wanted I wrote on the board at the time, the words, “Global domination”, and everyone laughed. So, we have been using that in the agency ever since. I found a lot of humour in it. I had to make myself very vulnerable. We are f*cked, but this is what I think we should be doing: “Global domination!” We put all the focus on our clients. If we could help keep our clients stable, we would all win in the process. Thinking back, it may have injected a sense of purpose in the agency. We created a WhatsApp group; we moved three companies into our new building. We launched ‘business on the top; party on the bottom’ online calls. We did things to bring people together.

What did being vulnerable mean to you?

What I needed to be, was believable. We only retrenched three people. Later we gave increases; and we have won more business this year, than in any previous year. Of course, the money doesn’t always flow in at the same time; and that has been the biggest burden for me, is managing cash flow in a year like this. But we are building the business and our clients have been magnificent. We only walked away from two abusive clients this year who treated our people shockingly. It wasn’t easy. But because we did that, we became more courageous and it solidified culture. It has been an interesting dynamic. We have also seen the very bad side of people from big brands, behaving without integrity, when you have done work in good faith; and that has been the most hurtful part of this year. Covid will go away, but these people will still be there, but they will not hold the power they did before. They are serial killers and the industry needs to know who they are and we need to put a stop to this.

Warren Buffet says, “Be greedy when others are fearful.” So attack when others are in retreat. I thought that there was never a better time to do anything we wanted, to try anything we could. It was about attitude. And ‘what if’, instead of ‘don’t’?

What is your business advice for 2021?

We all have to be entrepreneurial in our thinking. We cannot rely on any of the rules of the past. If you do that, you will not survive. We already have the intellect, the skills, the capacity – use it. Don’t rely on committees and research after research. We all have to be massively courageous now, more than we have ever been before. Stop being afraid of your shareholders and exco. For businesses to survive, start thinking strategically. Agencies can help with that. This is what we do for a living. Clients need to draw more on agencies for strategic and creative thinking. Also, the financial directors are the handbrakes in business. They are risk adverse. CEOs need to step in and say, ‘we hear you, but we need to invest’. This is not about cutting back, this is about taking the lead and charging forward. You will be dead as a business in 18 months, if you cut back any further. Your competition will eat your lunch. If your competitors are consolidating and retrenching and pulling back – go the other way. Let’s show that we are courageous, confident and joyful. Those who are magnificent and show confidence, will steal the market lead massively.

As human beings we gravitate towards that. We need to breathe life into these businesses. Covid is not going away for a long time. I’ve been telling a lot of our clients to please be human. Drop the bullsh*t. Drop the pretence. The strength I am talking about is the strength of vulnerability – and walking the talk. Roll up your sleeves, do what you need to do.


For more insights from retail and brand leaders in the #21interviews series publishing 1-21 December 2020, ahead of 2021:


#21interviews LAUNCH: 2021 comes with a disclaimer, by Louise Burgers, Publisher & Editor, RetailingAfrica.com.

#21interviews: Brands need to get brave, says Bozoma Saint John, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Netflix.

#21interviews: The power of being purpose-led will drive brand value, by Karin Du Chenne, Chief Growth Officer Africa and the Middle East, Kantar.

#21interviews: Plan for growth in 2021, says Herman Botha, Group General Manager, PNA Group.

#21interviews: Next year will be all about authentic visual immersion, by Craig Bellingham, Founder & CEO, Studio[K]irmack.

#21interviews: Covid has created a brand vulnerability, says Elouise Brink, Senior Marketing Manager, Country Road, Woolworths Holdings.

#21interviews: Reimagining a better world without the inequality of ‘normal’, with Economist and Author of the post-pandemic book, FutureNEXT, Dr Iraj Abedian, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Embrace technology at all levels, says Thabani Maluleka, Business Development Director for Rogerwilco.

#21interviews: It will not be business as usual, by Dave Nemeth, Trend Forecaster & Founder of at Trend Forward.

#21interviews: Lessons from an unprecedented year in retail, by Jonathan Hurvitz, CEO, Teljoy.

#21interviews: Beware ‘Covid fatigue’, by Guy Yehiav, General Manager, Zebra Analytics, part of Zebra Technologies.

#21interviews: Be deliberate in listening, says Zizwe Vundla, Marketing Director of Diageo South Africa, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Critical factors for retail growth, by Enver Groenewald, Group CEO, Ogilvy South Africa.

#21interviews: The future of micro-commerce in Africa, with Vahid Monadjem, CEO and Founder of Nomanini, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher and Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Plan for a ballet of black swans, by Rachel Irvine, Founder & CEO, Irvine Partners.

#21interviews: Consumers are investing to connect, says Shani Naidoo, Group Director, TFG (The Foschini Group).

#21interviews: Data is key to the future of shopping, by Nompumelelo Mokou is the intelligent customer experience executive at Dimension Data.

#21interviews: Direct to consumer is the future for some brands, says Will Battersby, CEO, BOS Brands, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher and Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Our products need to make a difference to society, says Natasha Maharaj, Marketing Director, Distell.

#21interviews: Community support will win loyal customers, says Sanjeev Raghubir, Sustainability Manager, Shoprite Group, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher and Editor, Louise Burgers.


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of RetailingAfrica.com. She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.


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