“Nineteen years ago, Gary Harwood and I were assigned to a project in Lagos, Nigeria, by the large multinational for which we were working. On the evening of the first day of the project, we sat in the hotel bar enjoying an ice-cold local beer and wondered, what on Earth had just happened to us. A far cry from our boardroom of Sandton back in Johannesburg, we had been dropped into a colourful, vibrant, crazy, hustle and bustle of a city. It was inspiring, mesmerising and intoxicating all at once. We instantly knew we wanted to run a branding agency that tapped into that energy; an agency run by Africans for Africans,” recalls Sean McCoy, founder and executive director of HKLM, one of Africa’s leading, independent strategic brand consultancies.

It was with this immersive beginning that HKLM Given its track record on the continent, it’s clear HKLM aspires to do just that. took its first breath, and just weeks later the talents of architect Graham Leigh and accountant Paul Kirsten were enlisted – Leigh to lend his environmental branding expertise, and Kirsten to oversee the financial side.

The result was a multidisciplinary branding and design agency founded with a trailblazing, entrepreneurial spirit; fuelled by a deep passion for Africa and its people; and armed with the vision to dismantle the status quo.

“Historically we had been told that the world’s best strategy and creative work came out of London, New York and Tokyo. But why not Africa? We decided the best would now come from Africa too, and used our can-do attitude to make that happen,” says McCoy.

This beginning was fertile ground for pushing the envelope in developing truly original African branding and design that was unlike anything the continent had seen before. HKLM quickly picked up its first Nigerian client, the brand new telecoms outfit Glo. With its eye for deeply inspired branding, the HKLM team launched Glo in the market to much acclaim – a feat that stood the test of time, as Glo today ranks as Nigeria’s second largest network operator.

Soon blue-chip clients were seeking out the Joburg-based agency to build their wholly African brands in an increasingly competitive market. It was Africa’s time to shine, and big brands wanted HKLM to help them do just that.

McCoy says it was what they fondly called ‘the business school of Lagos’ that shaped their distinctive, innovative and successful approach to African branding.

“Fancy degrees mean little when it comes to working in Africa. If you want to really learn your trade, try working in a busy, frenetic city like Lagos. That place teaches you patience, humility and resilience. It’s the real school of hard knocks where you learn as you go. If you can hustle and make it work in Lagos, you’ve earned your stripes,” says McCoy.

It was from these early experiences that HKLM coined the phrase, ‘if you can brand in Africa, you can brand anywhere in the world’, referring to the complexities of working in culturally, geographically, socially, religiously, economically diverse African countries with hundreds of subtle nuances that must be taken into account. This, to ensure communications remain relevant and are not tone deaf, as is often the case with multinationals based outside of Africa.


From this emerged HKLM’s trademark approach of embarking on partnerships with its clients, of working together – not top down – to solve branding challenges, and of immersing the branding team in the heady sights, sounds, colours and vibrancy of the African markets in which they work.

Every HKLM job involves on-the-ground research of that country, of walking the streets, the markets and the malls to get to grips with the inherent flavour of each place, and then bringing pieces of that back home to Joburg to recreate the energy of that country in the office there.

This highly engaging approach has seen the award-winning HKLM land big brands such as the Bank of Abyssinia in Ethiopia, MUA across East Africa, MCel in Mozambique, Wilderness Safaris across the SADC region and of course Glo, which is still a client 20 years on.

“There’s no one-size fits all here,” concludes McCoy. “You can’t sell Lagos from a laptop in Sandton. You have to truly understand Africa to work with Africa.”

It was with this immersive beginning that HKLM Given its track record on the continent, it’s clear HKLM aspires to do just that.

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