Secrets of SA’s most productive people: Shukri Toefy and Amr Singh, Co-founders, The Fort Group.
Crafted on trains and rehearsed on the street, Unwritten is a proudly South African art-house film by Shukri Toefy and Amr Singh: previously two penniless students with mounting study loans, who grew The Fort Group out of a small warehouse with no phone line or Internet into a thriving creative brand and content agency.
“We believe you can certainly be a great business leader and an artist and a storyteller at the same time.”
CEO and The Rainmakers Journal founder, Toefy takes the audience on a visual journey in search of enlightenment through the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. Unwritten has garnered critical acclaim globally, winning the Van Gogh Award for World Cinema Documentary Feature at the 2016 Amsterdam Film Festival as well as an Award of Recognition for Cultural Short Documentary in the July 2016 Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards.
Fast Company SA got an exclusive into the history and making of the film and The Rainmakers Journal with Toefy and Singh (who is also chief creative officer at The Fort). They share where it all began and how they created their hybrid agency.
What was the inspiration behind the film?
Toefy: The story begins back at university when I started keeping a journal, after a university lecturer had said to me, “If you want to be an Olympic athlete, you need to train like an Olympic athlete; if you want to be an Olympic thinker, you need to keep a journal.” That’s where it all sort of started. At the time, I worked as a cab driver to pay back my student loans, and I felt like I travelled the world through the different people I drove. That’s where my fascination with knowledge from ordinary people came from. We realised in the 10 years of running my business that the knowledge from ordinary people is much more valuable than the sort of sterile and cold writing you often get within business books and publications over the years. In thinking about Unwritten, we wanted to bring to life this idea of a visual journal, and show people just how vivid and valuable it can be to write things down and bring it to life through one’s own interpretation of how one sees things. I think we all have the seeds of our own success within us, and watering and harnessing that is done through writing, and trying to understand ourselves through writing things down. So we set out to go to a land we found fascinating, that we’d never been to before, that had some old-world wisdom. We set off to a land we had heard was a museum without walls, a country that wasn’t colonised, and where some of the old knowledge had hopefully endured and not been affected by the more globalised world. It was sort of kept separate from that. We went there to try and capture this idea of someone experiencing this ancient city and this ancient value valley for the first time, and that’s really what we tried to achieve. Hopefully, people will have a visceral experience of Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley in particular. This was when I asked Amr Singh to direct a film that could try and bring this to life, that would encourage people to travel and experience new places, to realise the knowledge of ordinary people, the people all around us in everyday interactions—and, hopefully, as always, to try and get people to journal and write things down. Because when you write things down, it changes the frequency of what it is and makes it real.
Tell us more about your passion of “unlocking value in shared knowledge”.
Singh: In each of us there’s an innate human desire to search, explore and connect with our fellow human beings, and to experience places that shed light on who we are and where we come from. It is a curious trait, and I think it’s in the hope of gaining insight into our purpose in this world. Studying social anthropology at the University of Cape Town was a valuable base for beginning to understand this idea of ‘shared knowledge’ and a ‘common human heritage’. Oral history is rich and textured, and, yes, it changes with the times and the people who pass it on, but that’s also a reflection of how societies and communities change. I find this concept intrinsically hopeful and deeply interesting. For millennia, human beings have been storytellers; from sitting around a fire to contemporary forms of narrative. Everyone has a favourite film, a favourite joke, hopefully a favourite book—and that’s because there’s something incredibly nourishing in hearing tales, fables and allegories. This is a true reflection of who we are as a species. History has shown, for better or worse, that there’s an intense urge as human beings for self-knowledge, and for a long time that was gained through the wisdom of others. This urge to want to journey into the unfamiliar and confront unforeseen challenges is an attempt to understand what connects us and makes us who we are—it’s a search for purpose. I want to explore the truth and insights of this, and celebrate it in a truly creative way. With Unwritten, we wanted to create a tapestry of places and faces which shows the depth and breadth of what and who we are as humans. If we can do that in creating a sense of curious wonder, then that’s what our shared heritage should do.
As leaders in business, do you think differently in finding inspiration and inspiring others?
Toefy: I think we take our responsibility as leaders within our business very seriously, and we realise we need to find inspiration and knowledge not only for ourselves, our staff and the people we lead, but also the whole value chain of the people we do business with. We need to be at the forefront of what’s happening with our clients, our own internal team and everyone we interact with. I think, traditionally, people would go to conferences and speak to traditional thought leaders and business experts—and we do go to these industry shows and conferences, but what we realised through our travels was that it was more meaningful to find and gain knowledge from ordinary people. The key thing here is that the lessons you can learn are from people who are not traditionally ‘successful’. I think we have a very narrow and finite view of what success is, which is a very interesting thing, and this is often when you want to try and be a leader who thinks differently. We also take our responsibility as brand storytellers very seriously, and we need to think about expressing ourselves and building narratives in different ways and areas so we can bring that to life in what we do in day-to-day business. Creating an art piece that we can share with others, which they can interpret differently, is very powerful. Unwritten represents a piece of art and inspiration that people can sort of tap into and chew on in many different ways, and that’s very inspiring, because gone are the days when a business leader was a one-dimensional businessperson. We believe you can certainly be a great business leader and an artist and a storyteller at the same time.
What happened during that life-changing cab drive? What sparked your decision to start a journal?
Toefy: I started driving a cab at the age of 18; I actually remember already being a cab driver when looking back at my matric results. I’d always written things down and tried to remember interesting words or stories that I found inspiring or captivating, and tried to use that in my life. There were many instances and stories that I took out of that experience and jotted down from driving a cab, both good and bad, inspiring and even depressing at times. If I try to recall why I think differently now and why I have a very empathetic view toward others, there’s one instance where I was driving someone and the trip cost R100. This very pompous and wealthy man got out of the cab and threw a R50 note at me, saying, “A hundred rand is too much. You’ll take 50 rand.” I remember standing there, feeling so disempowered; in my mind I went through all the possible scenarios that could’ve happened if I’d acted on that anger I felt. Instead, I chose to write it down, remember it and learn from it. I think quite differently when it comes to not only cab drivers but also other people who are on a journey to provide for their families, or who are moving on to greater things. Other really amazing, inspirational people have asked me what I want to do with my life, and then encouraged me to be able to do that—they gave me perspective about the world. I realised that the ability to understand people is probably one of the most powerful things in business, the keyword being empathy around what people want and desire, and to try and have those values align; understanding the world better and realising we are actually more similar than we are different. Those were the kind of stories I started to write down without knowing that down the line they’d precipitate into a project like The Rainmakers Journal that encourages people to journal, or art projects and films like Unwritten.
How does it feel to have accomplished so much with this inspirational film, and winning accolades globally?
Toefy: It feels amazing. We’ve achieved so much more than we’d hoped for. We didn’t produce the film to win awards, or to have a blockbuster release. We were actually unsure of the outcome or how people would react to it. We realised that the honesty and introspection of the film has connected with people and audiences around the world, from Hollywood to Europe to Indonesia. It’s very inspiring for us, and more than anything we’re inspired to tell more stories and create more beautiful films. It has also been an affirmation of the commitment to thinking differently around inspiration and thought leadership.
What lessons have you learnt in transcribing your visual journey into Unwritten?
Toefy: There have been many. One of the first lessons we learnt early on is that you can’t go to a place with great wisdom and ask people for take-away knowledge and wisdom. We realised it was impossible. We came across people who had dedicated their life to the search of enlightenment and knowledge, and we found there’s no single moment of truth or take-away knowledge that someone can just give you that will change your life. We are all on this journey where we are made up of the bits and pieces of the things we learn and take with us to carry along the way. As we encountered people, we’d say, “please give us some knowledge” or “what can you help me with in my life?” We realised how distasteful that was in a place where people would commit to the apprenticeship of learning and knowledge; we were sort of tourists trying to gather information in a short period of time. What you also realise is that people are so busy trying to conquer Everest that they forget the splendour at the foot of the mountain, and that’s a metaphor for our own lives. We are all trying to conquer the mountain and climb the mountain, that we forget all the beauty and splendour around us. Take time for one last cup of tea, take time to sit and smile and talk among friends, because that’s the real beauty in life. There’s no single moment of truth, there’s no destination of clear enlightenment—that became abundantly clear as we travelled through the Kathmandu Valley.
How did you start The Fort, and what was the strategy behind partnering Ghana, Dubai and Kenya with South Africa?
Toefy: We started The Fort when we were penniless and cash-strapped students at UCT back in 2006. We’d take the train to meetings, missing lectures to try and pitch to people to do marketing campaigns, promotions and video productions. What we came to realise was that we were actually pretty good at it. Our best sales pitches must’ve been when we had absolutely no track record, jumping off the train, rehearsing our sales pitch on the walk over to our meetings. Then we got an old little warehouse in Woodstock where we couldn’t afford to pay rent, and there was no Internet. We asked the owner if we could use the space if we’d sign boxes in and out when the delivery trucks came. After a couple of months, we installed an Internet connection and were able to start paying rent. We came from very humble beginnings. That entrepreneurial spirit, though, is still very evident in the business today. We’ve had a number of partnerships with companies throughout Africa and the Middle East, but in January 2017 we launch our Fort network with offices in Lagos, Nairobi and Dubai. The significance of these locations is simply that emerging markets in Africa and the Middle East are exciting and we realise that a lot of the stories we need to tell happen at a continental and regional level. We need to think about telling the great stories that companies have to tell and that people have to tell throughout Africa. There’s no lack of great products and services throughout Africa, and we see our responsibility as taking those products and services to market, telling great stories and building brand narratives. We believe that come next year, we will become the largest and leading independently owned, black-owned and African-owned creative agency network across Africa and the Middle East.
Explain your creative process.
Toefy: There are a number of different things I’ve done that exemplify the type of leadership I try to espouse. One is creating thought leadership platforms and opportunities for people within our organisation. This can be seen through our Fort Review, whereby people within our team have the opportunity to write an article and then defend that at a panel discussion and events at industry level. Another is creating a thought leadership of my own, The Rainmakers Journal, which encourages people to journal and writing things down, and to think about their lives differently. School and university is only half the challenge you’re going to have; no one’s going to go out there and just give you a job. Even if your university education is free, you need to be nimble and have a broad set of skills to be able to do that. Understanding yourself will allow you to be able to do that better. Lastly, thinking differently around being a CEO—and soon a CEO of a global company: How does a CEO of a global company think differently about inspiring not only the people he employs around the world, but also everybody else, around what direction to take the company, and to take time for introspection and be attuned to what’s happening within myself and within the world as a necessary part of the leadership process. As a creative agency, we work in strategic brand communication in thinking differently around formulating strategies that work, and take into account the changing value chain of advertising and communication. Even though people speak about ‘that change’, they don’t change themselves, and The Fort is an example of how to think about things differently, to really think about ourselves as a creative agency that can execute on any platform; that can tell brand stories and build narratives, rather than speaking at people. We want people to change; we want meaningful and responsible brand communication. Shared knowledge focuses on The Rainmakers Journal and Unwritten specifically; we hope to use Unwritten as a tool to inspire people to journal and to write things down, to explore and share knowledge with each other, to ask your elders and speak to people, have a cup of tea and switch the TV off, and learn from interesting people around you. That’s really inspiring and is part of my routine that I mix into the rest of my speech, depending on whom I’m speaking to. My creative process as a thought leader is to write things down on paper. I believe that if you write things down, it changes the frequency of things. Something may sound like a good idea when you say it out loud or in your head, but may look very different written down, when you’re able to interrogate it and how you process it from there. As a speaker, I don’t write out my speech: I think about what I want to say and try to feed off the audience. I have a few interesting slides and sound bites that people can enjoy—which also give the sound of my voice a break. I try to make it as immersive an experience as possible.
Singh: I’ve always had a limitless approach to what I’ve wanted to do in my life, and that has always been supported by an unwavering urge to create. We are living in the era of the multidisciplinary creative, and long may that era live. The alchemy behind something like the film craft has disappeared, and similarly for the draftsman—the mystery of design is fading. These are tools we now all have at our fingertips. I’ve never felt that we should be limited in our approach, and that’s something I find very satisfying. If you want to be a good storyteller, if you want to create and craft narratives—whether brand narratives or ones purely for the sake of entertainment—you need to keep building your creative arsenal. Understanding as many creative disciplines as you can is no longer an advantage; it’s rapidly becoming the standard. If nothing else, it helps foster meaningful collaboration. The Fort is built on this premise, where ideation and execution stay tethered. Directing is a privilege, not a right. Visual art has the power to change and influence people’s perception in very real ways—and it’s a difficult medium to master. As a director, I have a very deliberate method: I believe in the strength of visual storytelling. I think a meaningful story is given power through a strong visual language. I also try to stay aware of the responsibility I have in putting out content that large audiences may engage with. I draw a lot from my anthropology background, because often when telling stories, you’re making representations of other people—which is a precarious thing to do, because heritage and identity is something that should be self-determined. So I try to think very deeply about why a character may have certain traits on screen, and what it means for the story. I draw from a lot of different elements, including my own life, but most of all I try to work with a sense of joy and appreciation for the opportunity to do what I do. —As told to Kayla Jacobs
How they do it
The tools, tricks and truths that help Toefy and Singh get everything done
Toefy: I usually try to exercise in the morning. I then spend some time with my kids before they go to school. I make time for prayer and meditation each morning, and get to work at about 8 a.m. It helps that I live a kilometre from work! In the afternoon, I try to get home by 6 p.m. for the evening bath and bedtime routine with the kids. I then have dinner with my wife, followed by either going back to the office or working from home until midnight.
Singh: I get up, shower and then spend time with my 2-year-old son. I sometimes go to gym or for a run before work, but in general I prefer exercise in the evening. Then I usually try to get to the office early; I make myself some breakfast in our café area and then settle into the day’s tasks.
Strategies to beat procrastination
Toefy: Firstly, keeping a notebook and having clear tasks that I tick off throughout the day, and secondly, having little breaks where I run around the office letting off steam and then come back. I try to be focused for short periods of time and break that up by getting around the office, touching base with everyone.
Singh: Procrastination is not really a struggle for me; I’m quite a deadline-driven person. But I’d say my strategy is to frequently feed myself with interesting activities while working through something. For instance, I like to read an interesting article piece by piece in short breaks while I’m working. It keeps your mind fresh, gives you perspective and can make more mundane tasks interesting.
Key business tools
Toefy: I’m not really a gadget guy, but I’d say my MacBook and iPhone; and then my notebook. That’s it.
Singh: My MacBook and Adobe Creative Suite. I also use a lot of great websites as references; my most recent find is a fantastic site called film-grab.com.
Toefy: There are a couple of things that come to my mind; I think my family and my kids are a big motivator. The other would be that my parents sacrificed a lot to send me to a good school, so I feel like that motivates me to take that forward and build on it. If you really want to know, my other motivator is that I don’t want to have to work from when I’m 40 years old. I just want to focus on the type of projects I want to work on. So I have another eight years of trying to hustle! Then I want to be at a point when I can work on my passion projects.
Singh: I’ve had different motivators throughout my life. As I’ve gone through different stages, I’ve found motivation in various places. Ultimately, I’d say my wife and family keep me motivated. Within the business, we have an unfaltering goal and a vision that’s very clear in our minds. When things are that clear, staying committed becomes easier.
Toefy: Prayer and meditation, and also taking breaks: Getting away from the daily routine in the office is super important; to get out of the same headspace and change things up as much as possible.
Singh: I thrive off ‘completion energy’, so what keeps me going is successfully completing projects.