Industry News Interviews

Shobanjo: Leadership Lessons From A Talismanic High-Flier

Growing up, was there anything that gave you the lead or intuition that “your star” would be in the world of marketing communications?

No! Not at all. I got into advertising by accident. I mean it with every sense of humility. I had no hint that I would end up in advertising as a profession. If you go back 70 or 60 years, who was in advertising in Nigeria? And if you take it upwards to when I was 18 years, who knew anything about advertising in Nigeria? Generally, when we were in secondary school, if you were asked about your thoughts for the future, you would say – I want to be a lawyer, doctor or any other popular conventional field at that time. Nobody mentioned advertising; the awareness was not as much as it is today.

So, at what point did going into advertising come to your mind, even if it was by accident as you said?

It was in my early days in broadcasting, and I have told this story before. In the heyday of broadcasting we had people who were like demi-gods in the industry; people who had fun doing their jobs. People such as the late Ralph Opara, Ishola Folorunsho, Rev. Badejo, and even Ernest Okonkwo. So, there was that awakening in me to be like them. These were senior colleagues, and some of them have even helped to package me. Some had moved early into advertising before I came in.

People like Olu Falomo, the late Kehinde Adeosun, veterans like Ted Mukoro, had moved from broadcasting to advertising, and life was better for them at the other side. So, I started scratching my head, asking how can one actually transit from here to advertising? Within that period, a couple of incidents happened in quick succession.

One day, an expatriate from the UK came to produce a radio commercial. The next day, another expatriate and a Nigerian, who works in an advertising agency, also came to produce a commercial for their client. My curiosity increased and I started asking questions. Once I added these two things together, that these are people who worked in an advertising agency; the fact that they had moved from broadcasting to advertising and life looked better, I concluded to myself this is what I wanted. That was the beginning of the journey to where we are today.

Within this period, industry players and the media have consistently referred to you as “The Doyen of the Integrated Marketing 2343Communication (IMC) industry” and interestingly nobody is contesting this special status. How do you respond when you hear this or see it in the media?

How can the media confer the “Doyen of the IMC industry” on me when there are other living legends in the industry? I am quite indifferent to some of these hyperboles. I tell myself, if I resent it, people will still write about it. To me, I am just an ordinary advertising man who is just trying to do things the way they should be done. All these hyperboles, accolades, adjectives might be nice, but I think they are too highfalutin.

What do you think the media wants to achieve by using that hyperbole?

I don’t know. I wish I knew. I think there is a genuine impression on their side that this man has impacted this industry positively, probably he should be a role model, but doyen? I don’t think that cap is mine because there are people who joined the industry long before me and they are still alive.

Over the years, there has been this notion that advertising does not add much to a nation’s economy and you have been in this industry for more than 40 years, how would you react to this?

If anybody says that, it is a proof that the person is ignorant; but I would not blame the person. But please ask yourself. Of  all the marketing teams of companies in Nigeria today, which of them will be successful, without advertising? Which of them will be able to produce the volume they are producing without advertising? Because without advertising they would not sell at the rate they are selling; the consumers will be unaware of these brands, and there won’t be anything called brands any more.

Today, you hear brands everywhere. The question is, what creates and builds brands? Go and check the level of global ad spends and you’ll begin to ask yourself, ‘is it true that advert adds nothing to the economy?’ There is no country in the world that can achieve her potentials without the support of advertising. That is settled.

As one of the most successful advertising practitioners we have in Nigeria, could you give some insight into those steps that brought about all these admirable successes to you and your organisation?

It was at a time the Nigerian economy was literally struggling; that was the end of 1979. So, we said to ourselves that the only way out was to be different in all that we do, so innovation was behind the coming to being of our first company. We knew the innovation we sought would be impossible if we didn’t have the right people. So, that was how we started. The first challenge was how to get the first 18 people who came with me, to key into that vision and objectives? I had to literally get these young men and women to key into the dream. My belief is that if you don’t understand the dream, you cannot add to it. Another thing I feel very strongly about is this – to be successful in any profession you need to serve your apprenticeship.

When you do that, you are better enabled to succeed, especially if you had operated at the senior level. Having risen to a board level where I was coming from, having been properly trained and having acquired some needed experience – at least eight years, four at the senior level – I understood what it takes to operate my kind of business successfully.

So, I was able to bring those assets to the company. From day one, that formed the bedrock of our success. By the time we were four years old, three other companies were already coming. And in all these happenings today, without being boastful, most of the things competition is doing today, like forming groups, subsidiaries, and branches we started it. We were the first company to start a stand-alone PR consultancy. We pioneered a second advertising company, we floated the first media buying agency; indeed we have scored a lot of firsts. In these whole processes, none happened by accident. They all came alive because we realized that it would be foolhardy on our part if we want to be the first and we benchmarked ourselves with what was happening in the local market.

We looked outside and partnered with people outside, and a whole lot was learnt from their experiences and that is why today, we have not stopped and I don’t think we are going to stop, because, like I always say, “being number one is not a birthright.” We have to work for it. Don’t forget, when we started, some other companies were number one and number two, but we overtook them because we did not stop running.

What are those principles or formula that up and coming CEOs can learn from, that you put in place to ensure that the above culture is maintained?

The first thing about our business – and I want to recommend it to those who want to succeed – is this, if you form a private company or a partnership, there must be a clear leader in the house. There has to be one boss and everybody must understand and accept that there is a boss and that everybody must follow his leadership. The leader, working with his lieutenants, must agree on processes and principles of running that company.

Both the leader and the team must also subscribe to the fact that those principles must be followed to the letter, and under no circumstance should anybody, including the leader, breach the principles. This is an example: because we realized that the only thing that will make a difference between our company and others will be our people. We place premium on our people till tomorrow – how we find them, how we recruit them, how we motivate them and how we treat them. Therefore, it is very important that our people are treated as eggs. Where the problem starts is in finding them. You must not bend the rules, once it is agreed that these are going to be the modalities for hiring people.

2344We know that getting the best hands is one tough challenge; how do you manage to keep them?

It is quite challenging. I don’t think there are many companies in our industry that spend as much as we do in training a staff. If we hire anyone as a management trainee, for a year all we do is train you. Their knowledge base would have increased so much. Even at that stage, people are courting them and they offer them twice more than we offer them. In an economy that is very difficult, what will you do? Can I compete with the bank or oil and gas companies, who are coming for them? Sometimes, they go to our competitors who don’t invest in development and training. But we do not mind.

Working in our group is tough and once you enter, you start growing your career. We sponsor our people to the Lagos Business School or Pan-Atlantic University for advanced management programmes, or senior management programmes and we pay. Some attend courses overseas and we pay. These are facts you can verify.

Even though it has been long since you left broadcasting, how would you assess what broadcasting in Nigeria is today?

I feel the standard has fallen. If you listen to radio stations, people speak with American accent; they play music that in our time would be classified as NTBB (Not To Be Broadcast) because they have corrupt influence. I worked at the NBC (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation). We had just few broadcast stations then and if you had a man like Dr. Christopher Kolade as your Director of Programmes, you know that you must pursue excellence. He was my boss, and every live programme was rehearsed. Today, it is a different world where anything goes. I can recall if you are doing an early morning shift, the station vehicle will come and pick you from your house, and if you do a late evening shift, the station will take you to your house. Station vehicle will take you to your doorstep. I am not sure if all that still happens now.

Thanks to your dexterity, you have expanded into other businesses. What guides your decision? Do you depend on instinct or you consider viability based on certain feasibility reports?

If you base your business decisions on instinct, you may not succeed. If you want to expand, first, you must identify that  here is a market for what you want to do. Most of what we did was informed by the needs of the time as we go along just offering normal advertising services. You must begin to see that this client needs this and you look at global practice; what is happening on the global scene? And when you convince yourself that it is true, you can then plug into that thing and offer it as collateral, and with that, you also create opportunity for your people.

If you are interested in the future and growth of your company, you must also create opportunities for the people. And you don’t do that by chance, it is strategic. You must look at it and of course say to yourself “are there opportunities for me in all of these?” Why did we start the second agency way back in 1990? It was because we became a reasonably good agency at Insight. People were coming to us and we were saying “sorry we can’t work for you, we already have your kind of client here.” But one day, I said to myself “why are we telling these guys to go somewhere else?” The next time I went to the UK, I told one of my friends that I was having challenges of turning down business offers. He asked why, and I replied: because we can’t keep two competing brands and he said, “but you can start another agency.” I told him in that case I would need an affiliation and he offered one called Saachi and Saachi and I was asked to see them at their office the following day. I went there and we spoke and they said ‘‘yes, we will partner with you as affiliate.” When I came back to Lagos, I gathered my people and said “guys I am starting a second agency next week and you and you and you will run it.” That was how we started.

2348You also veered into some areas that are not related to communication, like the security outfit, Halogen. How did it happen?

Halogen is a child of circumstance. You know I said earlier that a man must be visionary. In this case, we turned a misfortune into good fortune; that was how Halogen came up. In 1994, I had a shootout with  some armed robbers in my house. After that incident, I told my people that we need proper security guards from a security company that is good. My men went out and spoke to all the security companies in Lagos and there was none that could give us 35 guards that we needed. Some said we had to wait for six months for them to employ and train 35 guards for us. I had a friend who was a commissioner of police, so I spoke with him on my desire to open a security firm. He guided me on the requirements and

I applied to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and got the licence. When we started Halogen, it was not to be a commercial enterprise. It was basically for them to guard our homes and offices. We had a small property at Crystal Estate.

That was where we started – from 35 guards just enough to guard our homes and offices. But from day one, I said these guys must be different, so we trained them properly. When people come around and see them, they will ask “where did you get these guys from” and we would tell them “we have a company called Halogen.” So, they began to make demands: “can we get four guards? Can we get six guards?” That was how we started. Today, that company employs 14,000 people.

Looking at the IMC industry, where you have been active for more than 40 years, is there anything we need to learn.  Could you give us some panoramic view of the industry?

You know that whatever I say today may not hold, because I am no longer an advertising practitioner in the real sense of the word. But because I have spent 43 years of my life in this industry, I cannot but be a keen observer of things. The competition that I see today, was it the kind of competition that we saw 30, 25, even 20 years ago? The answer is no. I don’t think the competition is keen. The truth about this business is that it is highly skilled, highly knowledge-based. Creativity is not so much about paper qualification. We must look at cultural issues – the things that we do here every

day. Those are the things that people will connect with. If you look at advertisements that are coming out from Brazil, the Far East and Spain, they are so indigenous in content and you will be amazed. What we do is copy American communication and British advert. We are just wasting our time and we cannot even play in the international arena.

When you go to Cannes, you can’t even win, because the guys who are looking at these works do so with Western eyes, except what you are bringing is indigenous. When I look at commercials from Brazil, I don’t understand what they are saying but I can understand the communication and the message they are trying to convey, and that is exactly what we need to do. I think there is a lot more we can still do.

Having talked about the role of Advertising, what do you make of the current role of APCON?

Before we start talking of APCON, great advertising is the result of great briefs. Today’s clients – a lot of them are also not as sophisticated as the type of clients that we used to have in those days. When you talk to advertising agencies these days, they will say to you “clients don’t even write briefs anyway,” Their agent just tells you “you know you are the expert, go and do this and that.” Ordinarily, it should not be so. It does not happen that way because if you are the client, you are supposed to understand your product and everything about it. It is when you give me all of those key ingredients abouty our product or your brand that I can fast-track the process of turning that product into a brand.

I remember when we were working for Lever Brothers, we had brands such as Lux Toilet Soap, Oroyo, Major Brass. When you get to Lever Brothers the brief they give you is like a mini-booklet. It is the same with Smithkline. If clients understand that it is a symbiotic relationship that they need to help the agencies to create breakthrough advertisement or communication, then they will understand that they cannot shortchange their agencies. If they do, there is no way you are going to see great advertisements. I honestly cannot say I am seeing great communication these days; they are trying but it could be much better.

[ad id=”147″]You identified lack of advertising that is steeped in our culture as the reason Nigerian agencies are not winning global awards. What other factors could be responsible?

The glory of any advertising agency is to win recognition globally. Many years ago, when we were in a company called BETS every quarter they would demand of us to send what we regard as our best commercial for that quarter, and we would send it to New York.

They would gather them and judge them and that is from one network. If your advertisement was judged to have scored first, second or third, they would tell you very good. Can you imagine your work being adjudged to be one of the best globally? That is an incredible achievement; there is nothing an advertising agent wants than to be adjudged to be within incredible creative works. Your understanding of the client’s brief, your interpretation, research input all have to be gathered to develop, perhaps, what I call an incredible breakthrough communication; and if it is adjudged to be so, that

is what everybody wants. There is no agency person anywhere in the world that is looking for any other thing than for an agency to adjudge him as one of the best in the world. Here in Nigeria, at the rate we are going, it may be impossible.

Nobody will ever believe that you are over seventy. Is there anything you think you could have done differently and what is behind your good looks and youthfulness?

Are there things I would have wished to do differently, maybe not. Some of the things I have done are as a result of placing trust on people and they have abused the trust, but will that make me to change? The answer is no. I will continue to place my trust on people, because you can’t do it alone. Also, you must be broadminded; you must accept that it is a part of life. Look at the amount of trust Jesus Christ put in his disciples and see what Judas did, so you will always have

your Judases. But the good thing is that all of those that tried to play Judas didn’t quite succeed after all, in the sense that we came out better; that really encourages me to keep on doing whatever we are doing. Furthermore, about my looks and youthfulness, it is by the grace of God and I have learnt to do things with moderation. Play when you should play and work when you should work. I am an exercise freak. Every day, I try to exercise. I have a gym and swimming pool at home

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