Omajafor Steve Omojafor, one of the founding fathers of advertising in Nigeria, is one of the troika that founded Rosabel Advertising Agency out of their zeal to create a model advertising outfit to give professional value to customers’ needs. With over 32 years of experience in the area of strategic advertising, Omojafor stands tall amongst his peers. Today, he is on the board of Zenith Bank.
In this interview with FLORENCE UDOH, he shares his experience and bares his mind on issues in the advertising industry and says there is the need for reforms in the sector.
You are one of the big names in the Nigerian advertising industry; how did you come about such enviable reputation?
I got into advertising after a two year stint in journalism, after graduating from the University of Lagos in 1972. Got into Daily Times immediately after graduation, worked for two years there and in 1974 got into advertising via Lintas Limited which was the biggest advertising agency in Nigeria at that time, and I started out as a trainee account executive and for the four or five years I was there, rose to the position of Group Head.
In 1977 I acquired a lot of training, particularly in marketing, with Unilever which was one of the biggest clients that we serviced at Lintas. I also worked on Nigerian Breweries, worked on A. J. Seward, and those were the real training grounds for advertising in those days, and for marketing communications.
So, in 1977 after some training in the U.K from Lintas, the idea of setting up an agency hit me very hard and I contacted two of my colleagues who were my mates at the university, we talked about it and we weren’t sure whether it was something we could handle or not, we weren’t going out because we needed more money, I wasn’t thinking about it for financial reasons at all, it was more for professional enhancement because I thought that we could do things faster and more professionally in a small agency that we envisaged and dreamt about than in the big establishment that was almost becoming bureaucratic.
Then we found another urge or need to set up a second agency. Rosabel was getting big, it was getting too heavy and we were suffering from conflict s of accounts because in those good old days you couldn’t be flirting between two identical clients. So we set up STB-McCann and the lot fell on me to run it.
Through over 33 years experience from Lintas to Rosabel and now STB-McCann, which agency experience would you say moulded you into the astute professional that you are?
Lintas was a very very good beginning because there was lots of trainings - both locally and outside of the country. Rosabel was a different experience because, for the first time, we became entrepreneurs in our late 20s to early 30s.
We became entrepreneurs to grow business, employ more people, and watch it grow from scratch to what it became; that was a completely different experience and it was a very huge one for me. I had never run a business before then. It was a lot of excitement. It brought in its own fulfilment, and it was good.
Then, of course, at Rosabel I was client service director and by the time we set up STB, I became the managing director which was another experience, another growth period for me, and I think I had the most challenging period of my career with STB-McCann, the rate and speed at which it grew to become the runaway success it became, the sleepless nights, working 24 hours a day and your wife looking for you, and she bringing food to the office for you because we couldn’t close to go home. It was good, challenging but it was satisfying.
As a renowned advertising practitioner, how would you view advertising practice in your days and now?
Well, computers hadn’t come in then, so you had to do everything using your brain. You had to virtually put things together on your own right from the scratch; you didn’t have that pool of data, that pool of references to tap into. It was very challenging then, added to that was the fact that there was a lot of respect between agencies and their clients in those days.
Clients had a lot of respect for their agencies: they appreciated their agencies; we worked as genuine partners; they paid their bills in good time, and they didn’t go splitting one small account into ten. If you were an agency of reckon, you were just there to provide all the services, in fact, in those days they would call you to say your cheques were ready, come and pick them up, which doesn’t happen anymore.
Now you work for clients, they pay you four months, six months after, because they say that is their new policy of engaging clients and all that, which to me is meaningless. I mean, how do you want the agencies to grow, how do you want them to give you the best services.
They go to the bank to borrow money, but clients don’t pay them any interest, owe them for four to six months; it’s absurd. But, creatively, now there’s more room to manoeuvre, plenty of references, plenty of data, plenty of research figures and all that; so, creatively I think they have done better today; they are on the upward climb but in terms of the day-to- day operations, no , it isn’t as good as we had it.
You built STB-McCann from scratch to become an industry giant, how were you able to achieve this?
Hard work, sleepless nights and giving everything you’ve got into it. Of course, you had to recruit good staff, you had to spend money equipping the agency so you had tools with which to work.
The affiliation was very helpful; it was an affiliation that was reciprocal: we did good jobs for them; they referred clients to us, and it was the combination of these that shot STB-McCann to the top hierarchy.
Have you ever been tempted to do anything outside advertising?
No, I have never been tempted. It’s a question people have asked me and I always said to them, ‘if you have a passion for something, advertising is not where you make money; seriously, to be able to make money you have to go do some other things - like set up companies that are not allied to marketing communications.
But you know, all through the years at Lintas, Rosabel, STBMcCann, it’s just been advertising, and to remain there, like I said, you must not put money over service.
I loved advertising right from when I got into it. I felt satisfied with whatever I got out of it, so advertising doesn’t give big money, but a bit of comfort, and if you are one person who doesn’t believe in amassing wealth, I think I have enjoyed my 35 years in advertising and can’t think of doing anything else.
And even after retiring, I’m only around to help the young ones to grow, help agencies who need assistance, and give back to them what one gathered over the years, but no new business for me.
MediaReach OMD just released data through its publication, MediaFacts, that an approximate N100bn was spent on ATL advertising in 2010; how come you say there is no money in advertising?
You would want to ask how that money was spent. If you read it a bit further, you would have found out who spent that money. Some groups have their in-house outfits which virtually does their own media itself and takes all the commission themselves.
Then MTN has a creative agency and half of the media and all the outdoor is probably done directly or by some company from South Africa, so you really need to analyse some more to find out how much of it went through advertising agencies.
That’s the kind of problem we have and that is the reason I am saying to the current AAAN executive: ‘you’ve got to reform the advertising practice’.
The banks are reforming, the insurance firms are reforming, so advertising has got to be reformed, and clients must stop doing things on their own, because where they are coming from, it is not done that way.
You go through accredited agencies; you don’t give them one tenth of the business and the remaining 90 per cent you hold unto, because you can call the media and brief them and probably pay them even faster than you’re going to pay your agencies. So don’t be taken in by those figures; let them tell us what percentage of it has gone through the agencies.
You are a past president of AAAN when it was AAPN; how has the association developed the profession over the years?
Essentially, when I was the president for two years, my watchword was building professionalism into the business. Then, of course, tiny agencies that had no plans to grow had no business staying on, and so I went round about 53 agencies then, preaching the gospel of merger.
For me, it was better to be a small fish in a big pond - where you can create, you can manoeuvre, with more elbow room to operate - than to be a big fish in a tiny pond and not growing, getting virtually suffocated in there - you are the one and only one.
We had a lot of small, tiny agencies then and they kept on complaining: ‘all the big agencies get all the business, the big agencies are doing well, the small agencies are dying’, and I said ‘you’d die except you want to grow big and no one is going to do it for you; you’ve got to look at your business philosophy.
You’ve got to ask yourself why you’re in the industry: to put the little money I make into my pocket or to grow the industry.’ So, the only way the profession had to expand was to have medium-sized, big agencies which could stand on their own. I may not have achieved any merger but there was the new thinking about it all.
For successive presidents of AAAN, it’s has been something new all the time to grow the profession and get us more recognised, and training was another big issue for me.
And I’m still going to say it again: agencies should plow money into the training of staff; that’s the only way the profession becomes more respectable, would be better accepted, better recognised, and we can talk at par with our clients.
There are lawyers who have helped their brothers set up a small agency, a lot of retired marketing people set up agencies; so like you pointed out, though they couldn’t give me an exact figure, they think there’s quite a number out there.
Now the reformation of the industry has started, because I’m aware that APCON has set up a reform committee, and they have drawn membership from virtually every sector; in fact, I think their first report is ready. It’s been considered and I think they are now being codified.
And I do reckon that before the next few months, they will come out with a bang, because it is high time we told the media, ‘if you accept an advertisement from a non-registered practitioner or agency, there is a sanction’; time to say to client B, ‘you go straight to media, you can’t do that anymore’; time to say to debtor clients, ‘you’re going to sign an agreement’.
Any agency works for you and there is proof that they performed, if you say it’s going to be 30 days, let it be 30 days. As a matter of fact, some businesses should be prepaid because your agency prepays.
Meanwhile, none of them allows their distributors take their goods without paying in advance. So I believe that if the reforms go on the way they’re going, there would be more sanity in the industry in the next few months.
You serve presently as a director on the board of Zenith Bank - which is a cheering development in the industry; how have you managed this feat?
Chairmanship of Zenith, for me, shows recognition of our industry, and by the way, we now have a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, another advertising practitioner, I think it is showing more recognition.
We thank God for that, because a time there was when people thought advertisers were just some a hungry set of guys who couldn’t do anything else. For some of us, they probably thought they got there by accident, that they didn’t know what else to do with themselves.
But right now after practising the profession for so long, suddenly I’m found fit to be chairman of a big bank like Zenith, so I give kudos to the industry; I give kudos to the practice we’ve had all along; I also say well, the good name that one built, the integrity that one built over the years, because the State Security Service (SSS) had to screen to know the kind of person you are; they want to find out how much you are owing with banks all over the place. So with that I think the name, the integrity, the professional standing certainly came into play.
And it’s been another kind f experience. I’m now talking in banking terms, terminologies, having sessions with the CBN, and looking at how the practice goes, how credits are given, because non-executive directors carry a lot of responsibilities now unlike before, because if anything goes wrong, whether you’re there or not, you’ll be called to explain.
It’s been a very exciting experience for me. I’ve also learnt much about what goes on in the finance world and I would, for as long as I’m going to be there, think of accountability, transparency, do it exactly as the law demands. So it’s been good.
Lastly, a word for those who are not doing it right in adertising.?
For those who are refusing to do it right, starting from government to private sector to media, to agency, not doing it right means killing the industry. It may not be today, but it’s already beginning to happen because agencies are closing down.
For those that are not closing down, they are only barely surviving, and that is because we have allowed a lot of things to go wrong: relationship with clients, relationship with government, with media, and within the industry.
By not doing it right, we are not looking into the future; we are only looking at what we can get from it now. For any industry or nation to grow, we must learn to put the right message into the right media, and pay what we need to pay.