With a huge grin, Gil Oved introduced himself to an audience at the University of the Free State back in 2015. He told them he’s a businessman, an entrepreneur, an investor, a fashionista (he was the 2014 GQ Best Dressed Man), a TV personality and a published author—“all before I’m 40.” That was 16 days until his 40th birthday. .
Witty, energetic, articulate and immaculately dressed (always immaculately dressed), Oved epitomises the modern connected entrepreneur. From a teen TV presenter in the 1990s to a multimillionaire today, he has been a firm believer in his mantra of “passion-fuelled optimism”, which has led to his success as a business mogul as well as the co-CEO of The Creative Counsel, South Africa’s largest advertising agency.
As a respected and award-winning entrepreneur, Oved is often called upon to deliver talks or interviews about his journey and to give advice on how to succeed in building one’s own business empire. So it was no surprise when he became a Dragon on South Africa’s version of Dragons’ Den (along with Vinny Lingham, Lebo Gunguluza, Vusi Thembekwayo and Polo Leteka Radebe—with whom he has co-authored the business-insights book, And For All These Reasons . . . I’M IN), and chosen as the first Shark in the Shark Tank SA series.
But, as Oved told the UFS audience, “I still feel like I have a lot to do, I’ve got a long way to go, I’m very ambitious—I feel like I’ve only just begun.”
How did you enjoy your time on Shark Tank SA?
My time in the Tank was incredible! It was a wonderful opportunity to be part of such an illustrious panel of investors—and to take part in a show that sparks conversations that need to be had in South Africa far more frequently. Those are, of course, conversations about entrepreneurship. The format is such that you have no preparation for who’s coming into the Tank. You don’t know if they’re going to be old or young, man or woman, tech or other . . . and that’s a very strange dynamic. The cameras are rolling and mics are on. You have a few minutes at best to try and get your mind around what their business is all about, and decide if you would back them. Simultaneously, you need to outwit the other Sharks: If they suspect you’re onto something good, they might bid you out of the deal! Shark Tank South Africa is not only about an entrepreneur selling his or her idea to an investor but also about the mentor/investor selling himself or herself to the entrepreneur, while competing against the other Sharks. It’s intense and exciting. On a personal level, it was an important platform for me, as it allowed me to live out what I feel very strongly about: inspiring entrepreneurs and engaging them. It was not only about the hundred or so entrepreneurs who came into the Tank, but about the other tens of thousands of others who watched the show and saw the possibilities. The show gives entrepreneurs a licence to take risks, a licence to live their dreams, and a licence to succeed—and that’s what is incredible about these kinds of programmes.
Describe a day at The Creative Counsel.
There’s no such thing as a typical day—but that’s both tough and thrilling. The beauty of living this kind of life is that it can be turned on its head by a single call; a single brief can change the trajectory of the business. One minute you’re imagining something in your head, and a few months later the campaign’s rolling out and is there for everyone to see. That’s a very exciting thing to be part of. We have a very diverse set of clients in various industries, each with its own challenges, target markets and unique stories. The type of advertising we do is also very unique; it’s fast-growing, ever changing, non-traditional advertising. It’s a mixture of social media, technology, online and on-the-ground brand activations that are direct and very personal, and that’s where the money’s going. We are pioneering new things all the time. I love this space!
You have clear opinions on the impact of technology on our future. What do you see as an effective transition solution to ease the strain on the economy once jobs are automated?
According to 2015 Gartner research, by 2025 a third of all jobs will be lost due to new technologies. For example, artificial intelligence and robotics mean not only blue-collar but also a lot of white-collar, intellectual jobs will become obsolete. And we’re not talking about in the next 100 years—we’re talking over the next eight years. The question is, what does this mean for people? The lingering debate—and this is a huge concern—is that all too often, we talk about what technology is doing positively in our lives, but forget the pitfalls. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge tech freak (I love it), but at the same time I don’t think we should assume it’ll only have positive benefits. Tech will make numerous jobs redundant, and we’re not talking about this reality. I don’t think we’re adequately addressing the downside. I don’t believe that as many new jobs will be created as old jobs lost. During the Industrial Revolution, similar predictions were made; however, more jobs were created than consumed by automation in the past. That’s not the case this time round. The Industrial Revolution caused tech to change manual, physical jobs into mental jobs. The problem now is that the new wave of technology is replacing mental jobs. All we have to offer as humans is brawn and brain. So if the brawn jobs have been taken, and the brain jobs are going to be taken, then how much more value can humans actually offer? I think it’s an inevitability that tech will result in mass unemployment. And the discussion is not just about what value a human can add to the world; it’s also a question of what a human will derive from his or her life if the person doesn’t have a purpose—very often created in the work environment. To some extent, it may be argued that people won’t need to work as much and will be wealthier than they are now. The truth is that the world’s GDP has increased tremendously in the last 100 years. While there’s still an unacceptable number of people on the poverty line, relatively speaking there are a lot fewer people who are at the bottom of the poverty scale than there ever have been in history. Speaking to the world’s population, even the poorest of the poor have more access to sanitation than ever before, partly due to technology. Humans have created tech, and tech has helped to increase wealth even for the poorest people, relatively speaking. So these are big, important concepts. But having said all that, massive unemployment looms—and this must be addressed. The question then is, what do you do about it? Start thinking about how to become so good at something, and so creative in your approach to it, that computers and machines simply can’t compete.
It doesn’t matter which industry you’re in, it’s all going to get disrupted. There’s nothing that’s immune to tech. The only thing that can help you survive in this scary new world is keeping a keen eye on the trends and staying ahead of the curve.
You simply have to innovate beyond the innovation.
Which technologies do you think are going to make a massive impact?
Blockchain and cryptocurrency are two technologies that are going to change our lives fundamentally. These two are going to up-end the entire way the world does business. That will disempower central banks—which will come with its own set of challenges and opportunities. Governments will fear becoming much weaker and losing control. History has shown us that governments don’t respond well to loss of power, so unquestionably they will try to intervene. That will cause volatility, which will create things like populism and a degree of anarchy. We need to stay alert, and hope to be on the right side of all of this.
Do you see potential openings in new jobs as emerging technologies arise? If so, how could this help countries like South Africa?
I’m seeing incredible opportunities in fintech, agritech and civictech. Absolutely I see these helping South Africa—in fact, I see them helping Africa! There’s a whole discussion around the fact that there are populations who’ll never engage with a PC or computer, but will understand connectivity entirely through their phones and mobile devices. That’s amazing; it means that many African and developing countries are leapfrogging the kind of costs that were incurred by Westernised societies. There are exciting tech scenes in Nairobi, Lagos, Kigali and Cape Town. I’m seeing an incredible blossoming tech scene out of Joburg, too. What’s cool for me is that there’s a dire need to find African solutions to African problems. One that’s always quoted is M-Pesa, the African money-transfer system started by Safaricom in 2007, and which now caters for 40% of Kenya’s transactions—that means 85% of Kenya’s population uses M-Pesa. It’s made Safaricom the most profitable company in East Africa, and it’s changed the way East Africa does business. Rural fishermen in Kenya used to be price takers, hoping that whatever they caught would earn a good price. If there was an oversupply, they’d sometimes earn a lot less, and sometimes nothing. But now with M-Pesa and related technology, fishermen know in real time what the market is paying, and they hone their efforts in the right direction; as a result, they’ve become price makers and not price takers. For thousands of years, these fishermen survived because of entrepreneurial flare, but now because of technology, they’re not only surviving but thriving—and that’s incredible. So I look at Africa and see the potential tech brings, and I get excited. All over the world, there’s an ageing population placing a burden on government budgets, which continue subsidising these ageing and declining populations. Contrast that with Africa: currently at 1 billion people, but set to grow by an incremental 3 billion over the next 85 years. By that time, 40% of the world’s youth will call Africa home. All these people will need to be fed, housed, educated, entertained etc. You fly over Africa and you see huge empty spaces that are completely uninhabited, with no infrastructure. There’s need for trains, roads, hospitals, malls and schools—and, of course, a plethora of tech solutions unique to the continent. Opportunities to create that infrastructure exist, but don’t expect a guy in Silicon Valley to come up with the solutions. And this is what bothers me. Uber is coming in, the Chinese are coming in, yet we who live in South Africa—the gateway to Africa—and who are in the same time zone in many cases, are not grabbing the opportunities presented by this huge growing population. You have smartphone penetration coming in at double-digit growth and sometimes triple-digit growth. Data costs are plummeting. So we need to start planning for this massive boom. And that’s what gets me up in the morning.
Do you see, in the next 30 years or so, more technology being implanted in the human body to increase lifespan or quality of life? How far should we go with such tech?
Since time immemorial, people have been looking for the elixir of youth, the holy grail of immortality; it’s been a conversation piece since man became civilised. It’s a simple question, just ask anyone: Would you like to stop ageing? Well, is there any individual who would say ‘no’? Would you like to live forever? Of course yes! People will try to be philosophical about it; there’s nothing glorious about ageing, so people have looked for ways and means to do so gracefully, at great cost and expense to their quality of life. I think ageing is a disease, like catching a cold, and is therefore avoidable. Tech will bring about a situation where it will not only retard ageing but will stop it altogether. We’re programmed at a cellular level to age, just like a flower is programmed to wilt at a certain stage; and just like people can extend the life of flowers, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to dramatically extend our lives and, rather than a 43-year-old ageing gracefully, not age at all. I’d rather grow wise and not grow old! So tech will do that. There have been amazing advances. It’s said that people being born now will live to 100 years. As for implants, there are already things you can swallow that will help assess your vital stats, and that’s going to increase lifespan. There’s always going to be a push back to tech becoming more pervasive. There’s always the conservative query of, Where do you draw the line? That line can be drawn if you wish, but it’s like the inevitable wave: You draw a line in the sand and a wave comes and obliterates it, and you have to draw another line further away from the tide. But the tide is always moving. Each of us, even those claiming to block the march of tech on their own lives, is already living in an augmented-reality world. Every time you pick up your phone and watch a Facebook Live event, and every time you go into a shop and look up a product, or book a movie ticket on the way to the movies—that’s an augmented-reality world. It’s a world where you’re not living in the two-dimensional space your body is in. It has already happened. So, it’s not a question of if, but to what extent you’re going to engage.
What can companies start doing now to prepare for the transition to a more automated, robotic environment?
It’s simple. The way I see it, every company in today’s new modern economy needs to see itself as a tech company, regardless of which industry it’s in. In fact, every division within that company should see itself as a tech startup. As soon as companies and management embrace this and restructure their organisation to suit that, the less chance there’ll be that a disruptor will come in and usurp them from their place.
I’ve always lived my life thinking that I’m six months away from liquidation, and that kind of wariness and trepidation has allowed me to stay one step ahead of the game.
You can’t afford to take your eye off the ball, because it’s always just a matter of time until competitors come in and eat your lunch. You have no idea which industry will merge into another. You could be a telco that gets into banking, or a bank that gets into fintech; better still, a startup garage company that decides to do money transfers and, before you know it, completely eats Western Union’s lunch! Companies need to immerse themselves in tech and overinvest in it. I always worry that you get companies that don’t want to introduce new products that will cannibalise their margins. You talk about products and services that are ‘margin-diluted’. Here’s the bottom line: If you’re earning a certain margin, if there’s a new product that your guys can come up with that will be margin-diluted but a superior product or service than one you currently offer, why would you be so arrogant to think that only you guys can come up with it? Surely, if your team can come up with it, it will be a matter of time before someone else comes up with it. The difference is that it’s not margin-diluted for them—it’s absolute profits they wouldn’t be making otherwise, and one is greater than zero for that competitor. This is how companies like BlackBerry and others failed, because they didn’t want to introduce innovation that was margin-diluted. Others didn’t care because they were entering a market they weren’t in before. So the many incremental profits are profits that they didn’t have before.
Are there certain fields of study a young person should consider for a future where more jobs will be automated?
Since no one is immune to the intervention of technology, my advice is to get involved in industries that require massive creativity; the more creative the job profile, the longer you can stay off the imminent risk of tech eating into your job potential. It’s more about a mindset than an industry. The only thing that humans can now actually offer that computers are yet to offer is highly sophisticated creative input and output.
How do you see the advertising world changing once more items are manufactured via 3D printers, and more designs can be downloaded from the Internet?
The whole thing is going to completely revolutionise the industry in a way we can’t even imagine. A quick anecdote that I enjoy: When electricity was first invented, for the first few decades everyone kind of knew it would change the world, but they had no idea how, and they didn’t know how to apply it. Until electricity got into homes through sockets and grids, there wasn’t much use for it, because electricity wasn’t ubiquitous. There were very few applications for it. One of the few applications, believe it or not, was ‘amusement parks’ where scientists [such as Giovanni Aldini] used to get fresh cadavers, place them on chairs and electrocute them. As a result, they would reanimate—they would move around and their eyes would flutter. It was a big treat for people in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Now, if you think about what electricity has done for the world since, it’s unfathomable. I imagine 3D printing will be similar. Right now, you get people buying them and printing flimsy things like a comb or a little toy, but it’s going to be a fundamental seismic tectonic shift—and it will happen very quickly. 3D is coming into many industries, and I don’t doubt for a second that this is imminent. I foresee a situation where every home has a few printers, and whereas most of the products you can buy online now, you’ll soon buy only the designs, and the rest you’ll print. There are implications for job losses in manufacturing.
Imagine a life where, if you wanted a toothbrush, you could go on the Internet and pick the exact one you needed with the exact specs at the time you wanted, and it suited your exact needs—and you only printed one, because you only needed one! There’d be no wastage and you’d get to use it in minutes of deciding what you want to buy, and you’d do it at a tiny fraction of the price. So that will destroy industries and create new ones. For us in advertising, it means we’ll have to think completely differently about how we engage consumers, how we market to them, what we offer them; and, to be honest, I don’t think anyone can predict what the consequences will be. Again, it’s about gearing yourself up for being nimble and being dynamic, and seeing the changes and facilitating for those changes before they hamper your margins and growth.
With the movie industry being so good at playing on people’s fear, do you see society initially rejecting artificial intelligence?
Art imitates life, and life imitates art; for every movie coming out showing you the scary side of AI, there are movies showing you the amazing benefits of it. Movies, theatre and entertainment are all a reflection of the psyche of individuals. Forty to 50 years ago, there were sci-fi movies that showed the worst of things that are now pervasive in our lives. With any new tech, there will be the critics, naysayers and doomsayers who will present the scariest outcomes. And, certainly with AI, there’s a lot to be scared of. There’s no reason to believe that AI won’t at one point risk humanity. We’re so reliant on tech and so connected that if AI got the better of us, it could risk humanity. But is that a reason not to try and make it work for us, and to put things in place so that it doesn’t destroy us? No, it’s not! The immediate benefits of AI are incomprehensible. We need to embrace new technologies while being aware of the risks.
30 seconds with…Gil Oved:
“Leonard Bernstein, the famous composer and genius behind some of the most loved 20th century musicals including West Side Story, gave a series of lectures in 1973 at Harvard. He finished off these lectures with: ‘I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is yes.’ ”
“It changes all the time, but at the moment it’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.”
“New York, baaaaby!”
Favourite tech gadget?
“Right now, it’s gotta be my Amazon Echo—I love Alexa!”
Your ideal day?
“Waking up thinking it’s going to be just another day, and getting the one phone call that changes everything and changes the trajectory of your day, week and month.”
How do you unwind and relax?
“I do transcendental meditation at least once a day for 20 minutes; and unwinding and relaxing after my team Spurs has won. The problem is: when they lose, it’s the extreme opposite. . .”
On how he has accomplished so much thus far:
“I have one word: ‘why’ . . . I learnt to say it a lot. In fact, if you add another word to that word ‘why’, it becomes even more powerful: ‘Why not?’. Why not me? Why not here? Why not now?”